I recently visited a friend’s preschool classroom. While there, I saw an argument that mirrored my high school students’ conflicts. I walked away curious about the way younger and older students use their words to explain their feelings and the actions of others.
The 4-year-olds were in different activity centers. Students built a labyrinth of colorful sprockets across the room. An art table dripped paint onto the floor and an aide tried to convince a little girl that her owl was brown enough. There was a conflict at the computer table.
Victoria lightly overtook Brittany’s mouse and soon began manipulating the game. Brittany was entranced by the new game functions Victoria uncovered and did not put up any protest—at first. Then Brittany said in halting, but confident tones, “Hey. Hey, I was playing. Can I please have the mouse back?”
Victoria’s blue eyes narrowed and she did not respond to Brittany’s request. Brittany took matters into her own hands and grabbed the mouse back. Victoria pulled the chair out from under Brittany. Brittany started crying.
The teacher hurried to the scene and arbitrated with this phrase: “Use your words.”
Brittany: “When you took the mouse, I felt sad. I wanted to play. I felt like you thought I was small.”
Victoria: “I know the game better. I want to play. I like computers best.”
A compromise was soon reached and Victoria was directed to another activity. But before she left, she turned to me and said, “Everything she does, she does on purpose because she doesn’t like me.”
The only difference between her sentiment and my teenage students’ is the honesty and clarity with which she states her perspective.
A freshmen girl might say instead, “She’s messed up.”
It’s the same idea, with fewer words, and open to many interpretations. After this preschool incident, I’ve taken to using the teacher’s phrase with my high school students: “Use your words.”
However, it goes both ways. Use your words to explain your feelings and to reach a compromise. Or, use your words to justify the anger or prejudice you feel. As I was listening to the radio the other day, I heard an insightful middle school student further explain this idea.
In an episode about middle school on the radio program, This American Life , Leo sums it up this way. “The older you get, the more you judge people based on their looks, their background, how they act, what cool is for kids.”
People are mean to each other at all ages. As we mature, we find more scaffolds to hold up our prejudices. Regardless of the scholarly words we use or popular theories behind our dislike of someone or something, we need to use our words and be kind to one another.
Now, when there is a conflict in class and I ask students to use their words, the more they sound like the simple ideas of the preschoolers, the better the situation usually ends. The more adult and complex their ideas, often the longer the malice festers.
Eden is a high school language arts teacher in Colorado.