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This post is by Sabot's Guidance Counselor, Ann Reavey. She has been visiting the Kindergarten for the past six weeks to talk with the children about how they can work through many obstacles that they often face. This is an in-depth look at one of these obstacles and how we, as parents and teachers, can best help our children navigate tangly, tricky conflicts. We see social navigation as the work of kindergarteners everywhere, and we appreciate Ann’s straight-forward and respectful approach to helping children in this endeavor.

Imagine this scenario at a corporate workplace:

Bob shares a cube with his co-worker, John, who has a habit of pacing around their shared space and talking in a loud voice when he is on a conference call. Bob finds this so distracting that he has a hard time getting any work done. He has tried using noise-cancelling earphones but John’s pacing still pulls him off task. Bob leaves their workspace multiple times a day in order to get any work done.

Frustrated and fed up, Bob grumbles about it to another co-worker, Sarah. Initially, Bob feels better having talked about it with her but the problem hasn’t changed and now whenever he sees Sarah, he ends up complaining about John.

Sarah and John both have children on the same swim team and one day at a meet, Sarah jokes with John about his pacing and loud voice. He is confused and surprised; Sarah explains that she heard about it from Bob. John is hurt that he never knew how much it bothered Bob and confronts him about it at work the next day.

This type of conflict dynamic gets played out again and again in the adult world of communication and also in the child world of communication. It can occur anytime we avoid direct, honest communication and instead choose to pull another person into the conflict for no constructive benefit. As Michael Thompson states in Best Friends, Worst Enemies: “It works as a short-term solution by bleeding off some of the angry energy one friend feels; however, it means that the original dispute may never be talked out. It may be talked about without ever being resolved.”

Imagine these alternate scenarios:

  • When Bob complains to Sarah about John, she says, “Bob, you need to talk to John about this problem. You have to share a space so it’s worth having the difficult conversation. Let’s talk about how you can approach him.”
  • Bob never talks to Sarah in the first place, but instead invites John to lunch one day and calmly, without frustration, explains how hard it is for him to get work done when John is on a conference call. They come up with a solution together.

Either of these alternate scenarios keeps the conflict within the original boundaries and stops the situation from escalating – in the first case, because Sarah refuses to be drawn into the conflict (instead she offers constructive advice and support) and in the second, because Bob engages in direct communication and problem-solves collaboratively with John.

Now let’s look at a similar situation with young children:

Sue and Carol are at an art table drawing with markers. Sue has assembled all the markers in a certain color order and does not want Carol to use them because “you’ll just mess them up.” Carol, feeling hurt and upset, leaves for the sand play area where she meets up with Louis.

She complains to Louis about Sue, “She was mean to me and wouldn’t let me use any of the markers. I don’t like her.” Louis agrees with Carol, “That’s not fair! She’s so mean!”

At recess immediately following playtime, Louis and Carol form a “No Sue Allowed” Club. Sue finds out about this club and runs sobbing to the teacher.

In this scenario, as with the first one, pulling a third person into a conflict in a non-supportive way ends up escalating the situation. It is a way for Carol (as with Bob in the first example) to avoid taking responsibility for any part in the dynamic.

Now, we certainly do not expect our young children to have the maturity and skills to deal with conflicts like this without support! However, as educators and parents, our goal is to coach them in these skills, to guide them through these situations until they become confident, assertive problem-solvers.

Here are some techniques to try when you see this dynamic developing.

  1. Actively listen to the child and offer empathy (“That must have been frustrating to not get to use the markers. I’m sorry that happened.”). Ask the child to go back to the person with whom there is conflict. Make sure that the child knows that you will be there for support if it is needed.
  2. Encourage “I” messages. There is a great description of “I” messages in Little Girls Can Be Mean by Michelle Anthony and Reyna Lindert. This strategy helps the child identify her feelings, resist blaming (“you” messages), and state what she wants to happen.
    • I feel ____________ (mad, sad, worried, upset, etc.)
      when you ________________ (describe the action or behavior).
    • I need you to (or “wish you would”) _________________________ (say what you would like the other person to do).
  3. Encourage other children to be good friends by offering support in actively confronting the problem. Sometimes a child can talk through a conflict if a friend is standing by his side. However, this can sometimes feel like ganging up. Watch out for this dynamic and make sure each child feels safe and protected when resolving the situation. Stay away from “you” messages (“you hogged the markers,” “you made a mean club”) and stick to “I” messages (“I was hurt when I couldn’t use the markers,” “I was so sad when I heard about your club”).

Teaching children how to deal with conflict is a worthy investment of our time and energy. We continue to experience interpersonal problems, large and small, throughout our life. They never go away, but we can become more skilled in how we handle them. Our youngest children can start now developing the habits of direct communication and enjoy the feeling of empowerment that results from taking responsibility for your own feelings and actions.

About the Author: 

Ann brings a wealth of experience to Sabot at Stony Point from her previous position as an elementary school counselor in James City County. In addition, she has worked with children and adults in a variety of settings, from day care to assault prevention workshops. She is happy to be working in our creative and collaborative environment.

Ann has been a mentor with the Communities in Schools program for seven years, and she currently mentors Richmond public school students. Her B.A. is in English Literature and Women's Studies from the University of Virginia, and she holds a Master’s of Education in School Counseling from the College of William and Mary.