Monday, February 21, 2011

What to do about squabbling?

The setting:

I am observing a first year teacher, in a classroom full of three and four year olds.

Children are playing in centers.
There is a post office set up in dramatic play, and there are rules:

- Only three children allowed to play in this center.
- Two children are customers, one is the post office employee.
- Only one costume, the post office employee, with hat, jacket, and mailbag.

Do you predict there will be some squabbling?

First off, more than three children wanted into this dramatic play. The teacher patiently reminded them to look at the center "sign in" and count how many students had already signed in.
Was there room for another person?
No, there was not.

Meanwhile, at the post office -

All three children wanted to carry the mail bag.
All three children wanted to wear the jacket.
All three wanted the hat.
They seemed to know instinctively that the best role was that of the post office employee.
What fun it was to stand behind the counter, selling stamps, envelopes, boxes.
What fun it was to walk around the classroom and deliver mail.

My initial reaction - why aren't there costumes for every child? You can make a very strong case for having multiples of everything - so that all the children in the center can have the choice of dressing up, being in character. Three and four year olds love to dress up! And they are wonderful actors, throwing themselves into dramatic roles. If you don't want to have 3 post office employees, how about special signature costumes for customers - special hats, coats, perhaps a briefcase or purse?

On the other hand, if you - the adult - are ready to provide guidance, you can make a very strong case for having less costumes and helping children with the negotiations. Yes, squabbles over who gets what are life with preschoolers. But, an important part of their learning is about how to get along.
How do you actually learn how to get along if you never have conflict?
How to say "I'm sorry."
How to say "May I have that when you are through?"
Learning to speak up when someone takes something from you without asking.

I watched this new teacher perform beautifully with this situation....

She throws herself into the role of customer, alongside the three children.
She turns to Child #1 behind the counter, who is dressed in the jacket,
"I have a letter to be mailed, I need to buy some stamps."

[And turning to Child #2, potential customer, added,
"I'll let him ring up my stamps, first." ]

Back to Child One, the post office employee,
"May I buy a box from you?"

[And turning back to the customer, Child #2,
"Hmm, who should I send this letter to?

Child #3 is wearing both the hat and the mailbag, and is getting ready to leave the center with a fistful of envelopes, for delivery.
I think to myself, Have the children "organically" decided to have more than one post office employee? I love this!

Not for long. Child #1 marches over to Child #3 and grabs the mail bag and quickly puts it on his friend, Child #2, transforming him from customer to employee.

Teacher sees the instantaneous long face of Child #3 and also observes him walk away, dejected.

"Whoa," she says to Child #3, scurrying to his side, putting her arm around him, "Did you want to give him that mail bag?" He shakes his head "No." "Well, let's go tell him. You don't have to give away something you are still playing with. Let's talk to [Child #1], you and me together."

She helps the two children talk together, and, simultaneously, Child #2 (the one who is now wearing the mail bag because his friend gave it to him) is listening to the discussion and gives the mail bag back to its original owner - "You can have this. I don't need it."

Two of the three children are very happy - but Child #1 had another script in mind for his play - he angrily takes the mail bag again and returns it to his friend, Child #2.

Teacher's interjects, arms around all three now sad children - and says pointedly to Child #1, "Now, your friends have talked about this. [Child #3] is using the mail bag. I see you have on the jacket. What if we took the jacket and gave it to someone else without asking? Would that make you feel good or sad?"

"Sad," he whispers. He is safe and comforted by his teacher's arm around him.

She continues, "If you had the mail bag on you shoulder, would you want someone to take it?"

It is as if a lightbulb goes off - Child #1 exclaims, "No, no, I don't want them to take from me!"

And then the teacher reframed the play for the children - pointing out a new opportunity, "So, you might all work in the post office, delivering letters or selling stamps. It works out nicely."

Yes, it really does work out nicely. Such nice modeling and intervention by this teacher, patiently and painstakingly delivered.

These are small but important moments in children's lives. It matters that children are heard - it matters that we take the time to help them use their voices, to be in community with one another - to not simply demand friends to do things your way, to not simply give up and walk away.

Honestly, when you see the growth and understand the possibilities - the evidence of empathy, the movement away from hitting, you may find yourself intentionally setting up centers with only a few things - forcing the sharing. Think of the learning possibilities!

"You can do no great things, only small things with great love."
- Mother Theresa.


  1. The Mother Theresa quote at the end is so perfect after the story of the teacher you observed.
    I wonder if the area was filled with a variety of things that had more equal value/appeal to the kids-she could kill 2 birds with one stone. Clearly the mail bag and jacket trump the counter workers. What if there was a cash register with some bottle caps for money inside, or some boxes and tape and stampers. The kids would still have to share being the different parts and using props-but it might be a little bit more equitable.
    Just some thought on the subject, but really, the teacher showed such grace and care, and that is what made the play so powerful.

  2. Like you, I was immediately thinking of ways to make the area more inviting and appealing. But, as observer, my role involves "letting go" of my lead teacher perspective and catching the action "as is" - and I was simply delighted with her caring dialogue with these children. It really was powerful!