Updated: May 10
Since I've worked as a child and family educator for 43 years or so, I've picked up on a few tips about de-escalating tense situations and problem-solving. Luckily there are a lot of ways to do these things that work. We just need to get more people using them.
We know now, surprisingly, that the best age to teach these things is 18 mos. through 3 years old. It also takes a huge amount of effort at the age, but the result is well worth it.
Children with well-developed problem-solving skills are less likely to resort to aggression to solve their social conflicts. They are also better equipped to achieve their own goals, negotiate, and avoid becoming the victims of other people's aggression.
Early Violence Prevention, Tools for Teachers of the Very Young
Slaby, Roedell, Arezzo, and Hendrix
Problem-solving and communication skills are the "bee's knees" of early childhood education. I go a little bit more in-depth on these ideas in my article on creating peace which you can find here.
Prevention is my biggest goal when working with young children, but we also need a plan for what to do when a violent act happens! That's important, too!
How we react in that kind of situation matters!
With the goal of de-escalation in mind, here are the top 2 things to do right away when you witness your child or another child you're caring for being hurtful to another.
The first thing to do is to move into the situation quickly and calmly and take charge, someone has to. Separate the children with your body if they won't stop fighting.
Firmly tell the child who hurt to "Be Gentle" and then, this is where most well-meaning people get it all wrong; the next thing to do is to ask the child who's been hurt if they're OK. Pay more attention to that child. You can deal with the other child privately as soon as things settle down a bit.
It's much more important to demonstrate empathy than it is to try and figure out who's right and wrong or to force an apology at this point. Chances are they aren't sorry anyway and it's hard to get a child to lie at this age.
note: If the children are fighting over a toy you may have to hold on to the toy until the issue is settled. Remember to be clear that you're just holding it until things get better, not "taking it away".
Once the other child has settled down a bit, you can talk to the child who did the hurting. It's good to bring them to another room or off to the side. Try to find out why this happened without condoning the hurtful part.
All feelings are OK, all actions are not!
Tell the child that you understand what they wanted. Also, tell them that hurting is never OK. Offer them some ideas on ways to make amends like saying sorry, offering a hug, or helping them with something. Never force the issue, though, they can just have time away from the other child if they'd rather not do anything yet. Sometimes a few minutes helps.
Later, work on actually teaching the child to get what they want, in some appropriate way without resorting to violence. If you think what they want might be attention from you, then find a way for them to get it in a better way and actually take the time to teach them how. This is the start of problem-solving.
I hope this helps you in some way!
More about problem-solving here!
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Nanci J Bradley, 60, is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, SELF-care facilitator, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.