Monday, January 18, 2010

How do we teach children to respect one another?

This past holiday, I was enjoying time with loved ones when one dear relative told me how his three year old was consistently getting hurt at school by another young classmate - "you know, surprise attacks - hitting him and then grabbing toys from him, running away quickly." Before I could respond, he continued, "So, I took my son aside and told him exactly where to hit this little boy if he tries to take something from him again - and you know, it worked! My son isn't bullied anymore."

"Where is the teacher is your son's class?!", I shrieked.

This was an "aha" moment for me. I am a teacher of three year olds. I spend time every day talking to my children about how we are safe and loved at school, we are kind to one another.

I spend my circle times having all sorts of discussions about social skills:

- I use a monkey puppet that has been known to do all manner of obnoxious behaviors to me - he's grabbed toys from my hand, he's pulled my hair, he's tried to bite me. And, with the children, we develop ways to react to the "frisky friend" - how to use our voices to say - "Stop! I am using that now!" or "I am not for hurting." We practice how to move away (quickly!) from annoying behavior and to get an adult.
- We also talk about what the monkey might have said that was better - how to ask to use a toy, how to take turns, how to express or work out frustration or anger in a safe way (stomping feet, clenching one's head, doing wall push ups).
- We play games that help us with self-regulation - like "Freeze" dance or "Elbow to Elbow."
- We do games and activities that are all about connecting, being a friend: chants that are performed by clapping hands with friends, "row your boat" with a partner; we have a classroom book that has photos and info about every child, and I read it aloud to them and we guess which friend I am describing.

As the children play in the classroom, I observe them non-stop, shadowing my more impulsive friends to help them with their words as they play. I set up activities that are great for pairs and small groups.

But what is the point of all this teaching if I am not communicating these same techniques to parents? Is it possible that some of the parents in my classroom are coaching their child in a like manner? "An eye for an eye"?

I realized again how important it is to communicate with parents before issues occur - every family that I teach (and, yes, I believe early childhood teachers are teaching the whole family to some extent, not just the child) needs to be familiar with the developmental stages of children - how two year olds are "all about me" but the world of threes is the first step into the land of "wow, you exist, too?" and therefore there is much, much experimentation and practice (some of it quite shocking to a young parent) as these children learn to be social. We need to teach parents about all the learning differences children have - how some will be more physical and others more social, and to get our messages across to different children we need to decode their learning style and modify our approach. We need to emphasize how we are laying the foundation for their relationships with others - we need to help parents not to be too reactive, how to observe and reflect about behaviors, how to role model appropriate behavior with others.

It cannot be okay to teach your child how to hit another child.

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