The other day I was reminded of the importance of solidifying positive and peaceful attitudes early on in pre-k. I overheard a teacher reprimanding a first-grade student in the hallway for hitting another child. The teacher simply said, “You cannot hit her, it’s not nice. Do you understand?” When the child did not respond, the teacher said, in a more abrasive tone, “Say YES!.” The child then said “yes,” as commanded, and the teacher moved on.
I had to wonder how effective that child will be in solving problems on his own. Perhaps his teachers to date have not taught social skills effectively. Or possibly he has experienced things that have undermined the endurance of those skills in the long run. The incident caused me to reflect on my efforts this year.
I start teaching our peaceful and empowering approach in the beginning of the school year. The process entails direct whole-group instruction through puppet role plays, books about friends and feelings such as Words are not for Hurting, and songs like “The More We Get Together.” In these activities, we use consistent language like, “I feel sad when you [fill in the blank].” Add to this many one-on-one, informal teachable moments, and gradually the children gain an understanding of why they should use their words instead of their hands.
By December, my students were able to follow through with a “peace agreement”, but I served a dominant role in the initial stages of the process. Since then, the children have made even more progress and now take ownership of the peace process from the beginning. For instance, David used to suggest that characters in our stories use violence to solve problems. If the Cat in the Hat won’t leave, David suggested, we should “hit him on the head.” Now, he is more likely to recommend talking through problems. When we discussed recently how the farmer in Farmer Duck exploits duck and refuses to do any work, David chose peaceful means over violent ones, advising the duck to tell the farmer, “Please, can you help me?.”
Other children still require occasional reminders and encouragement, but their skills are clearly developing. Tyrone’s first inclination during a recent read aloud was to hit the animals that had stolen a character’s fruit. After I asked him, “Do we hit animals or people?” he offered an alternative measure: “I would tell the animals that I won’t ride them no more.” Similarly, Jeffrey came to inform me today that another student would not let him play with a certain toy. All I had to say was, “Work it out on your own,” and Jeffrey returned to the student to say, “I feel sad when you won’t let me play with it.”
Pre-k teachers - indeed, all teachers - have an obligation to teach conflict resolution in a way that empowers students to solve problems peacefully. I want my students to leave pre-k with the rationale and language needed to facilitate peaceful conflict resolution so that, throughout their lives, they will rarely, if ever, receive a scolding like that first grader in the hall. Perhaps if we start with pre-k classrooms that provide students with such tools, we will lay the foundation for a society that more closely embodies Immanuel Kant’s vision of enduring peace between people and states.