When my daughter was in the second grade, the boys started a silly game during recess of grabbing the girls’ coats at the neck to stop them in their tracks. Of course, after a few days, the girls “told on them” – complaining to the teacher on playground duty about the boys choking them. The teacher’s well-meaning response was to tell the girls to play near her so they would be safe. The girls went on to tell their own teacher who, in turn, told the boys’ teacher, but the game continued. My daughter then told me – a child psychologist who is supposed to know what to do! We decided to write to the principal for help. My daughter dictated and I wrote it all down. She took the note to the principal and the game stopped. What is the point here? Seeking help is important for children, and the other side of this interaction is that adults need to respond to children’s requests for help.
“Our children deserve to feel safe at school. How can schools and parents work together to prevent conflicts before they become bullying?”
Conflict is normal in children’s interactions with their peers at school – just as it is normative in our interactions with other adults at work, at home, and in the grocery store. Not all peer conflict is bullying or results in bullying, but repeated aggression that targets children who are perceived as less powerful or different in some ways (often due to gender, race, ethnicity, disability, behavioral problems, or mental health) is bullying. Our children deserve to feel safe at school. How can parents work with their own children and schools to prevent conflicts before they become bullying?
Our own research highlights two social behaviors of children that make a difference in reducing aggression and emotional problems and in enhancing school climate. We call these social responsibility and prosocial leadership. The former is essentially about being a cooperative social member of a classroom or family, while the latter is about facilitating others’ work and well-being, and looking for opportunities to help. These two protective factors are incompatible with bullying and victimization of peers, and they can be enhanced by both home and school activities.
Consider how these two prosocial behaviors of children might work in families. Does your family generally cooperate in making your family environment positive, safe, and fair? Do the children in your family generally have opportunities to make valued contributions to your family’s everyday life? Sometimes? No? Yes? Creating a positive family climate is a lifelong endeavour that encounters both smooth winds and heavy storms. It is not static. All family members from all kinds of family structures have changing needs and different abilities to contribute to overall family well-being. Children’s abilities to contribute reflect differences in their ages, but also differences in their sense of belonging to a cooperative team that is trying to create well-being for everyone.
How? One factor that can make a difference is to find a way to open conversations about conflict and conflict resolutions. Being part of your family’s well-being requires that you have input into its functioning. Responding to conflicts and aggressions with silence allows conflicts to be repeated unchanged. Having a family plan for managing the inevitable day-to-day conflicts of interpersonal interactions is as important as having a plan for fire prevention or emergency responses. In my intervention research, we have developed and tested a plan that is working in schools, with family support. The WITS Programs open conversations about conflict by using a common language. WITS stands for Walk Away, Ignore, Talk it out, and Seek help. When adults respond with this practiced, common language, we present conflicts as solvable. “Did you use your WITS?” or “What WITS did you try?” The program also identifies “WITS PICKS,” children’s books in the popular domain that present conflicts in which children have opportunities to talk about how they handled them and what else they could do. Many of the books are read online and are free to access.
“One thing that can make a difference is to find a way to open conversations about conflict and conflict resolutions.”
Using your WITS is not the only way to have open conversations about conflict. Many families establish their own routines, like reflecting on and talking out conflicts when everyone is calm or at bedtime, making a siblings plan for taking turns, and valuing family kindnesses and contributions Families can also talk about movies and TV programs in which the characters resolve conflicts. Thinking about what you do in your family and making these routines visible to children is important. Young children like to know what is the right thing to do. Seeking help can be rejected as “tattling” or embraced as problem solving.
Children need to be empowered to seek help and to be helpful. Parents can create opportunities and family cultures that make a difference in their abilities to resolve conflicts, and they can support schools in their efforts to do the same. By opening conversations about resolving conflict at home and in school, you can help your own children enhance their social responsibility and prosocial leadership, which can make a difference in improving school cultures.
Header photo: woodleywonderworks. Creative Commons.