From Repair to Protection
“I know you are nice and kind, right?” (one child to another after observing a disagreement)
Much of a teacher’s day in the early weeks of school is spent facilitating moments of repair. As the children acclimate to a new classroom, begin to form new friendships, and renegotiate old friendships, impulsive reactions and misunderstandings are particularly common. Over the course of the year, the children’s play will develop more predictable rhythms; they will become more adept at anticipating each other’s ideas and feelings and more practiced in talking through plans and resolving disagreements. When these rhythms develop, teachers are increasingly able to recede, allowing children to share ideas and negotiate with independence. However, in these early weeks of school, it is not uncommon to see teachers sitting close, interceding more frequently to facilitate arguments and injustices, both perceived and real. Often these first disputes can feel surprisingly dramatic, and it is difficult for children, teachers, and parents alike to have faith in the spirit of community that will eventually evolve out of these early moments of tears.
Though these early weeks are full of many exciting new discoveries and new relationships, they are also often punctuated, even in older classrooms, by moments of hurt feelings and at times even physical aggression. As parents and teachers, the intensity of these early interactions can feel foreboding. We might wonder if the entire year will be filled with upset and disagreement and if our children will develop habits of aggression out of these instances of impulsivity and high emotion. Requests to separate challenging friendships or to establish classroom rules that preempt disagreement are always particularly common at this time of year, as we understandably want to protect our children from strife.
And yet, in my years in the classroom, I often found that the groups that were most filled with challenging behaviors and prickly relationships in the fall were the same groups that were the most deeply integrated and empathetic by the end of the year. The deeper the divides early on, the more profound the sense of community seemed to become later. Educator, Vivian Paley, reminds us that, “Good deeds make sense only after someone’s suffering is perceived.” These early rifts create space for powerful conversations about feelings and intentions, which ultimately give way to a deeper understanding of one another and more sophisticated and meaningful collaborations than could ever emerge out of seamless, easy interactions.
It is fitting that we, as adults, are thinking about remorse at this time of year, just as our children are experimenting with the bounds of their own power, learning to consider the impact of their words and actions on others, and practicing making repairs and restoring a sense of trust and safety when there is sadness or anger.
In their early conversations, often guided by teachers, about how to calm hurt feelings, rebuild broken structures, or even soothe physical injuries, the children are learning to listen to each other, and as they listen seeds take root which will, over time, develop from apologies and repairs to a sense of group cohesion and protection. As children experience one another’s reactions, they learn, not only how to restore peace, but how to protect it. They learn to anticipate each other’s needs, to look out for problems on the horizon, and to navigate around them. The early days of block buildings crashing to the floor pave the way for carefully tiptoeing around each other’s delicate structures later in the year, and “I’m sorry I hurt you” opens the door to “I will protect you.”