As a student in Psych 147 this quarter, I’m working at Bing Nursery School once a week with three- to five-year-olds. To the kids, I’m just “Teacher Emily,” not a psych student with very little experience breaking up fights in the sandbox. Last Friday, I worked my first shift at the preschool and unsurprisingly, I immediately found myself in a situation in which the children were deferring to me as the authority figure.
The conflict at hand involved possession of a teapot full of soapy water which was doubling as tea in the dramatic play area. One of the boys involved in the tiff grabbed the teapot in his playmate’s hand, and the other boy refused to let go. I got down to the boys’ level, and asked the teapot grabber to let go of his playmate and to use his words rather than his body to show what he wanted in the situation. I realized that the root cause of this conflict was really a shortage of tea, and thought we might be able to avoid further conflict (and potentially tears) if we just made more tea by adding warm water to the suds. I encouraged the teapot grabber to come with me and make more tea at the sink, but he refused and continued trying to grab the teapot.
Looking back on this incident, I realize I was so focused on the details of the actual situation at hand (the shortage of soapy water) that I wasn’t able to see the great potential in moments like this one, which repeat themselves thousands of time in preschool classrooms around the world. The issue at hand was not the actual lack of tea, but a lack of communication and the presence of a physical rather than verbal automatic response to problem solving. Rather than suggesting that they make more bubbles, I should have been emphasizing the skills that will help these children solve problems for the rest of their lives: listening skills, problem solving skills, non-violent problem solving skills and empathy. Rather than work to find more soap and end the conflict, I should have helped the children talk to each other about how they were feeling, why they felt the need to grab, and how they could come to a conclusion that would satisfy both of them.
I tell you this anecdote because it is extremely applicable to our lives today. Our daily interpersonal trials and tribulations are really no more than fights over soapy water. Their content is irrelevant, but their themes are extremely relevant to the rest of our lives. We are all faced with thousands of little challenges in our lives as busy college students – juggling classes, social lives, and future plans (to name just a few) – and the way we learn to deal with these challenges now will inform how we deal with future challenges that may look different but will likely spiral around many of the same themes that affect preschoolers.
Rather than just look for “quick fixes” to the issues that trouble you – from getting too many emails to dealing with tough meetings with professors to “hard talks” in romantic relationships – take the time to practice good problem-solving skills that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Communicate, respect your own values, and care for the other party involved. While this may seem like an exercise best left in the sandbox at Bing, our social development and problem-solving skills should continually evolve as well, just like those of four-year-olds.
In those tough situations and conflicts, for example, ask yourself if you truly understand what the other person wants or needs and what might be causing them to act the way they are. Next time one of your group members fails you at the last minute before a group project is due, push yourself to practice extreme empathy for that other person and see what it feels like. And the next time a friend says something to upset you, challenge yourself to take the harder, less comfortable route to a solution. Rather than just making more soapy water, take the time to invest in your future self!
Practice your problem-solving skills by contacting Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org.