All About Mental Health

Settling Disputes
Making Christmas Merrier
Wish List
Tracking Narrative
Settling Disputes
Children and Grief - handout
When Kids Won't Listen
Make It Happen
Scaffolding for Success
Teach via Disagreement

Settling a dispute/Using the dispute to teach


As happened yesterday, let’s say that three children were playing on the rug – the younger one, Lovey, is playing alone with “finger play” toys, and the two boys are playing with each other off to the side.  Suddenly, Lovey screams.  When you look up, one of the boys, her brother Jeremy, has in his hands a camper style truck, the sort that might weigh two pounds, if you put in on a scale. 


My first step when I hear her scream is to ask “What’s happening here?”  She sounds like she might have been bumped or physically hurt, but I don’t know.  I want to hear what is going on.  I am definitely not going to ask (under most circumstances) did he hurt you?  Because it will be too easy for the crying child to silently nod, even if nothing happened.  When I ask “What’s happening here?” the third boy, James, says “She wants the car.”  He looks toward the truck in Jeremy’s hands. 


I ask Jeremy, “Was she playing with it?”  He shakes his head, “no.”  “Were you playing with it?”  I ask Lovey.   She doesn’t answer.  “Where was it?” I ask.  James points to the shelf near to Lovey.  Now, it’s my guess that Jeremy didn’t take it from her but that she wanted to play with it and to grab the truck, Jeremy reached across the area where she was playing, crowding her space.  I say to Jeremy “Lovey wants to play with it, too.”  (I don’t say Lovey had it first, because she probably didn’t) “Can she play with it first and then it’s your turn.”  He said, “No.”  First, negotiation fails.  I turn to Lovey, “How about you have a turn when he’s done.”  She goes along with this.  Then I tell Jeremy, “You can play with it until the hands on nine.  That’s seven minutes.”  I remind myself not to forget about this. 


I also didn’t want to use persuasion to try to get Jeremy to give the truck to Lovey.  Chances are good that he’d “dig in” and the situation would escalate.  In those moments with the children, I am working to keep it small, contained, with an outcome, in terms of the toy, that is fair.  I entered the situation looking for the problem and as simply as possible I want to see the problem solved.  (The underlying problem is the fact that Jeremy gets jealous of his little sister and finds ways to annoy her.  The little sister has responded with “over reaction” that may get brother in trouble much of the time.  This would exacerbate his jealousy.  The over arching goal will be some resolution of this exchange through long range strategy).   


When the time was up, I said, “It’s Lovey’s turn now.” 


Jeremy wasn’t playing with the truck any more.  But he picked it up and dumped the toy near his sister from about a foot off the ground.  It was startling, but didn’t hit her.  I showed Jeremy my disapproval, “I don’t like that.  That wasn’t nice.  Don’t do that again.” 


Then I went back to what I was doing… still sitting on the floor near the children.  While I was correcting Jeremy, another staff member said, “Jeremy, you listen to her.”  I cued her quietly “You don’t have to back me up here.”  We talked later about this.  One staff should be able to handle disputes without “back up” especially from out of the same area. When the other staff tells the children to listen, it actually gives the appearance that the staff talking to the child is weak, unable to succeed without help.   


The second staff can give support when needed by drawing away other children especially when they are secondary to the conversation and just watching… or it they are acting up.  This would be like saying, “Suzie, Jerry, let’s start BINGO.  Come with me to set up the game.”  This would be to lead other children away from the conversation and prevent the one who is being corrected from being the center of attention.  When some children leave, a tense situation will de-escalate, as if you are actually draining energy.  


The way to use the situation for learning is like this.  First, it should be played out as above so that one model for problem solving has been used with the children. 


Then the when something happens similar to the above, staff can begin as I did with “What’s happening here?”  Assuming then that we are once more dealing with two children who want the same toy, the staff should spell that out… “Looks like two of you want the same toy.  What should we do?  Does anybody have an idea?” 


Then listen the their ideas and try it out.  You can help shape the ideas they come up with by asking, “Will this be fair?”  and by asking the two who have the dispute “Are you willing to try this?”  If not, continue on, “Well, then, what would be fair?” 


If you begin to build this in, soon the children will be able to solve this kind of thing on their own and you will feel tremendously proud of them. 


~~ Sandy Kleven, LCSW





Holding Our Own 
Sandra L Kleven, LCSW
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Anchorage, Alaska 99504
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