Of course, along with this increased interest in what others are doing around the classroom comes the inevitable and sudden grabbing of toys from children who are still using them. When the children were babies, these actions were not often protested, and play would continue on smoothly and happily. But these kids aren't babies anymore! Every child has gradually entered the stage of deeply caring about what happens to the object they are holding -- a quick grab for a toy often results in two children pulling on something back and forth, both crying and expressing extreme frustration. If someone finally secures the toy, the interaction is rarely over. Feelings are still hurting, and sometimes second or third attempts are made at trying to reclaim the item. Often, I choose to be present and available, narrating and supporting but not necessarily physically intervening in these interactions unless either child appears to feel (or actually is) at risk of being harmed during the conflict. If the children make eye contact with me, I will calmly narrate what is happening: "You really want that doll. You are holding on tightly. LT is also pulling. She really wants that doll." In many cases, this is enough. Someone might lose interest or decide to find another doll instead.
But what about when this happens over and over with the same children and the same toys? There are some mornings when one child seems to seek out conflict; for example, LT often notices LC playing with one or two babies at a time, either covering them with a blanket or clutching them to her chest tightly. This observation sometimes motivates LT to experiment with taking the baby, often with the hope that LC will chase her. LT loves to be chased! But for LC, this is not a game. She is distressed, and really wanting the baby back. In order to support a healthy pattern for the children, I began introducing the concept of asking for something:
"Oh, LT! You grabbed for the baby, but I notice LC is still hanging onto it. You can try asking LC if you can have it. You can say, 'May I have it?' [I extend my hands out gently to LC, to model the sign for asking to have something]. You can listen to what she says."
More often than not, LC is not done using the baby. She responds with "No!" or by simply turning her body away while still holding onto the baby. I then say, "I heard LC say no. That means she is still using it. That baby is not available. I wonder what you will choose to play with instead?"
These interactions are encouraging a couple of different things. First, it teaches everyone to anticipate that others will care about the actions we take. LT knows that she will get a reaction from taking something abruptly, but hopefully I am showing her that LC's strong feelings are not just for instigating and observing -- they're also something she can anticipate and listen to. By modeling how to ask for something, I am showing LT how she can communicate with LC respectfully about her feelings in a way that doesn't automatically escalate the situation.
In these interactions, I am also encouraging the use of "No!" and "Mine!". Many adults dislike hearing children yelling "Mine!" because it seems pushy or overly possessive. But these words are typically some of the first to enter a child's vocabulary, and therefore one of the only ways to verbally communicate certain needs in situations such as these. By encouraging LC's use of the word "No!" in the above interaction, I am showing her that this is a valid way to assert herself: it's safe, clear, and something LT can practice listening to and respecting.
It's hard work, and it doesn't happen all in one day, but over time all of the children will learn this pattern and put it to use on their own. Even now, I notice LT express frustration after an interaction like the one above, and she will often sit close to me and simply look at LC for a few seconds. Sometimes she will then pick up another baby and offer it to LC, as if to say, "I notice you like babies. I know you want that one you're holding. Maybe you want even more?" LC responds with an enthusiastic nod and "yeah!", sometimes offering LT the baby she was originally holding onto as a trade. Both children look at me smiling, and I say, "Hey! That worked!"