“I know my voice can sound a little intense sometimes when I’m under stress, so I try to tune in to the way I sound with my co-workers,” one of our preschool teachers says. She makes a point of apologizing if her tone sounds harsh. This awareness is extremely important in our school environment, where our teaching teams are role models for harmonious ways of working together. We can’t ask students to cooperate and speak kindly to each other if they see adults reacting to each other in disrespectful ways.
Teachers are also charged with making classrooms feel safe. That doesn’t mean that adults never have a conflict. It’s helpful to children to witness disagreements that are handled civilly, as long as they get to see the conflict being resolved. Adverse reactions occur when there is no reconciliation.
Mindful disagreements at any age can teach problem solving, empathy, and compromise, as long as people modulate their emotions and their words. Children need practice to learn how to debate an issue in a moderate way, and teachers often coach children in resolving conflicts.
Adults can set ground rules for keeping arguments respectful and safe. At school we have rules about not calling names or teasing someone, and certainly no physical aggression. At home, parents might bring up rules for handling disagreements and talk about how people can make amends if they hurt someone’s feelings.
These principles also hold in conflicts between adults and children. John Gottman, PhD, an expert in marital relations and stress reduction in children, warns about the problems of a “harsh start-up,” saying things like “Why would you do that?” We want children to feel safe expressing their feelings and explaining their motivations, an important part of a productive disagreement. The way we start and end disagreements is important.
The idea of making sure conflicts end with a reconciliation often comes into play before children get to school. A child who arrives at school after an unresolved argument may feel anxious all day.
Let’s help our children believe in the possibilities of working out problems and believe that even though problem solving and collaboration take more work, they are definitely worth the effort.