Teaching Peace with Elyse: HURTFUL TO HELPFUL

In the course of a preschool day, whether intentionally or unintentionally, children hurt one another. At times, the pain is physical; at other times, it is emotional.

We have icepacks for the "owies" and kind, reassuring words for those hurts that can’t be seen. We also have opportunities to model and coach compassion and responsibility.

"I know you didn’t mean to hurt your friend. Can you check on him and see if he is alright?" In doing so, we help the child shift focus from denial, guilt or blame and back to assisting the child who was hurt.

Opportunities abound all day long for children to sit down together and let each other know how they feel. Whether by going to a designated "peace place" or by sitting down right where the incident occurred, children can express hurt feelings.

As teachers, we can guide children by helping them take turns speaking and listening. We can help them to better articulate their feelings or to listen a little harder to what is being expressed.

"Were you able to hear that Jimmy was really upset when you offered him the wonderful scooter you made but then took it away to give to another friend?"

Opportunities to see causes and effects, particularly the effects of our actions on others, present themselves all day long. Then, authentic remorse can also be felt and voiced.

There are times when the children who do the hurting feel very, very remorseful.

We can help these children by naming their feelings and guessing at their accompanying thoughts: "You feel very sad because you hurt your friend. We all make mistakes and forget to play safely."

Following up with an opportunity for these children to see themselves as helpers rather than hurters has also proven to be successful.

Having them stay with the child who was hurt, seeing what he or she needs (an icepack, a wet paper towel, comforting words, etc.), often brings forth compassion and even renewed bonding.

Logical consequences are the solution of choice. Three five-year-olds managed to give each other new haircuts before their "hair salon" was discovered. While this is an annual event among preschoolers, the amount of hair, cut and hidden under a cabinet, was a bit shocking. While pausing to collect my thoughts, I had the three girls separate their hair and put it into envelopes. I wanted them to have a visual of just how much hair they had cut.

I pondered how to help them feel some responsibility for their actions without shaming them. Shame is a feeling that causes children to think, "Something is wrong with me. I am bad." As teachers and parents, of course, this is not something we want to instill or allow to develop in our children.

Yet, we do want them to take some healthy responsibility for their actions. We start guiding them on their journey to become responsible adults by having them begin to take responsibility for their behavior as children.

Calling in their classroom teacher, we spoke of how we had hoped that the children would have been able to call on the voice of their "inside helper" when they knew they were doing something that wasn’t safe or appropriate.

We asked how they thought their parents would feel. Sad and mad was the unanimous response. The children knew their parents would disapprove.

I made a decision to voice my own disappointment, which is something I rarely do. We then gave them an opportunity to be and see themselves as helpers. They were asked to sweep up the "salon" and continue sorting out their hair as they cleaned up.

The envelopes filled with hair served as both a visual and visceral symbol. We all stared at the envelopes, seeing the result of their actions, without having to say a word.


Afterwards, we again reiterated that in the future we hoped they would call on that little wise voice inside and make better choices.

While logical consequences are the best course of action, there are also more generic ways for children to see themselves as helpers after taking inappropriate actions.

After all words and exchanges are exhausted, I might say, "I need a helper. Let’s look around and see what we need to do to make the room welcoming for the next group."

 I also have on hand my Hurtful to Helpful Bag. Inside is the tangled yarn from previous "spider web art." I have them loosen and cut strands to use for our sewing projects.

I find it fascinating how successfully cutting ten pieces of yarn loose can shift feelings back to neutral with new opportunities to be a better friend and make wiser choices.