A big part of what we do is reframing (or translating in the most positive way) whatever negative thing a child notices another child doing. Of course, it’s easy to notice the positive moments between peers and highlight those, and we do. When children are smiling and laughing with each other, playing together or just playing near each other, or even wearing similar clothes, we are pointing it out, always looking for opportunities to help children notice others and feel connected to them. Even fleeting alliances add up over time and help to construct and shore up the foundation of goodwill required for friendship.

But what about when children offer less “likable” behaviors when placed in close proximity to other children? What about when children protest that others are in their space, or taking things, or yelling, or whatever else feels in the moment to be a “wrong” behavior? The first step is to put on your detective hat. You don’t know what happened before that action, so don’t assume that there is a right or wrong in this scenario. You are a friendly helper to both sides in this misunderstanding. The “action” that is being complained about is not the most important thing. The more attention you give to the specific undesirable behavior, the more likely it is that you’ll see it again (think of that as “watering a weed” you don’t want in your garden). What you want is for both sides to feel heard, and to begin to understand that the other person had a plan too, even if they didn’t go about getting what they wanted in the most seamless way.

“She’s copying me!!” Turn it around? She likes you so much, she wants to do whatever you do! What a compliment, to be liked and to have people want to be with you.

“She took my…” Turn it around? Hmm, I wonder how that happened! Did she find it somewhere? Oh, she didn’t know you were using it, she thought it was available. Let’s figure this out, about who will use it now and who will have it next.

“He pushed me!” Turn it around? Oh, he was so scared in the chase game that all he could think about was getting away! Should we tell him, “Don’t put your hand on my back”….?

“He is sitting too close to me!” Turn it around? Oh, yes, I see he is close to you. You can say, “Please move over, I need more space.” And then, to the child who is too close, Did you want her to notice you? You can smile and say, “Hi, I’m next to you!”

The point is, always assume good intentions, and the possibility of a simple breakdown in communication, rather than “misbehavior” that demands correction. If children knew of a better way to get their needs met and get people to like them, they would do that. All people would rather be liked.

Even if this is a child who frequently does impulsive things or hurts people accidentally (kids who scare or injure others on purpose is a different post), that usually just means s/he needs their “translator” to be extra close, to make sure that intentions are clear and predictions are made out loud *before* the hurting action can occur. Sometimes that means wondering out loud what will happen next when you see that child’s eyes following a toy in someone else’s hands, or body language that indicates that their “engine” is revving up to the point of disorganization. Sometimes that means warning other children to move out of the way!

Talking casually to the group during play about children’s likes and dislikes (this child doesn’t like to be touched unexpectedly, or doesn’t like loud noises, or feels nervous about climbing), about their past experiences (yesterday this child had to wait so long to use his or her favorite toy, s/he feels extra sensitive about sharing it now), or about what they’re working with today (this child had a hard drop-off, or forgot to eat snack, or has grandparents visiting this week) helps us all to consider the fact that children are people, and no one has it all figured out. Even if s/he just did something you (either another child, or the teacher) didn’t like, mistakes are allowed and expected.

Wouldn’t it be nice if adults did this for other adults that irritate them? To try to paint the action in the most generous light possible: not personal, well-intentioned, a misstep, a reaction to something that happened earlier? One of the confusing things about life is that in the movies there are purely good guys and unredeemable bad guys, while in the “real” world it’s not that simple. Everyone has good in them and bad, good days and bad days, friends that are easy to get along with and others that are challenging. We all have good and bad thoughts, make good and bad choices, and hope to be seen and loved anyway. People that feel cared for become caring, and isn’t that the atmosphere we’re trying to create?

“You can’t teach children to behave better by making them feel worse. When children feel better, they behave better.” –Pam Leo, in Connection Parenting