How 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’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.