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Jane Katch is a teacher and advisor for the PBS Parents guide to Raising and Understanding Girls. Read more »
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One morning last week in my kindergarten class, Elizabeth's mother signaled to me that we needed to talk out of her daughter's earshot. According to Elizabeth, the parent told me, there were two clubs of girls at recess. The girls on the other team were mean, so the girls on Elizabeth's team were stealing their candy.
Since I began teaching kindergarten in 1978, parents have become much more intimately involved in the social lives of their children. Then, parents tended to leave their kids' social conflicts to the children to figure out. Some increased parental involvement is valuable. True bullying, involving repeated vicious aggression by those with more power than the victim (perhaps because he or she is outnumbered, or much younger and weaker) must be consistently and vigorously addressed by an entire school community. But the words "bully" and "mean" can also be misused to refer to any child who is trying to gain power and influence in annoying ways. I believe it is valuable for children to learn to deal with all kinds of other children, as long as they are being protected from real bullying and are getting support so they can learn how to deal with others effectively. In the long run, we want our children to be resilient and to know they can handle difficult problems. We don't want them to feel they must be protected by us from anything unpleasant--that just makes them feel powerless and vulnerable.
How can parents and teachers support children who feel someone is being mean to them? In my class, we have a three-step process to deal with conflicts. It can be adapted for use at home or in a small group.
Step 1: Listen to both sides of the story.
I tell the children they have to listen without interrupting and explain what happened without calling names. I make it clear that everyone who wants to tell what happened will have a turn.
So at snack time, I asked the children about the clubs. Isabel answered first: "Our club wanted more people, but some people are mean in this class."
I asked her to explain the problem without using words like "mean." I said I didn't think anyone was trying to be mean; they were just trying to have friends and play a good game.
She reframed her complaint. "Well a lot of the people in Samantha's club want to be in our club, but she doesn't want to let them." This more specific complaint allowed us to look at a single problem, which is much more useful than global complaints like "She's always mean."
Samantha disagreed. "I wasn't telling them not to join their club," she said. "We liked the game we were playing, so we stayed and kept playing it." All the girls in Samantha's club agreed. Samantha added her own accusation. "Jasmine, Isabel and Elizabeth were doing tricks on us. Like when we were leaving to get something from somewhere, they always would take what we had."
"What did you have?" I asked.
"Like, sand," she said.
"Were you pretending the sand was something else?" I asked, putting the pieces together.
"Cotton candy," Samantha explained.
Aha, I thought.
Step 2: Collect ideas
The next step is to collect ideas from everyone about how to solve the problem. Our rule is that we try not to criticize anyone's ideas; we just list them. Often, in the course of collecting ideas we gain consensus.
Dylan, who wasn't in the conflict but was listening carefully, made the first suggestion. "They could say, 'Do you want some cotton candy?'"
"They could have a bucket, and we could have a bucket!" Jasmine suggested excitedly.
Step 3: Make a plan
The next step is to decide what to do if this problem comes up again. Everyone involved must agree. If necessary, the game can't continue until this happens.
This time the girls quickly made a plan. "If they give one bucket to us we would fill up sand and give it to them; they would have more cotton candy, too!" All the participants were eager to begin this game at the next recess. It doesn't matter that when recess came, they decided on a game of camping--they are learning skills that they can use in any situation.
Girls need to learn how to express their feelings and opinions clearly, without making global accusations, and to listen to the opinions of others. Then they can see that each conflict has different, valid, points of view. They discover that there are many possible solutions to a problem and that by working together, they can find a compromise that makes everyone feel satisfied.
Have you had any experience with "mean girls" in your child's social world?
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