Social Skills Life Lessons: Assertion and Empathy

Between Second Step and the Kelso initiative our school has used in the last few years, I've learned a lot about social-emotional curricula.  However, I still find the most interesting teaching happens in context.  When kids are "working on a fun activity," be it academic, gym, or recess, they see conflict as a personal affront to their fun time.  So for some kids, "fun activities" become just as stressful as taking a test!

Today I was presented with just such an issue.  I came upstairs after lunch ten minutes early, so indoor recess was in full swing and the issues started without me.  "Jimmy" came up to me to let me know that he was playing a game, and "Donald" wasn't playing fair/following the rules of the game.  He was being silly. 

Well, if these were 5 year olds I'd probably go explain how to play, and solve their problem for them.  But these are 10 year olds, and we have talked about assertion as part of our school's character education program since they were third graders.  I no longer feel that it's my role to step in and say, "You're playing wrong" as long as they're not hurting each other.

It depends on the students, of course.  But I know Jimmy and Donald have been friends since WAY back.  They visit each other's houses all the time.  They know how to get along together, even if they are what Millhouse refers to as, "friends of convenience."  Neighborhood friends who don't have the same interests, intelligence, attention span, or emotional maturity, but they have long known and accepted each other's quirks.  And having spats is a natural part of any relationship that stinks, but kids need to learn how to move past them.

So I told "Jimmy," that "If you don't like how Donald is playing, you need to tell him, 'Stop doing that; it's not funny anymore, and if you don't stop, I'm going to play with someone else.'" 

Jimmy started to tear up.  "But he's really the only one I play with."

If that was true, I'd have felt bad.  But it's not.  Jimmy has lots of friends in class.  He's athletic and plays football at recess.  No, I realized that this was not a case of Jimmy being powerless and trapped at an activity, it was a case of feeling wronged by a close friend.  And yet, if I went over to Donald to tell him to knock it off, that wasn't really going to fix the way Jimmy was feeling.  I pointed out the other kids in class who he could join, and repeated that he needed to tell Donald to stop, and if he wasn't having fun, to find something else to do.  He blinked back the tears in his eyes, took out a book, and pretended to read it with the book in his lap and his head down.

Well, that didn't fix the problem either.

So I called Donald over to my desk.  He's impulsive and silly, but he really does have a heart of gold, and I am certain he hates to see people upset.  So when he said, "What?"  I paused for a few moments and asked quietly, "Are you friends with Jimmy?"

"Yeah" (lots of nodding).

"Look at what you did to him."

He looked over at Jimmy, bent behind his desk, hiding his face.

"He's upset with the way you were acting when you were playing.  If you're really his friend, you need to go over there and talk to him."

And he did.

It was that simple.

Last year when I had recess duty, when I tried to solve their problems for them, before they were in my class and I really understood their relationship, it didn't work.  They still squabbled, neither of them were happy, and it wasted their recess time trying to sort it out.

Now that they're a year older, they're ready to work things out with just a little nudge in the right direction.  Jimmy sat up straighter after Donald talked to him.  No squabbling, no hard feelings, no sulking that carried into their next period class.  Jimmy knows that Donald is silly and impulsive, and I think he probably knew that recess is the one time Donald doesn't get in trouble for it, so he needs to go for it sometimes!  But Jimmy also needed that little affirmation that it was nothing personal; Donald wasn't trying to make him look bad or tease him in front of the other players.    

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