There are some key points to our sharing philosophy (and in our program, we have these children in the same room for 2 or 3 years, so consistency really helps over time):

  • In the beginning, the teachers simply talk out loud about what is happening in the classroom, in as non-judgmental a way as we can manage.  Most of our children have had very limited experience with other children at age 3 and just watching and thinking about the plans and intentions of others is a lot of work for them already.  Others jump right in and we review what has happened after the fact.  We try to make our words like an interesting story we heard or a movie we saw, rather than a lecture about right and wrong.
  • Sometimes a child will announce, “S/he’s not sharing!”  We treat these episodes with as much calm as possible, since usually the child means, “S/he isn’t giving me the thing that I want right now!” and often that is because the other child is still using it.  “You have to share!” children will say to each other in the beginning, and they mean you should give me some of what you have (but the other child has a right to say no).  If there’s only one of something, then we’ll have to take turns, which is a little different than sharing.
  • We validate the fact that sometimes children need a lot of certain things, and that we don’t expect everything to be equal all the time.  We almost always have more on hand (playdough, animals, shovels, balls, whatever it is), especially when children are very young and haven’t had much practice waiting for a turn.  When someone does decide to share, we wonder aloud about how flexible they are being, and call attention to the happy expression on the face of the receiver.  Notice that we don’t say, “Good job!” or praise them directly.  We don’t want them to share in order to win our approval, we want them to notice how their behavior affects the other child.  However, we don’t shame the person who can’t share.  We know when they’ve had that experience of ownership and had the power to decide for themselves enough times, this issue will resolve itself.  It always does.  The kindness inside them wants to share, even if they can’t do it today.
  • If there is only one or very few of something (a swing, a special new toy, or a certain type of doll), we decide together if the problem can be solved with a simple, “Can I have that when you’re done?”  Sometimes we have to translate that to the other child, “That means, when you’re all finished and you don’t want it anymore, s/he will have it next.  You say yes.”  Then the adults follow through with reminding the child to give it to the other person when you see them not using it anymore.
  • If the child waiting is really in distress, or it will be a very long wait, the adult’s job is to help that child wait (developing frustration tolerance is important!), not to pressure the person who has the desired item.  We might point out that if you watch the person who has the thing you want, it will make waiting harder, and suggest, “Let’s find something else to do while you’re waiting!”  Occasionally, if there are many children waiting, a sand timer or a turns list come into play, but we like to stay away from timers in general, because again, we don’t want the adults to be the “sharing police” when the children could possibly monitor it themselves.
  • We do have a “problem-solving chart” that is used in sharing struggles, but that is another topic for another day!  We also “redo” unsuccessful attempts to take something away from someone else, and act out problems at our gathering time, but that is also another post.
  • There are times when, after they have had experience with our methods and are a little older, that the adults will apply some pressure to share.  For example, if one child has SO much more than anyone else at the table and several children are unhappy, we might point out the obvious inequity, and ask if anyone at the table could help the children who don’t have any/enough.  Even if some children aren’t willing to part with what they’ve collected, if some are willing and the others are satisfied, we don’t intervene further.
  • Our philosophy is that if the children are feeling proud of having worked something out, our adult concepts of “fairness” are not that relevant.  If they all don’t have exactly the same amount, that’s okay.  With that said, if we can read faces or body language that some aren’t comfortable speaking up but aren’t happy either, we will help those children.  We will ask if s/he wants us to speak up for him or her, and usually s/he will nod.  If the child doesn’t respond, but still looks unhappy, a teacher might say, “Well, I don’t feel comfortable with what I’m seeing, because so-and-so wants to play and has hardly any…” and wait for a response.  The children understand that we will keep talking about it until the problem is solved, and they all want the problem to be over so they can get back to playing!
  • If none of that works, the teacher might suggest that a teacher could divide the items fairly and give everyone the same amount.  Sometimes the children are relieved with that proposal, and sometimes (especially the older kids) don’t want that and will hurriedly give up some of what they have to keep the adults out of it!
  • We don’t allow grabbing from other people.  If it’s in someone’s hand, or directly in front of them, you have to ask if you can have it.  A grabbed item will always be returned to the original user, and we will help the child who has to wait find something else.
  • There are “gray areas” of ownership.  For example, a child is still using that bowl, they just went to go get some water for it.  They are coming right back to that spot, but they went to get a coat or go to the bathroom.  They dropped the thing by mistake.  We encourage children to have someone “save” an item that they’re coming back to (give it to a teacher, ask a friend to hold it, put a “save” sign on it) and when these disputes develop, the original user has the benefit of the doubt (unless we saw them clearly having moved on to something else).  We tell them, “Everyone here decides when they are finished with something.  S/he said s/he’s not finished yet.  When it’s your turn you can use it for as long as you want.”  On the other hand, sometimes we have to comfort the person who was using something much earlier and wants it back.  “If you leave the area or start playing with something else, your turn is over.  You can have another turn when this person is finished.”
  • We treat all conflicts as neutrally as possible, and assume that every undesired behavior (grabbing, hitting, pushing) is simply a mistake and had they been able to think of other options, they wouldn’t have done that.  We let them know that hurting isn’t okay, but the important thing is that we’re all learning and most conflicts at school boil down to a misunderstanding!  Maybe the person didn’t know how to wait, or didn’t know we had more, or thought that they were still using something (that they actually put down half an hour ago, but seeing it in someone else’s hand raised the alarm).
  • We approach both sides of the dispute in as friendly a manner as we can, and don’t try to rush the discussion.  Sometimes we need to take some breaths first, or ask another child not directly involved in the conflict for insight about what happened.  The day I realized that we are not in a hurry to get through problems or “fix” anyone’s feelings was the day I really got better at helping children who don’t know how to share yet.  When we do find a solution to a problem, we all revel in the relief of everyone feeling better.  Our biggest goal with children is to help them see the good in each other as much as possible.