Here's the scene:
Three year old children, playing alongside each other at the same activity; one child grabs something from another, and both children start squawking. There is a swift hit or maybe a quick scratch by one child. The child runs quickly from the other, clutching the desired toy.
It all happens so quickly. Children hurting one another.
And there's the adult voice:
Use your words!
I think all of us have done this.
It can be so exhausting at the beginning of a school year, when Threes are thrown in together, forming a completely foreign entity called a class.
Wasn't it just yesterday that they were self-centered, "all about me" two year olds, playing alongside classmates, but separately?
Playing with their own stuff (as long as we had enough of everything!), leaving one another alone?
Why aren't they leaving one another alone?
We just told them to stop behaving this way!
It seems as if Threes go looking for conflict, purposely engaging with their classmates in willful ways - grabbing, dominating, demanding.
Yes, it is true.
Threes are leaving parallel play behind - and seeking to interact.
They see their classmates,
they want what their classmates have,
they want to do what their classmates are doing,
they want to play together.
But they don't have a clue how to do it.
They do not know what words to use.
This interaction - friend to friend, classmate to classmate, child to child - is all very, very new to them.
It is our job as adults to GIVE them the words.
Rather than say "Use your words!," give them the words that are appropriate to the situation. For example:
"We don't take toys from one another."
"Did you want her to take that toy? Tell her, 'I am using this! I will give it to you when I am done.' "
"He is using that now; say, 'May I use that when you are through?' "
"We are safe in this class. I cannot let you hit her. I see you are angry - let's breathe in and out together, until you feel better."
"Ask her, 'May I play, too?' "
"Hands are gentle with one another. People are not for hurting."
"Your face tells me you are really frustrated - it is hard to wait. Would you like to play with this, while you wait?"
"Ask him, 'May I use that now?' "
"Tell him, 'You may not hit me.'
"Your face tells me you are really sad; let's write a letter to Mommy together, telling her how sad you are."
"In this class, we are all safe. Was that a safe thing to do? What are some safe things we can do while we wait to use that toy?"
There is no specific script for helping preschoolers say the right thing in a conflict. How great it would be to be able to succinctly say, "Use your words!" - however, we must remember,
Using words for social, cooperative, interactive, conversational reasons is an all new skill for Threes. They simply do not know the words to use, however able they might be to speak.
My friend and Threes teacher Janise tells the story of a child who was directed to "Use your words!":
The child immediately shouted "WORDS!!"
There you have it.
What are the words?
We need to teach these words to preschoolers as if we were teaching math to a fourth grader,
breaking it into learnable chunks,
until they are able to run with this knowledge on their own.