Children eagerly observe us in their intense quest to learn how to be, relate to others, and grow up. What are we modeling for our children? Ideally, as a “community of problem-solvers”, we collaborate maturely, facing and working through disagreements, respecting differences, without losing our sense of humor and humility. Our Codes of Professional Responsibility require this.
Houston, we have a problem! Eighty percent of early childhood professionals are conflict-avoidant. As a result, children observe adults communicating indirectly or not at all about our inevitable conflicts. The Latin root of “confront”, means “bring people face to face”. For many of us, “confrontation” means a bloody battlefield, to be avoided at all costs. When 4-year-old Maddy curls her arm over her friend, Lina’s, shoulder, and whispers: “I’m not going to play with Olivia for a hundred years, are you?” we know we have work to do. Are you ready for the challenge?
Consider these questions and situations:
1. Seventy percent of women, and 44% of men, value relationships over tasks, take things personally, hold grudges, feel guilty, and “forgive, but don’t forget”(Myers-Briggs data based on over 40 million surveyed). Do you believe women are “hard-wired” to be sensitive, caring, relational? If so, can nurturers be direct and confrontational? If not, why do you think so many women (and a considerable minority of men), take things personally and avoid conflict?
2. Think of a person with whom you have an unresolved conflict. Imagine that you are about to meet face-to-face with that person to deal with the conflict. Picture yourself in the moments before you meet with the person. Now, draw a picture (no artistic ability required) of how you feel and/or your mental state just before you confront the person.
3. When you are ready, at the presenter’s signal, please stand up, holding your drawing in front of you. Circulate around the room, observing as many other drawings as you can. Find a person whose drawing resembles yours or intrigues you. Sit down with that person. Ask the other person to tell you what s/he sees in your drawing. After you have gotten this feedback, explain what your drawing represents. Repeat this process with the other person holding up her/his drawing for your feedback. Identify together any commonalities you share in facing/avoiding conflict.
4. As the group reconvenes, listen to other participants share how they feel about conflict. If you were to describe those feelings in one word or phrase, what would that word or phrase be?
5. Research with over 700 early childhood professionals reveals at least 68% of us have experienced gossip, backbiting, sabotage and/or exclusion at work (“Gossip free zones”, Young Children 2007). What is the relationship between these behaviors and conflict-avoidance? Why are these behaviors common amongst early childhood professionals?
6. “Someone else’s action does not have to predict my response”, notes the Dalai Lama. When someone’s behavior offends you, how can you maintain your professionalism?
7. Principles of effective confrontation: a) Focus on behavior, not on personalities; b) Be factual and concrete; c) Don’t allow yourself to “get hooked”, drawn into a power struggle; d) Expect adults to take responsibility for themselves; e) Keep your “eyes on the prize”: quality care for children and families; remember what you stand for.
8. Five steps to effective confrontation:
-Name the inappropriate behavior
-State what is expected
-Ask “What will you do to correct this situation?”
–Persist until a workable solution is identified and agreed upon.
-Make a clear plan for follow up and state consequences of failure to change behavior.
9. You are Beulah’s supervisor. Apply the 5 principles and 5 steps to this case study: Beulah is your program’s cook. She is responsible for planning menus of nutritious meals, managing the food budget, and preparing meals posted on the menu. Yesterday, Beulah served canned spagettios for lunch; chicken fingers and broccoli were on the menu. Today, Beulah, angry with her boyfriend, Claude, bought expensive chocolate croissants for the children, instead of serving pancakes, according to the menu. Beulah, loved by children, is a great cook. However, Beulah “has attitude”, and feels she can do no wrong.
10. Being direct and “hitting the issue on the head”, is not characteristic of some cultures. Kioko, raised in Japan by her grandparents, works hard to help everyone “save face”, and be respected publicly. Given her heritage, how might Kioko hold Beulah accountable?
11. How would you coach team teachers, Gabriella and Maude, to work together better? Instead of talking with each other, Gabriella and Maude complain to other teachers. Helpful ground rules: a) What are the facts (not assumptions)? b) Focus on what you can change; no blaming, shame, inflaming the other person; c) Focus on solutions, problems; d) Ask: “How can you work better together for the children? Gabriella is a free spirit. She is spontaneous, fun loving and creative. When Nate finds a frog on the playground, Gabriella spreads out finger paints for the children to create frog ponds. She quickly tells the children to place their wet creations around the edge of the room to dry, as she leaves at 3 pm for her 2nd job. Maude believes children learn best in a structured environment, with predictable lesson plans. Maude is uncomfortable when blocks, toys and books are not put away properly. Maude often stays late to tidy-up Gabriella’s “mess”. When Maude sees wet papers on the floor, she fears someone will slip. She tosses the papers into a garbage bag, away from arriving parents’ feet. The next day, Gabriella asks Maude where the children’s artwork is. You are asked to facilitate.
12. Have you been able to change another person? The Serenity Prayer counsels: “Grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change (other people), courage to change the things I can (myself), and wisdom to know the difference. Consider the person with whom you have that unresolved conflict. What can you change about yourself in preparation to meeting with that person? Practice (with another participant) applying the 5 principles and steps. If your conflict is with a peer, practice using the ground rules in #11 above.
13. When dealing with whiners, do not agree or disagree with them. Instead, interrupt and ask for a concrete example. Problem solve with them. If they whine to you again, say: “Since I can’t help you with that problem, please don’t bring it to me again.”