Chronicles of an Educator

Making space for conflict helps cement positive behaviours in children

21st April 2020
Below is an anecdote that happened during one of the Forest School sessions that makes the case for allowing space for conflicts. Narrated by Tesh.
Asking for help
Y came running up to me. Before I could even make out what she was trying to say, I could observe from her expression that she was in despair. She composed herself and repeated: "Coach, they are bullying E". Now, the old me would have jumped up, much like a heroic figure, and stepped in to stop whatever conflict that was happening.

However, in Forest school, the child-led philosophy is to let the children manage such conflict on their own (within a safe boundary). Nothing is ever binary in this world, everything exists on a spectrum. Too much ownership and the children might feel helpless and lose trust in adults/others. Intervening early removes the opportunity for children to hone their social skills and conflict resolution skills.
This picture was taken a few minutes before the incident. I was seated higher up and my two other fellow coaches were further down. And the children can be seen even lower
My other fellow coaches were seated further in front where they had a better view of the situation. They updated that J (E's elder brother) was playing with a rope. E wanted that same rope badly and was trying to snatch it from J but the latter would not let him have it. I asked Y whether she could handle it on her own and she went back down.

What happened next left me speechless.
Resolving their own conflict
The kids dispersed. E was crying; Y was trying to comfort him. The others moved up the field. Five minutes later, I saw Y, arms around E's shoulder, walking up the field towards the other kids and as she reached them, said:

"E has calmed down now. He is ready to talk" She turned to E and nudged him gently to speak up. In the gentlest voice imaginable and while wiping his tears, he said "Can I have the rope please?" Without hesitation, the brother said "Ok, you can have it"

That's all it took; he just wanted the brother to ask nicely.

Me, trying to make sense of it all
I was lost for words, not because of how J easily gave the rope away but because of the way Y managed to help E process his emotions. She managed to calm him down, processed the situation with him, provided him with a solution and accompanied and facilitated him in asking for the rope in a nice way. In all honesty, the coaches might not have been able to get E to ask for something (that he really wanted and thought he should have) in such a calm manner. Even if the coaches intervened to ask the kids to share the rope, the elder brother would have given the rope but only because we said so and E would always rely on adults to help him get what he wanted.

My personal learning was that holding that safe space to allow the children to manage their own conflicts had the following benefits:

1. Y learnt how to be the mediator and help those in needs. (I later closed the loop separately with her on why we, coaches, did not step in and that we were proud of the way that she managed the situation. We also do not want her to think that, should she need help in the future, she will never get any)

2. E learnt that if he asks nicely, people might be more willing to listen.
The icing on the cake
The card with the smiley face that E chose to summarise his Forest School session
That whole episode only lasted 5, maybe 10 minutes max, out of the 3.5 hour-long Forest School session. At the end of the session, we had a debrief where we asked the students to pick a card that best described their feeling and why. E picked up the card shown in the image. I will let you watch the unlisted video below (Thanks to coach Leo for capturing that moment on camera) to hear why E picked this card to summarise his 3.5 hour-long Forest School session.
He said: "Kor Kor give me (rope) and then I so hap….happpy and loveeee, so love!" (Kor kor is an affective word used to call one's elder brother here in Singapore.)

I mean, could you feel the happiness in the voice? How genuinely grateful he was? That, to me, was a positive experience that possibly cemented positive future behaviours from E. And all this was possible because we provided a safe space for conflicts to happen and get resolved without letting adults intervene too fast.
Is that a universal solution?
I would like to hear the perspectives from some of you based on what you believe in or from your personal experience. How far can or should we stretch that space? As a parent, can we re-create such environment at home if we have only 1 or 2 kids?
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