PEGGY CALLS SHERI "HOPPER" BECAUSE THE walker she uses causes her to move across the room in a hopping motion. Two other preschoolers exclaim, "You can't play tag with us, Sheri. You're too slow!"
When preschoolers are uncomfortable with things they don't understand, such as people who look or act differently from themselves, they sometimes point out those differences in hurtful ways. Impressionable children can mimic the prejudices of someone they admire, such as an older brother or grandparent. They may parrot the offensive comments or names they've heard, which can lead to hurt feelings for the children who are singled out.
Many preschoolers are aware of cultural and racial groups and can name which race they belong to. Yet it may confuse them that children with different skin tones can belong to the same race. For example, 4-year-old Shamal, whose skin is very dark, knows she is African American. However, she angrily tells Vesta that he can't be African American, too, because his skin is light brown.
Preschoolers base their understanding of the world on their own experiences. They may become uncomfortable when they realize that others' lives differ from theirs. For example, Luca says that Marci is weird because she has two daddies while he has only one. Morgan, whose learning style is to work with a friend, ridicules a classmate who always plays alone.
It's normal for preschoolers to notice and point out differences in others. Yet, it's important to help children learn to respect one another and to empathize with others' feelings.
What You Can Do
Model respect for differences. Children imitate adults, so be sensitive to your own behavior. Do you shy away from children who speak a language that you can't understand? Do you unconsciously label children? Do you refer to your entire group of children as "guys"?
Seize teachable moments. When children say a playmate "talks funny" or "smells strange," don't reprimand them or ignore the comment. Instead, discuss it. Let children know it's okay to ask questions about things they don't understand. Try to provide simple, clear answers like "Jose is speaking Spanish," or "You smell curry; Swati's mom cooks with that spice."
Comfort children whose feelings have been hurt. Then clarify classroom rules for everyone. If children have been calling Marc "four eyes," explain, "In preschool, we call everyone by his or her own name." Model respectful vocabulary so children will have an alternative to unkind words.
Honor each child's special traits. During cleanup time, ask children to notice all the wonderful ways each of their classmates puts the blocks away. To help preschoolers see that it's alright to look different and eat different things, read Everybody Cooks Rice by Norah Dooley (Foresman, 1992; $6.95) or Bread, Bread, Bread by Ann Morris (Foresman, 1993; $5.99).
Help children connect. Encourage children to engage in cooperative activities in which everyone can succeed. For example, children might paint a mural together or turn the crank of an ice cream maker together.
Create books about diversity. We Are All Alike ... We Are All Different* is a multicultural book written and illustrated by the Cheltenham Elementary School Kindergartners and published by Scholastic. You can share this book with your class and then use it to inspire your own class book about all the ways your children are alike and different.
5 to 6 WE CAN WORK IT OUT by Ellen booth Church
YOU CAN FEEL THE TENSION MOUNTing. First muffled sentences, then angry faces, then loud voices and disclaimers. A conflict is brewing in the block area. You're about ready to step over and resolve it. But then, as you watch with pride and amazement, your kindergartners begin to work out the problem themselves.
Isn't it remarkable how kindergartners can create complex conflicts and immediately find ways to solve them? It's as if 5- and 6-year-olds come equipped with a built-in safety device that allows them to deal with interpersonal problems more and more independently. But kindergartners' ability to resolve conflicts is not as natural as it may seem. It's a skill that comes with practice-and with help from you.
Emerging Social Skills
In kindergarten, children are more socially interactive than they've ever been before. Along with this social growth comes a new ability to empathize with others' experiences and feelings. Children are establishing a greater sense of themselves in relation to others.
At this age, children can see how they're similar to, and how they are different from, others in the group. They are shifting away from their very egocentric view of the world-in which everything is as they see it-to a more global perspective, in which they realize that people have different experiences and views. This ability to acknowledge that there may be more than one answer to a problem lies at the core of conflict resolution. Children solve interpersonal problems by recognizing the concept of similarities and differences of opinion.
Language Gives Them Leverage
Language development is also an essential ingredient of kindergartners' ability to resolve conflicts. Preschoolers, who lack the vocabulary skills to speak up when they feel someone has behaved unfairly, might express their emotions by throwing tantrums, hitting, or biting. By the time they are in kindergarten, however, most children's expressive language has grown to the point where they can talk about their frustrations and feelings. Though they still might revert to a physical response, adult reminders to "use words" help children along the rocky road of social interaction.
What You Can Do
Watch closely. Your major role in conflict resolution is that of observer. Watch how children interact on their own. Notice how kindergartners use their awareness of others to size up situations and respond to others' problem-solving abilities. They know who is the "talker" and who is the "hitter," and they'll egg on whichever child they want to argue with. Often you can get a better picture of how children interact if you don't become too actively involved. Once you step in, children are usually happy to let you solve the problem rather than work it out themselves. Of course, you must be ready to stop any dangerous situations. Your attentive presence assures children that since things can't get too much out of hand, the area is safe for everyone.
Move the location. Sometimes moving to a neutral location helps defuse an explosive situation. Invite children to a "peace table" for their own summit talks. If necessary, encourage discussion by asking children to express how they feel about the problem. Encourage them to say "I" and avoid "you" statements that point a finger at another child.
Respect children's ideas. Identify the problem, then ask children to suggest ways they might solve it. Be open to many different ideas, and be willing to try them out. If the conflict is a classroom problem, discuss and try to solve it as a group. Children can vote on what they consider the best solution.
Look at literature. Use fairy tales and fables to inspire group discussions of conflicts and resolutions. Children build social relationships and practice problem solving in a neutral context when they role-play the feelings and experiences of storybook characters.
Like every skill, the ability to resolve conflicts grows with practice. When you provide a safe and supportive environment where children can work cooperatively to resolve their problems, you will be amazed at how quickly they learn to find their own peaceful ways to play and learn together.