“Stop looking at my paper!” Alex* screamed across the table.
I looked over, seeing the child’s brow scrunched, his face filled with tension. The other child (the one at whom the screaming was directed) looked at me wide-eyed, confused and worried by the child’s outburst.
I walked over calmly, prepared to diffuse the situation.
“My goodness,” I said to Alex, “you sound really upset right now.”
“He was looking at my paper!” he replied emphatically, still experiencing a great deal of stress from the situation.
“Okay,” I replied, “I can see how that might be frustrating, but let’s slow down for a second.”
Tension still wound Alex’s shoulders, and the other boy looked like he was about to cry. As always, there was more to the story here. In fact, there were multiple stories here, but they just weren’t seeing all of them.
“Let’s start by taking a deep breath,” I said. Both boys followed suit, and then I continued. “Now let me ask you this, Alex. Was Ethan was ‘doing his best?'”
“Yea,” Alex replied unconvincingly.
I was referring to a series of morning meeting lessons from the month prior. We had used hula hoops to simulate boundaries. Every child had his or her own hula hoop, and to simulate a conflict, they would cross hula hoops, concretely demonstrating how our boundaries feel crossed when a conflict arises. The children even pushed into each other with the malleable hoops, simulating what it feels like when someone literally pushes into us.
Throughout the course of these lessons, I channeled one of my biggest socio-emotional inspirations, Brené Brown. She doesn’t usually write or speak for the classroom, but because her work has greatly influenced how I think, feel, and navigate conflicts, both inter- and intrapersonal, I tend to draw upon her lessons when working with my kids.
In her most recent book, Rising Strong, she begs the question: What if everyone is doing the best that they can? And she shares stories–both personal and from her research–that have helped me grapple with this very idea. My favorites are when she shares stories about her relationship with her husband, Steve:
“Steve said, ‘I don’t know. I really don’t. All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.’ His answer felt like truth to me. Not an easy truth, but truth.”
It is this very idea that has helped me reframe many a conflict with my children over the past month or so. Oftentimes, when children are in conflicts, they have trouble pulling themselves out of their egocentrism (as many of us do); our brains are developmentally wired to assume that the individual with whom they’re having a conflict is out to get them. It’s simple fight-or-flight.
And so, when Alex replied unenthusiastically that he knew Ethan was doing his best, I built upon that his openness, however reluctant it might have been.
“Okay, well if we know that Ethan is doing his best, maybe we can just ask him why he was looking at your paper. Maybe there’s a part to this story that you don’t know.”
Alex looked up at me, and I could see his brow softening. I could see that Oh, crap feeling in his eye–one I know well only because I’ve felt it so many times when I’ve reacted too quickly to a situation without assuming positive intent.
He turned towards Ethan, his shoulders still tense, his fingers dancing with each other anxiously.
“Ethan, why were you looking at my paper?” he muttered apologetically.
“I was just trying to see how to write one-half because that’s how tall I measured the plant,” Ethan replied. “I couldn’t remember how Paul said to write it.”
“Oh,” Alex replied quietly. “Okay. It’s just ‘one-slash-two.'”
After a little more processing, I turned the boys loose and watched them flit back to their table happily to continue measuring the sprouts in their planter. I happily flitted to the next table, too, looking to see how the other groups were doing with their measuring.
Since then, I’ve seen this approach work countless times. It seems that this simple question–Is he doing his best?–causes the offended child’s guard to come down, even if it is in the slightest. It scaffolds their empathy, helping them to see that the other child is not, in fact, out to get them.
Sure, it has the potential to be slightly over their heads. But having done this for quite some time now, I know that changing patterns of thinking takes time, repetition, and persistence. As often as I can remember, when a conflict arises, I now lead with this question: I ask them if the other child is doing his or her best, and with each time I say it, I know it rewires another microscopic pathway in each child’s mind, weaving an intricate fabric, one grounded in connection, vulnerability, and the assumption that everyone–even those that hurt or bother us–are showing up in the best way they know how.
Imagine a world, now, where teaching positive intent was standard in schools. How might this compound over time? How might this change the way children think and interact? How might it change the worlds in which their growing up? And how might it transform the world at-large?
Perhaps I can’t say how, specifically, but I know it has changed mine.
*Note: All names are pseudonyms.