As teachers we want each child to feel safe in expressing themselves as well as have a chance to experiment with different types of behavior. Seeing firsthand how actions cause reactions is a huge piece to learning how to read social cues and interact in social settings. However just reacting to name calling or hurtful words by saying "we don't use bad words" is not helpful and do not teach why it is wrong to use hurtful words. If we immediately react to a word as bad or mean then we deprive the child of learning the meaning/impact of those words and that adults find her trustworthy. A sense that "fear makes right"sometimes arises when people see bullying take place in school. When a response to a child changes from a 'that's bad' reaction to an observation it can value the child's identity as it is and allow true understanding to form. Providing logical narration as it happens is one of the most helpful ways to observe when you are the adult in this situation. Along with narration, we use a few key phrases here at Tumbleweeds that help students bridge the gap between teasing and developing their authentic self.
Do you believe them?
A and T are playing together. They've been roaming around the yard for quite a while in some sort of collaborative, imaginative play. Suddenly A steps away from T with force and says "You're stupid!"
T immediately runs to a teacher and proclaims, "A called me stupid!"
The teacher nods, "I saw that you and A were playing together. Then I noticed A called you stupid."
T nods solemnly.
The teacher says, "Do you believe them?"
This question often causes children to pause. They reassess what just happened and start to own the situation. Often, a child will respond with something like "Well I didn't like it." It gives the child a chance to understand that they are able to decide how to be affected by the words and actions of others. In reality, most of us will spend much of our lives being talked about. It's part of being a socially interactive human. One of the biggest gifts we can give children is the ability to create their own version of themselves that isn't dependent on how anyone else sees them.
What are you trying to say when you say...?
Using the same example as above with A and T, the teacher might then approach A and ask "I noticed that you and T were playing together and then you called him stupid. I wonder what you were trying to tell T when you called him stupid."
A responds, "You didn't play Dragon Hunting with me, T! I really wanted to play that and you wouldn't play it so I called you stupid."
A's answer will vary but it's likely that he called T stupid due to his own feelings of anger, frustration, or rejection. Helping A to voice what he's really feeling not only builds his ability to advocate for himself but also builds T's empathy. In the future, T might even say "I noticed when I didn't want to play Dragon Hunting you called me stupid. It must be really important to you! Maybe we can find a way to play both of our games."
What can you say instead of...?
To take it another step further, the teacher could ask A "What could you say to T instead of calling him stupid?"
By asking A to come up with a plan for talking to T next time, we can avoid forcing children to act in ways that would stifle their expression as unique and valuable people. We could easily tell A and T how they should interact with one another based on our own experiences, but giving A and T the chance to navigate these channels themselves with minimal intervention helps them to create their own authentic way of interacting.
In each of these situations, a teacher assesses how much to intervene based on where a child is. We want to see and accept each child for where they currently are rather than where they might be going; just as we want each of them to do the same for each other. By accepting each child where they are currently, we promote self-confidence to make their own choices and to learn different ways to protect their self worth and right to be authentic. Only by seeing each child come up with their own ways to solve conflict and not be told can we add to their emotional intelligence. We also simultaneously build empathy through helping each child see another child's reaction and how their actions affect others.