3 to 4 Learning About Fairness  by Susan A. Miller, EdD

Paul and Jake, both 4 years old, are considering how to add a wing to their hospital when Miss Martinez, the student teacher says, "It's time to put your blocks away." Angry at having to stop building, Paul shouts out, "That's not fair! We're not finished!" Miss Martinez says, "Let's talk about what you think might be fair." After calmly brainstorming ideas with the student teacher, they decide it would be fair to put up an "UNDER CONSTRUCTION" sign and finish the project tomorrow.

Fours are just beginning to understand the concept of fairness. They need lots of opportunities, like this one, to work through their feelings-feelings that may cause them to react by yelling or acting out toward others.

That Isn't Fair!

Egocentric 3-year-olds, who tend to look at things from their own point of view, find it much more difficult to understand a sense of fairness. For example, a teacher might suggest having an indoor picnic if bad weather ruins an outdoor picnic plan. The children, who were really looking forward to this, may have a hard time realizing that the teacher isn't being mean or unfair. Some things are out of our control and can't be helped or changed.

"I'm Not a Baby!"

Preschoolers frequently want to be treated like "big kids." Jenny, a 3-year-old, puts the marker cap in her mouth as she tries to "print" her name like her older sister. Alarmed, her teacher says, "Take the top out of your mouth Jenny. You can choke on it." Insulted by this perceived unfair treatment, Jenny spits out the top and says, "I'm not a baby!" She then stomps away insulted because she is unable to understand that her teacher really wants to be helpful and cares about her safety. On the other hand, Colin, a very confident 4year-old, overestimates his skills. He says, "Watch me hit the target with the ball like my brother, Matt." Although he hits it a few times, he most often misses the target. Frustrated and disappointed he asks, "How come Matt always hits it? Why do the big kids get all the fun?" Unfortunately, he has unfair expectations for himself. It is important for his teacher to point out how many times he was successful in order to help him maintain his self-esteem.

It's My Turn!

As 4-year-olds begin to develop moral reasoning, they feel that it's right for them to have their own way. Benjamin tells Noah, "You used the yellow race car a long time. Be fair. It's my turn." Noah responds, "Not yet." Raising his voice, Benjamin says authoritatively, "I said, NOW!" Noah hands over the racer. Rather than using physical force, fours like Benjamin are much more inclined to use their well-developed verbal skills to make their points to resolve situations fairly.

Late fours will complain if they think teachers are not treating all children equally. If one child is given extra time to paint, other children may become indignant about this "injustice." Preschoolers need to be given logical reasons for adults' actions and be provided with positive role models to help them develop their own sense of fair play.

What You Can Do:

  • Empower children to calmly handle their feelings. If they think someone is being unfair to them, help them learn to take deep breaths before reacting or talk it over with another person.
  • Provide a negotiation spot. Arrange a quiet area where children can practice their negotiation skills, problem solve together and simply listen to each other
  • Help children figure out the injustice. Discuss ways of behaving fairly. Talk about how the people involved are feeling. Use puppets, posters, or video clips to extend the discussion.
  • Use simulations to develop interpersonal skills. Pose problems such as, "How can we fairly cut this pizza so that everyone will be happy?" Introduce a new toy, then discuss how everyone will have an opportunity to play with it.
  • Use books to foster discussions. Read When I Feel Angry by Cornelia Maude Spelman (Albert Whitman & Co., 2000; $14.95) to discover how the bunny handles unfairness in her life.  

5 to 6 Playing by the Rules by Ellen Booth Church

"That's not fair! Mrs. Franklin, she isn't helping to clean up. We all have to clean up ... that's the rule. You have to punish her!"

Ah, the acute sense of justice of a kindergartner. I'm sure that you've heard similar statements from children about your own classroom tasks and rules. Kindergartners can be very rule driven-often down to the letter of the "law." They know exactly what's "fair," and they can often be unbending in their sense of right and wrong.

Why Does He Get the Rocker?

What is justice to a 5- or 6-year-old? Mainly, it is a sense of fairness and equal treatment.

Children believe that everyone should play by the same rules and be treated equally. Sounds right, but what about dealing with the diverse needs of the children in your group? As you well know, what is fair for one may not be fair for another

Children's black-and-white view of the rules begins to soften through concrete experience. When they see the effect that age or development has on specific rules, 5- and 6-year-olds' sense of compassion kicks in. For example, Paul had a hard time sitting still for group time. He had so much energy that he would jump up or interrupt everyone. But when he was in the rocker, he could use that energy to rock and rock without leaving or disturbing the group. For a while, the other children didn't think it was fair that Paul always got the rocker. However, when they began noticing how much more relaxed group time was when he was rocking, their sense of fairness changed and they would actually "save" the rocker for him!

Aren't You Going to Punish Her?

Punishment is an interesting issue at this stage of development. While 5- and 6-year-- olds don't want to be punished, they feel that others should be. This can lead to that common kindergarten syndrome-tattling. "Mrs. Franklin! Mrs. Franklin! Beth just ....... Aren't you going to punish her?" As a teacher, you know that there are times when it is actually better to ignore a misbehavior than react to it. But your kindergarten classroom is filled with little "police officers" ready to jump on any infraction. You probably are not even a "punishing" type of teachers Yet, you have children who want to see the righteous administration of the rules and to many that means someone "getting in trouble." It's important to thank children for their concern, but also make it clear that you are aware of things that are happening all over the room and you will choose to deal with them in the very best way for each individual. If a particular rule continues to be an issue, you can encourage children to bring it up for discussion and problem solving during group time. (See this month's Group Time column on group problem solving, page 48.)

Remee During this stage children interpret things very literally. Be clear with your words and actions. And always invite children to share their beliefs and feelings with the group.

What you can do:

  • Invite children to be part of the creation of classroom rules. Revisit the rules together periodically to see if any need modification.
  • Engage children in cooperative games and activities.
  • Talk about tattling and how it makes others feel. Invite children to suggest alternative solutions to problems.
  • Share books (with characters and situations that children can relate to) that invite children to discuss justice and fairness issues.