I still laugh when I pull out an old picture of my sister and her cousin when they were both between the ages of two and three. There they were, sitting in a bath tub together. They both had a handful of each other’s hair and were apparently screaming at the top of each other’s lungs. So much for conflict resolution in the world of the toddler. Conflict resolution and the possibility of living in a peaceful world is one of the greatest challenges of the human race. Adults can learn a lot about the subject by spending some time studying the behavior of three-year olds. The age of three is where it is all happening. The child has left toddlerhood and now has increasingly coordinated physical skills and a brain that is working overtime at absorbing new information. Vocabulary and speech ability are exploding and those that hardly talked before are blathering away like a magpie working on its eighth cup of coffee. One of the main areas of growth for a three-year old is in socialization – getting along with others. This getting along thing is taking on increasing importance in modern society because more and more children are not at home anymore at the age of three, but are put in mass settings – pre-k environments – because both parents (if there are two) feel the necessity to work. (The ramifications of millions of parents working for low wages are many, but children being raised in mass settings out of necessity is an important one.) Safety is job one for any pre-k teacher, and how safe the classroom environment depends a lot on the socialization level of each child. Tell four three - year olds to simply just “go play together” and see what happens. After about three minutes it may not resemble “play” at all. Assault and battery, maybe.
The act of “playing together,” much less “playing nice together” is stunningly complicated. Add in the foreign concept of “sharing” and what you’ve got is a big dose of “Are you kidding me?” in the child’s head. Three-year olds are transitioning from a world where they are the center of the universe (Mine, mine mine – which applies to everything, mine or not) to the shocking realization that they are not. And then they are supposed to get along with all of these other children who are also coming to the same appalling, unsettling realization. The other key thing to note is that they are transitioning from a pre-verbal world of brute force to get your way to one in which you are supposed to ask for what you want. This is a huge and important difference. As a matter of fact, the use of words makes all of the difference in the world.Since a pre-verbal child can’t articulate anything, their recourse comes from this menu: snatching, hitting, crying, screaming, or the sophisticated pointing and screaming. Actually, if a child is pointing and screaming before they run over and hit somebody, that is communication that you can build on. And you build on it through methodical speech development. Another key point is that not all three-year olds are the same. The maturation difference between children at that age can be enormous. Some can say, “Mr. Bill, Sarah is encroaching on my playhouse area and I wish that she could move over slightly so that we can both have fun. I would prefer that my blocks didn’t get knocked over.” With others, the conversation is more like “shriek – wham! – crying.” To produce peaceful conflict resolution, children must be carefully and consistently guided to use words to not just articulate their feelings, but actually see positive results from it. When a teacher hears the first rumblings of disaster, they will immediately go to the conflict area and ask something like “What do you want, I’ll help you?” and guide the child through their ramblings, rantings or screechings to a point of understanding, and then, upon understanding, resolve the conflict. As children are able to get their problems solved through verbal articulation instead of violence, and then rewarded for it, the violence and conflict will slowly disappear. Older children and adults: Take a hint.