EARLY CHILDHOOD TODAY: What can teachers do to teach children to resolve conflict in nonviolent ways?

JERRY TELLO: First of all, it's important for teachers and schools in general to form a connection and relationship with children and the families they come from. When children come to school, they come with the total spirit and, if you will, the total memory and experience of living in homes and communities that sometimes are intermixed with violence. By forming a relationship with a child, family, and, ideally, the community, the teacher has a better sense of the gifts and the struggles that this child brings to the classroom.

BARBARA BOWMAN: Conflict is really context specific, so what children ought to do about it depends on what the conflict is about. Many parents have a great deal of trouble with the notion that if somebody is beating up their child, the child is just going to stand there and let himself be beaten up. What we generally mean is that we want to teach children to at least take the lead in trying to resolve the conflict nonviolently. We also must decide what model of nonviolence we want to pursue. To what extent does nonviolence include the kind of Gandhian notion that does not, under any circumstances, ever fight back? And to what extent does it mean that we want children to take the initiative of not being aggressive but that we think there are occasions when it is appropriate to fight back. You can teach children to take the nonviolent approach, but it is very helpful if this becomes a community-wide endeavor, and not just one child learning to resolve conflicts nonviolently when others are not.

Individual difference has an enormous impact on how teachers should help children learn to resolve problems nonviolently. Depending on a child's temperament, the range extends all the way from leaving the situation to ignoring to initiating discussion of the problem, explaining his own feelings, and recognizing the feelings of others.

JAMES GARBARINO: Teachers need to be very attentive in these areas: in dealing directly with children who come with troubled family situations, traumatic experiences, or with very difficult temperaments that make them particularly vulnerable to learning aggression. If it's not possible to deal directly, make referrals to mental health systems to help resolve some of those things. Teachers need to implement active programming to promote conflict resolution skills.

ECT: How does hearing and seeing violence on television affect children?

GARBARINO: I think the research now is pretty clear from around the world that the effect of televised violence on children's aggressive behavior is about as strong an effect as the effect of smoking on cancer. It is a very real force that needs to be contended with.

BOWMAN: I'm much more concerned about the attitudes in the family and community than I am about those in the media. And I'm less concerned about what children see as I am about what message adults give them about what they see. The context of family, friends, community, and their interpretation of the violence is a more important influence on children than the actual television scenes of the violence itself.

ECT: How does a teacher distinguish between the normal aggressive power play of a four- or five-year-old boy and inappropriate aggression?

GARBARINO: The problem is, the normal level of aggression has risen so high, and what normal children are participating in as far as the imagery of violence goes has gotten so extraordinary that it's harder now than it was a couple of generations ago to pick out children who are getting into the danger zone. I think one thing teachers can do is to try to gently reduce the overall level of violent images in their talk and play in the classroom. Children who have trouble operating within that lowered level may deserve some special attention and consideration.

TELLO: I don't believe children are looking for power. Children are looking for a place where they are accepted for who they are. They have to have a place. When someone doesn't give them a seat or let them play with a ball, it's not about their power, it's about "Hey, wait a minute, I belong here, tool"

BOWMAN: The first point is self-control. How well is the child able to handle his own emotions and maintain control over himself? You can't negotiate with someone else if you've lost all your control. Helping children get control is probably the first step, and for some children it means leaving the scene, getting out of there. For other children, it is ignoring the people and the situation, acting like they are not there, pretending you don't care. The strategies are different for different children, and they're also different at different ages.

The second point is empathy. You have to be able to see things from another person's perspective. Sometimes children can do that by themselves. Sometimes children need teachers or parents to take responsibility. In other words, let's say two children both want the same toy and one child is able to say, "Let's talk about it," and take turns, but the other child is absolutely unable to do that. The teacher may have to be the person who takes responsibility: "John just can't make that decision for himself, so I'm going to make it, and you're going to have the toy for five minutes and John is going to have it for five minutes. I'm going to carry out the responsibility for keeping this a nonviolent situation."

Another major issue is helping children learn to accept differences among people. Because it is easier for us to interact with people who are more like ourselves, the less people mirror us, the less easy it is.

If you are looking for clues that children's violence is getting beyond the range of normal, check to see if it lasts for a longer period of time than most children's lack of control does. In other words, the two-year-old who throws himself on the floor and beats and screams and yells is normal-unpleasant, but normal. A four-year-old who did this more than once in a while would be a little problematic. A six-- year-old who did this more than rarely would really be a concern. So, frequency and intensity of symptoms often diminish with age. If not, then you would want to be a little concerned.

ECT: Are there specific behaviors we need to think about?

TELLO: I see four major teachings as important in childhood. One is sense of place or welcoming: Am I wanted? When children are not sure of that, they jockey for space. Second has to do with purpose. Little girls begin to explore what it means to be a girl, and boys explore what it means to be a boy. And they begin playing that out. Little boys, early on, begin to think their purpose is to be aggressive, authoritarian, and in control. They believe in Power Rangers, Star Wars, shooting, all that boy stuff. When teachers buy into it too, it becomes acceptable. Third is a sense of values. Children begin to learn what and whom to value and to put value on certain things. Fourth is security and safety. Now, if any one of these is not fulfilled, children begin to react. We, as adults, have to acknowledge that we all have a place. It doesn't matter how you got here or when you got here, "You have a place in this classroom, and, in fact, you have a place in this community and in society, and we're going to help you to feel strong about that." We have to become an extended kinship-a network of teachers, providers, and healers for our children.

BOWMAN: Adults have to be explicit about what we are saying and what the rules are: "You may not hit," not "Johnny doesn't like you to hit him." Then you can go on to the philosophical underpinnings that give children the idea that there is a reason. They don't understand what the reason is, but there is a reason I'm asking you to do this or that you should do this. Somewhere around four or five, children will be able to say, "Teacher, she hit me, and hitting is wrong, isn't it?" By six, they know that it's wrong. This comes from being very explicit about what the rule is. Little children don't do well when things aren't clear.

You also have to set up situations in which it's easy for children to be nonviolent. With two-year-- olds, that means having multiple copies of the same toy. By four years old, children can certainly share toys and also help make the rules about sharing. In fact, participating in the rule-making process is often very helpful unless we are simply manipulating children to come to the conclusion we wanted them to.

Nonviolence is nothing but another socialized form of interaction. Politeness is one of the ways of disarming aggression. People often forget that there are some advantages to little social niceties because they aren't just niceties. They indeed disarm aggression. "Excuse me" helps people cope with the fact that you've stamped on their foot.

ECT: What advice would you give families?

TELLO: I think parents need to retake the responsibility for the development of their children. That's more difficult in some communities than others. But the reality is that we need to provide avenues and support systems for parents who are willing and want to heal and strengthen themselves.

BOWMAN: Children feel more relaxed and free to express emotions in families where they feel safe and protected. So it may be harder for them to control strong feelings in a family situation than in a school situation. Very early, people learn to damp down emotions. You simply aren't as angry at a friend's vying for attention from the teacher as you are at your brother's vying for attention from your mother.

ECT: What behaviors should parents be concerned about?

GARBARINO: Children who seem otherwise troubled and who seem to piggyback their sadness or trouble onto aggressive play would be something to be concerned about, because a long-- term pattern is likely to get the child into more and more difficulty later on.

TELLO: Parents and teachers may see behaviors coming out indirectly in children hitting other children, or being belligerent, or being very anxious, or not being able to sleep, or not being able to concentrate. And those are seen as learning-deficit issues, not life-deficit issues or life-struggling issues. Teachers need to really understand that we're dealing with children and their life lessons.

ECT: Are there any concluding words you'd like to share?

GARBARINO: Teachers and parents have to have a sense of humility and recognize that the challenge and complexity of the task today is much greater than it was a generation ago. Thirty-five years ago, a parent could have been a lot less attentive, even a bit sloppy, and the consequences probably weren't so severe. Today parents have on their lists of things to know: Is my son making bombs in the garage? Does my son have an assault rifle under his mattress? This makes the task of being a parent more difficult, and that means we ought to be both more humble in judging other people and more active in being supportive to people who need help or have to struggle with difficult situations.

Violence Resources

For Further Reading:

Children in Danger by J. Garbarino, N. Dubrow, K. Kostelny & C. Pardo (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1992).

Early Violence Prevention: Tools for Teachers of Young Children by R.G. Slaby, W.C. Roedell, D.Arezzo & K. Hendrix (Washington, DC: NAEYC, 1995).

Lost Boys by J. Garbarino (The Free Press, 1999).

Physician's Guide to Media Violence (American Medical Association, Chicago, 1996).

"Position Statement on Violence in the Lives of Children," Young Children 48 (6): 80-84. NAEYC, 1993.Also available at www.naeyc.org or as brochure #588.

Remote Control Childhood? Combating the Hazards of Media Culture by D.E. Levin (Washington, DC: NAEYC, 1998).

Screen Smarts: Raising Media-- Literate Kids by G. DeGaetano & K. Bander (Houghton Mifflin, 1996).

Viewing Violence: How Media Violence Affects Your Child and Adolescent by M. Levine (Doubleday, 1996).

Violence and Youth: Psychology's Response (Vol. I: Summary Report of the American Psychological Association Commission on Violence and Youth,Washington, DC). 

Who's Calling the Shots! How to Respond Effectively to Children's Fascination With War Play and War Toys by Nancy Carlsson-Paige & D.E. Levin (BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 1990). 

For Further Action

Center for Media Education, 1511 K St. NW Suite 518,Washington, DC 20005; 202-628-2620; http://www.cme.org/.

Coalition for Quality Children's Video, 535 Cordova Rd., Suite 456, Santa Fe, NM 87501; 505-989-8076; fax 505-986-8477.

National Institute on Media and the Family, 2450 Riverside Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55454; 800-672-5437; http://www.mediaandthefamily.org/

Jerry Tello, the director of the National Latino Fatherhood and Family Institute, is an expert on community and cross-cultural issues.

Barbara T. Bowman is President and cofounder of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development.

James Garbarino, Ph.D., is codirector of the Family Life Development Center and professor of human development at Cornell University.