“But he did it on purpose!” he said, his tear-stained face saturated with rage.
“No, I didn’t!” the other replied emphatically. “It was an accident!”
We hear this sort of conflict all too often, and it’s entirely developmentally appropriate. At this stage of development, known as the pre-operational stage, a common characteristic is egocentrism. In essence, they have a very hard time understanding other perspectives. This is not to say that the child is wholly unable to empathize; empathy is, in fact, an innate capability, wired into our brains from birth. It only develops as one grows older.
As a result, as educators, it is our job to help make the other person’s perspective more visible and tangible to each child involved in conflict. We do this through lots of probing questions, intended to help get to the root of what’s bothering the child.
“Are you sure it was on purpose?” I asked.
“Yes!” he said, pouting his lower lip.
“Well, how do you know?”
“I know because he always does it. And this time we were playing tag and he was pushing through a bunch of kids and then he hit me in face accidentally.”
“Ah,” I said to him, “I heard you say ‘accidentally.’ Now are you sure it was on purpose?”
He remained silent. I continued.
“It sounds to me like he wasn’t very aware of his body. Now, it’s not okay that he hit you in the face, but it doesn’t sound like it was on purpose. What do you think?” I asked the other child. “Did you do it on purpose? Or you were just not aware of your body?”
It certainly helped me, having seen the incident unfold, know that it was truly a mistake. The other child simply wasn’t aware of how physical he was being while playing tag. Regardless, I needed to validate the victim’s feelings, meanwhile helping him see the reality of the situation. While I knew all along that it was his egocentrism at play, it was also incredibly important to know that what he was saying was his truth. That truth needed to be validated, so the child could feel seen, heard, and understood.
“I think I wasn’t aware,” the other child replied.
“Now, what do you need from him, now that you know it wasn’t an accident?” I asked the first child, his tears slowly subsiding.
“I need him to not do it again,” he replied, “and to say he’s sorry.”
The other child apologized, visibly remorseful. He reflected on his behavior, and said he would try to be more aware, even though I know that self-awareness is something that all of our children are still developing in this pre-operational stage. In fact, I knew this incident–or something similar–would probably happen again. Such is the cadence of learning new skills.
The tricky thing with conflict resolution is that, most of the time, it arises out of positive intent. The child thinks he or she is being funny and playful, when in reality, they’re simply not aware of their body or how their words are coming across. In essence, they are communicating through instinct, and have little capability to filter themselves or consider how it may impact one another. Fortunately, school is an excellent place for children to make these mistakes, to engage in productive conflict, and then to practice using their toolbox of strategies in order to navigate through them, with a caring adult by their side the entire time.
Conflict is not something we can avoid in schools, and quite frankly, it’s not something I would ever want to avoid. Conflict and mistakes give us opportunities to problem-solve and to learn, and when handled correctly, it can be an incredibly productive and authentic way for children to apply social and emotional strategies in a real context, and perhaps, even to become closer to one another.
Just an hour later, I saw the same two children collaborating on a math problem together, both trying to generate more of our “100 ways to make 100.” It reminded me that kids are resilient, that conflict can be good, and that while conflict may temporarily divide us, productive conflict has the power to perhaps bring us even closer together.