ARTICLE

Step Back, View Conflict from a New Angle

Five-year-old Ellie started off the year on good footing. She not only joined her classmates in play but was able to negotiate with friends when conflicts arose. When she was at an activity in the classroom, whether at an art activity or in the block corner, she would almost get lost in her own motivation and passion. Each day, her rapport with her peers and teachers increased. Then things began to change.

Five-year-old Ellie started off the year on good footing. She not only joined her classmates in play but was able to negotiate with friends when conflicts arose. When she was at an activity in the classroom, whether at an art activity or in the block corner, she would almost get lost in her own motivation and passion. Each day, her rapport with her peers and teachers increased. Then things began to change.

She began responding physically to what she interpreted as antagonistic remarks. These conflicts would color her interactions with children and teachers.

Now, in our play-based kindergarten classroom, conflicts are something of a daily occurrence. By the sheer nature of the classroom, children are constantly shifting, moving and sharing spaces and materials. Conflicts happen. We help children manage and negotiate one conflict at a time, hopefully enabling children to better cope with future conflicts.

Ellie, as of late, has been relying much more on her body—pushing, shoving, pinching—when faced with conflict. A teacher might see her do something like this and instantly chastise her, explaining that her behaviors are not acceptable.

Managing behavior is important. However, there is something more. For Ellie, being chastised by the teacher without any investigation, frustrates her, escalates the conflict and breaks down trust between Ellie and the teacher.

Further, Ellie no longer sees a reason to ask the teacher for help when she believes she’s being treated unfairly by a classmate. Instead, Ellie tries to resolve the conflict herself—physically. 

Once a pattern of behavior establishes itself, as with Ellie, it is hard to look past the surface and see what really might be going on. It’s easy to say to the child, “Please, stop doing that!” But what’s really needed is further investigation. So when a similar situation happened, I decided to spend a little more time. Ellie had pushed a classmate. The push wasn’t violent; the safety of the other child was not at risk. It was an act of communication, which I kept in mind.

I calmly asked, “What’s going on? Ellie, why did you push your friend? Did something happen?”

And as calmly as I asked, Ellie explained that her friend was singing a song, which Ellie also knew, but Ellie said the words went one way, when her friend was singing them another way. She said they’d talked about it, but that the other child continued singing it the way she knew.

This, of course, is no grounds for pushing. It is grounds for disagreement. And disagreements must be recognized when they exist between friends. It’s part of what makes us different and who we are.

Had I gone over there and told Ellie not to push, she may not have wanted to tell me what was bothering her. She may not have opened up and talked to me calmly about it, both of which are important when building trust. She may not have calmly listened when I told her, “But pushing is not acceptable. You may not push your friend. If there’s a problem, you need to come get me or another teacher.”

Keeping children safe and discouraging physical responses to conflict are both parts of maintaining the classroom. Another part is building community and helping children appreciate differences, which are both impossible if we don’t take the time to listen to both sides of the story.

Palenski is a kindergarten teacher in Connecticut.