Young children, even by age 4, generally have strong reactions to always being told what to do … especially when it comes to their feelings and their interactions with others. Their strong reactions often show up as challenging behavior, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It really doesn’t.
From Challenging to Cooperating
The key to successfully creating more cooperation in early childhood environments is to provide young learners with multiple opportunities to discover how much they have in common with peers. This very practical approach is NOT achieved with lectures, books or videos … at least not nearly as effectively as it is achieved with peer group discussions.
We were never blank slates!
When children are treated as blank slates, most of them automatically resist. It’s almost as if they’re wired to resist … but is that such a terrible thing? Well, sure, it can be, when resistance turns into challenging behavior. But resistance can be interpreted as a signal that children have a solid sense of who they are and how “things” should be. Rather than treating children like blank slates who need to be taught everything, especially when it comes to their behavior, wise educators use relevant peer group discussions as one powerful key to successful turnarounds in their students’ behavior.
Five easy keys to designing successful peer group discussions
- Make sure discussions never, ever isolate or point to specific individuals.
- Use visual examples of the topic around which you want your students to discover solutions, (Google IMAGES is a great resource for pictures of: pushing, not sharing, pulling cat’s tail, street safety issues, whispering in front of others etc., etc.) but …
- … do NOT start discussions about specific behaviors – even though you’re showing a picture of that behavior. Instead, start discussion with broad where, what, who or how’s the kids will easily succeed at identifying and describing. (Neutral successes are important at this point.)
- After a few of those kinds of questions, then everyone is ready to “unpack” what’s going on in the picture you’ve shown them… just be sure the questions are open-ended and non-leading! If ever the questions you ask are not open-ended, then be quick to follow with, “Why is that your answer?” or “Will you tell us why you think that?”
- Paraphrase kids’ answers. Of course, that doesn’t mean ‘parrot’ their answers. It means saying, in your own words, what you think each child said for the purpose of making sure you really understood. (Other benefits of this 5th key: √Fully acknowledges each student’s contribution to the discussion. √Keeps you really, reeeeeally listening. √Because they’ll be especially interested in how you paraphrase their thoughts, when you add vocabulary-enriching synonyms for their most commonly used words they’ll be paying LOTS of attention.)
We all want to belong, and – actually – we all pretty much do… we just need to discover that fact together.
When you get right down to it, we all have a lot more in common than we have differences that separate us. For instance, none of us likes to be interrupted or pushed. None of us really likes to fight or interact with people who don’t consider fairness a value to live by… but …
… trying to reasonably and logically explain that to young kids, who function mostly out of the emotional part of their brains, is rarely – if ever – productive.
The good news is: getting groups of kids engaged in discussions around subjects that really matter to them, with questions that communicate respect for their intelligence and collaborative problem solving abilities …. well, that’s a horse of a different color !!!
How do we prepare students, even very young students, to constructively engage with the world they’re growing into? As educators, we must activate and exercise students’ thinking skills many times every day. Not, of course, in overly serious ways, because children must be allowed to develop at a natural pace through the stages of childhood.
Exercising Thinking Skills Can Be Fun and Relevant
Fortunately, there are ways to exercise children’s thinking skills in ways that directly improve their own day-to-day lives.
With the right kinds of questions (and zero lecturing), young children’s thinking skills can be exercised, so those skills naturally become stronger. Questions can and should be about familiar topics – like, how to: √ treat animals, √ play fairly, √ get someone’s attention. The right kinds of questions (non-leading and open-ended) will draw upon children’s hardwired honesty, common sense, and ability to empathize.
Using Critical Thinking to Find Trustworthy Websites
By the time students are in middle school they have become much less likely to ask questions around everyday elements of their lives. Why? Too embarrassing to appear ‘dumb.’ No problem. We, as their educators, can present topics of discussion for the entire class, with directives on how to discover the most trustworthy answers. (DIRECT BENEFITS: Everyone saves “face,” while gaining the benefits of what they need to learn.)
What about Cyberbullying?
How do we get students thinking about the ramifications of their online communications, without lecturing? Peer group discussions with, again, non-leading and open-ended questions helps to bring issues “into the light,” without putting anyone on the defensive. When students consistently receive opportunities to think together, they will come to conclusions, and even solutions, that work for everyone. Can you think of a better way to prepare them for developing the sophisticated problem-solving skills they’ll need as adults?
Sometimes kids (little ones and big ones) have resistance to our direct efforts to grow their growth mindset. That’s when questions that are actually conversation starters, can help.
Conversation implies all kinds of POSITIVES: √ Respect for students’ perspective and problem solving abilities √ Interest in what they think and feel and deal with √ Engagement with their values, their priorities √ Trust in students’ intentions √ Listening, really listening
Listening is most important
When kids receive quality attention, on a regular basis, to express themselves – especially with regard to their challenges – they get to directly experience that they matter. When they feel that all-important sense of mattering, then the effort it takes to overcome challenges is much more likely to matter, too.
Of course, listening to endless, random complaints and whining doesn’t have much value for anyone.
But respectful conversations that start with respectful questions … now that’s a different story. Try it, and let us know how it goes. We’d LOVE to hear your experiences.
It’s inevitable: people see things differently… even when they’re standing close and looking at the same situation or event. Different perspectives can cause a lot of problems, or they can improve situations. Totally depends on everyone’s perspective taking abilities.
Why are there individual perspectives?
Basically all our experiences – situations, events, what other people say and do – are up for interpretation. Interpretation is based on lots of known, and a variety of unknown, elements: past experiences, culture, faith, family values, personal preferences and previous associations to name a few. Differences don’t need to imply right or wrong … they’re just different. Period. Even little kids “get that,” when they’re given the chance.
Provide students with multiple opportunities to exercise their own hard-wired curiosity about other peoples’ perspectives – with zero pressure for them to agree. Chances are pretty good that those kids will be inclined to open-mindedly consider others’ thoughts and feelings before arriving at their own final conclusions.
Open-minded people are psychologically and emotionally flexible enough to consider alternative solutions. When open-mindedness is combined with solid self-worth, constructive outcomes are likely.
What would the world be like without different perspectives?
For starters, life would be monumentally BORING. Creativity would be non-existent. But look at the bright side: there wouldn’t be any disagreements. Zzzzzzzzzz!!!
Is there a way to have the best of both? Of course there is. Bring together groups of peers to objectively discuss situations and challenges familiar to everyone in the group. It really helps to show a picture of the scenario you choose to have the kids discuss. Be prepared with a list of 10-20 questions that respect kids’ intelligence in order to facilitate the most successful perspective-taking exercises.
Questions that communicate respect for kids’ intelligence and problem solving abilities are: √ Open-ended. √ Unpredictable, but relevant. Here’s a full example for trying out with your 5-7 year old students. (Read through all of the questions ahead of time, so you can maintain the discussion’s momentum.)
Check out these additional resources for supporting your success at increasing the perspective taking skills of all grade levels.