“Sort it out for yourself” – sound advice, or too much to ask?

Bold Park studentsHow do schools and other settings help children to deal with arguments and disputes? And are some well-meaning approaches doing more harm than good?  A young Australian who I met on my recent visit there had some interesting answers to these questions.

Nicola is a student at Bold Park Community School, an independent school that takes its inspiration from Reggio Emilia, and one of the hosts on the Perth leg of my trip. Now in Year 9, she has been at the school since kindergarten, except for a period of a few months during her kindy year, when the family moved away and she went to another setting.

Nicola told me how not long after she came back to Bold Park, she found herself in dispute with another child. She followed the procedures of her other kindy, and immediately went to ask a teacher for help. The teacher asked her why she had not tried to resolve the argument herself. “O yes,” Nicola replied, “I forgot – here at Bold Park, we try to sort things out for ourselves.”

In talking to me, Nicola was very clear that Bold Park’s approach helped her to be more confident and assertive in her dealings with others. Gillian Mcauliffe, Bold Park’s founder and Director of Teaching and Learning, told me about the school’s policy [pdf link]. “We promote a philosophy of mutual respect and responsibility. Children are encouraged to put this into practice themselves in the first instance, not to go to adults.”

Nicola and Bold Park students

Nicola (centre) with other students from Bold Park

Nicola’s story is a fine illustration of the ways that well-meaning adults can undermine children’s learning, and make the road to competence and confidence more difficult. Far from being supportive, saying to children – even children as young as four – “tell an adult as soon as you can” actually leads to learned helplessness.

Of course, promoting responsibility is not the same as saying that anything goes. “See if you can sort it out for yourselves” is absolutely the right place to start. But it may not be the right place to end. Children cannot sort everything out for themselves, and they need to know that if they are struggling, there are adults who can help.

So why do schools, early years services and other settings adopt policies that make it harder for children to learn to cope with tricky social situations? I argue in No Fear that it comes down to having the wrong philosophy. Such settings place too much emphasis on protecting children from all possible harm or upset. And they have too little confidence in children’s own abilities.

There is a related problem. Many settings feel under great pressure to be seen to be “dealing firmly” with bad behaviour – and in particular, to be taking seriously the threat from bullying. As I have argued before, this can lead them to misdiagnose disputes between children, and treat more minor arguments and fallings-out as if they were part of a pattern of bullying.

What do you think? Have you worked in settings where children are told to go to an adult as soon as they get into an argument – and if so, why do you think this is done, and what effect do you think it has? What expectations do parents have about how schools deal with disputes amongst children? Perhaps you disagree with me, and think it is not right to expect children – especially young children – to shoulder this degree of responsibility. I’d love to hear your views.

13 responses to ““Sort it out for yourself” – sound advice, or too much to ask?

  1. I think it’s an interesting balance. We start from, “How did that make you feel?” then encourage the children to go tell their friend how that made them feel. With younger children we will go with them to talk and help them work toward making eye contact, saying what they have to say.

    Helping children solve their own problems is really the only way to stop bullying. Solving children’s problems only supports bullying.

    Working with children ages zero to three we work to give the youngest children words to say stop or I don’t like it, directed towards the other child. Helping them to find their voice from a young age and build on that assertiveness as they get older.

  2. I do agree with you. I guess it comes down to your view of children. If you believe children can and should be independent, confident, articulate and have a right to make choices, then you would want them to be able to negotiate all the complicated interactions they have with others. I was at the TATYC conference on Saturday and Cathy Nutbrown was talking about the view adults have of children. If you see them as “unfinished adults” then you see them as pretty helpless and entirely dependent and then they will continue to constantly need adults . We encourage our 2,3 and 4 year olds to attempt to resolve disputes for themselves but this never means they are abandoned and don’t have the support of adults if they need us. We try to model for them what they could say. If a child comes to us, for example and tells us someone has pushed them we might say “Go and say I don’t like it when you push me please don’t do that”. Now if they’ve been pushed and really hurt it would warrant an adult having a chat with the three of them, but we would still want to talk about it in a way which would help them both to learn from it, and hopefully avoid this situation in the future. We know children can learn ways to express their thoughts and then protect themselves far more effectively than when they depend on adults. We find they become really confident to deal with many matters themselves.

    I think it is interesting in schools as some families and staff will have a different viewpoint and a safety obssessed culture can develop which creates a “tell tale” atmosphere .I have worked at schools where through what seems like good intentions the whole staff have encouraged dependency and as a consequence have to deal with a constant array of disputes. At the time I probably didn’t think there was another way. It is taking the time to reflect on the type of qualities you would like our children to develop which makes you adopt a different approach. I would rather our interactions with the children were real conversations about all of the exciting things they were learning rather than settling disputes about whose turn it is.

    I really like Anna Ephgrave’s book “The Reception Year in Action” where she talks about conflict resolution and her staff see it as a learning opportunity which ultimately leads the children to handle many issues themselves. In the context of caring relationships at our Nursery the children know an adult would always be there if they were needed but they also know we believe they are competent people who can tell others what they think !

  3. Jennifer, Jo – thanks for the thoughtful reactions. Jo – your phrase “unfinished adults” is a good phrase to capture the kind of philosophy I worry about. Of course, in many respects children are less competent than adults, and have lots to learn. But they learn a lot without any need for direction or intervention by adults. So I’m not sure that, as a matter of course, we even need to engage them in conversations about how they feel, or to model responses for them. (I’m not saying we should *never* do these things, I’m just saying we shouldn’t assume that they are warranted). It’s a little like the temptation to say ‘take care’ to children who are climbing a tree or playing on play equipment, in situations when they are obviously already taking care. The intervention cannot help but imply that they are less than competent. Shouldn’t we – in the first instance – simply be watching them and reflecting on how they do, and only then deciding what might help them learn?

  4. Ora Berman, Landscape Architect

    This reminds me when my son was just learning to talk, one of the first things his daycare provider had to teach him to say is “this is mine” (his words were: this em”) mostly because the other toddler kept taking his cup and she felt like he needed to learn to speak up.
    Now he is 10, he uses these verbal skill to negotiate even the biggest bullies.

  5. A wonderful article which highlights our (adult) inability to comprehend that learning means experiencing and dealing with. Help, in this day and age, often comes too often, too soon and mostly too intensely to profit a child’s growing process. Learning to cope and deal with difficulties is interpreted as being cruel and unusual punishment where children are concerned and neglect if adults don’t swiftly and “adultly” interfere. The most dangerous (and most abused) word in the contemporary lexicon is “safe”. Everything must be safe and children protected from everything – especially life. If we were less inclined to feel and act submissive and victimized, possibly our children could learn not to be.

  6. I agree with what you are saying. We want children to be independent learners, then we sort out their problems for them. It does not make sense. They do need to learn the skills of negotiating and as a whole school approach this is very powerful.

    I know that one school that uses the strategy called THE DOOR. It displays a very simple four step process for students mediating their own minor disputes on every door in the school. This school even has a gate on the oval which also had the process displayed.

    Following thorough teaching of the process, if a student has a problem with another student, the pair will go to the door and work through the process.

    1. I don’t like it when…
    2. I feel..
    3. I want you to…
    4. What do I want you to…

    Children who are very young can do this. They learn that they can use thier words to sort out differences.

  7. Ora, Bernard, Bette – thanks for stopping by. I absolutely agree with you about the perils of the word ‘safe’ Bernard: it’s such a weasel word, and means such different things to different people. I try to avoid using it – or if I do I’ll moderate it with ‘reasonably’. Bette – I have worries about the system you describe (I’ve seen some similar signs in a school in Sydney). Again, the starting point is that children need help: they need to be taught a process. Why? Shouldn’t we start by seeing what they can do without help? I don’t remember being taught any process for resolving conflicts when I was a child.

  8. I think our Mutual Respect Policy at Bold Park teaches much more than how to resolve disputes. It also engages children and adults in developing empathy. We maintain that everyone, but especially our youngest citizens may not always be able to identify signals which indicate distress or discomfort and if the ” Please stop” is followed by an explanation like, ” It makes me feel uncomfortable” or “You are hurting me” then the child begins to see things from another’s point of view. It is this understanding of other perspectives which will result in life long respectful relationships.

  9. Our two will appeal to us for referee work moderately often, but of course in situations where A says B did this and B retorts, no, A was doing such and such, but we weren’t there to know then it boils down to A’s word against B’s and the only possible “fair” intervention is to split them up and/or stop the activity, so nobody wins and in that situation appealing to adults is often an own-goal.

    They seem to have realised this, and are getting better at compromise and negotiation as a result.

  10. Wotcher, Tim

    Interesting dialogue above. Yes, I agree that, as educators, we can be far too mannered and system-led, so that we almost end up pathologising ordinary behaviour. My guess, Tim, is that you had a pretty supportive home life so may not have needed to be taught any ‘process’ or perhaps lots of us were taught it without it being made explicit?

    As the single parent of three children, I used to joke ruefully that the keynote of my parenting was inconsistency. I wasn’t proud of that but consoled myself with the hope that my children saw that adults can sometimes be stressed, irritable and tired and often get things wrong but that isn’t the end of the world. I was consistent in my presence, love and respect for them, though, and hope they took something about ‘object constancy’ from that. This is the example that lots of children don’t have.

    As a nursery school and children’s centre head, I try to encourage a much greater degree of professional consistency, you’ll be relieved to hear!. Consistency is so important for children who don’t know what to expect of adults from one minute to the next in their home lives.

    It might then sound odd when I say that , in my setting, Rosemary Early Years Centre, there are no rules. This is because we recognise each child and situation is different.The consistency comes from having shared approaches; there isn’t a ‘script’ but a visitor would be likely to hear a lot of ‘You sound…’ or ‘You look…’

    In the classic Conflict Resolution approach pioneered by High-Scope, the first step is ‘ approach calmly’ and the second is ‘acknowledge feelings’. We find that’s often sufficient for our very young children and sometimes enough for adults too. It’s surprising how many adults have never experienced being listened to respectfully and having their feelings acknowledged.

    We use the old High-Scope training video with our staff, volunteers and parents. I think it was made in about 1994 and stars a lovely Hispanic male Early Years practitioner- I think his name was Jorge or something like that. I’ve yet to see a better example of adults supporting children’s independence and social skills.

    Tim, I agree with you comment about ‘take care’ being unhelpful to a child who is part way up a tree; in our experience, it is likely to make them feel unsafe. ‘Do you feel safe?’ often works better to encourage the child to assess the situation but retain a sense of agency.

    This sense of ‘agency’ is really what we’re trying to promote all the time, for children, parents, practitioners and students alike. So I think that having no set rules can only work in a school when you have explicit, shared values or principles- the kind of overarching quasi-political stuff- and our image of the child is a big part of this. I think the image of the child in the EYFS is a great starting point for conversations with practitioners- what do we mean by ‘confident,competent, resilient, self-assured..’ and how can we promote those things?

    In a sense, this was all much more straightforward as a single parent- I didn’t have to get ‘buy in’ from a whole team or explain what I was doing to anyone!

    Best wishes to all contributors,

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