We were discussing different family configurations in my “Working with Families” course the other night and the question was raised as to what to do if children tease each other about their family – for example, a child who has same-sex parents, a child whose father is incarcerated, or a child who is homeless. This led to a deeper discussion about preventing children from being cruel or teasing each other.
Teasing is like weeds in the garden – the best approach is prevention. You want to create a healthy, caring environment where the weeds have no chance to grow. The goal is to get children get into the habit of saying kind things – and know that teasing and cruelty are NOT acceptable. Entire books have been written about building classroom communities and I highly recommend Teaching Children to Care published by the Responsive Classroom. In this column, though, let’s get started with some basics like teaching children how to say kind words.
It is an unfortunate truth that some children do not hear many kind words directed towards them and they need those models desperately. All young children can benefit from direct instruction in how to use kind words. Young children are still learning about what the boundaries are for their behavior, and they need us to be clear about what is okay to say in school and what is not. At group time, you can begin by using puppets, dolls, or pictures of children and put on a little skit in which you act out a child saying mean words. Ask the children how they would feel if they heard those words. Next ask them what we can say to each other to make each other feel good, instead of sad or angry. Make a list of the words on chart paper and post it in a place the children can see.
For the next few days, at the start of group time, re-read the chart of kind words. Tell the children you will be listening during the day to hear how many of the words they use. And really listen!! Children need lots of practice to develop new habits, and they need feedback to know how they are doing. When you hear children using kind words, draw attention to it. At the end of the day, gather the children together and share the kind words you heard that day. Add any new ones to your list. There will be more information in future posts on how to respond to teasing if it still occurs, but you should see a great decrease in teasing as you focus children on kindness instead.
Even after the first week of this practice, you will still need periodic reminders. Choose one day each week to go over the Kind Words List and be sure to provide positive attention and feedback when you hear children using them.
Remember: What you pay attention to, you will get more of!
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