Leading and Caring for Children

Leading Negotiation so Children Solve Their Own Disputes

Two choices: (1) remove the opportunity until they solve it; (2) lead a problem solving discussion

Remove the Opportunity or Object of the Dispute

I know of no better demonstration of how to lead negotiation than Patchworks Films movie The Tricycle Solution. I also know of no better demonstration of a democratic learning community than this year-long film shot at Rocky Mountain Nursery School, a parent participation program in San Francisco CA. The marvelous teacher, Effie Kuriloff, died of breast cancer in 2004, not long after this film was made. You can get it at Patchwork Films. I did buy it immediately and have shown it many times — always experiencing a quiet joy from a peek at the best that humans can be for each other.

Essentially you see children in disputes over a favorite tricycle with candid hitting and tears. Effie stopped the action, made an announcement to the entire group, and sat on the tricycle until the children decided among themselves what to do. Eventually they did. That trust in children has remained an example to not only the children and families at the school but also everyone who is fortunate enough to glimpse it via film. A bit more information is available here.

Lead a Problem Solving Discussion

I am a firm believer that a free play time for children indoors or outdoors is actually a free play time for children. It is time for the adults to watch and document, generally letting the children be free, free to have disputes, free to make friends and lose friends and regain friends, and live the life of a child during childhood. If adults see a problem that necessitates an immediate solution, it may be time to stop everything and call a community meeting.  Free time changes into group time with an adult leader.

I recorded an example of a community meeting at Green Tree here in Seattle. This cleanup time was awful, so awful I was reluctant to even videotape it. Trust me: it was a lot worse than the bits I couldn’t avoid catching on screen. This is the only videotape I know where a master teacher, Holly Kolher, leads a meeting to solve a problem that is a community responsibility.

Bean Bag Problem

Meetings generally occur at scheduled times of the day, but if needed they can be called at any time.

beanbags canOne time I had this great idea to offer 2 buckets of bean bags and about 20 two-pound empty coffee cans I had been collecting. The block/rug area of the classroom, about 24′ by 18′, had walls on three sides, so it seemed adequate to me. Free play is free play, so I simply said to these four-year-olds, “See what you can do with these.”

They did. They dumped everything out and began throwing the beanbags at each other, at the windows, and even lobbing them out of the area where the children were working at tables. This was a perfect opportunity to call a community meeting.

I wasn’t so concerned about them throwing them at each other, figuring that anybody brave enough to venture in there, could probably handle it. But the noisy throws at the windows and lobs into the table area presented problems for the classroom. I sat everyone down and described the problems. I could not allow them to toss them out of the area where other children, who were not playing bean bags, would not be paying attention to flying objects. The windows were insulated safety glass, so I said these wouldn’t break, although generally glass windows can break.

Step One: “We have a problem.”
With everyone’s input the problem becomes clear. We had a bit of discussion, which unfortunately I did not record, so I  cannot share their words. It’s best if the children describe the problem, with minor input from the adult.

Step Two: “We need some ideas of what to do.”
The children readily decided not to throw the beanbags at the windows, at each other, or into another area of the classroom. No prompting needed. I think they had done that already and knew it wasn’t all that interesting anyway. The goal for step two on the agenda is to elicit the children’s ideas, not ones from the adult, so they learn to do this on their own in the future. I have, however, told them stories of what other children had done in cases like this, after waiting through silence when no solutions were forthcoming.

Step Three: “We need agreement.”
This was easy this time.

Step Four: After they implement their ideas describe what seems to be working, thumbs-up, high-five, etc., “You did it.”
It was absolutely amazing! Two arcade games began at opposite ends of the area. The children made up rules and negotiated problems, cooperatively, positively, and creatively. I was thrilled.


Be the discussion chair offering topics

  1. “First we must hear the problem.”
  2. “We need some ideas of what to do.”
  3. “We need a decision.”
  4. “You found a way. You did it.”

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