Pre-K classes, as a whole, sometimes have a difficult time communicating in kind ways. Many of the interactions start out as one child attempting to make another child laugh. Humor can be a bit elusive when you are 4 and 5. For instance, one child might be making silly rhymes and decides to begin using other friends names to rhyme with. Sometimes, the other children find this hilarious, other times they are deeply offended.
Generally in Pre-K, this behavior begins innocently enough. Young children are innate social scientists and are trying a variety of actions and communicative options to find the ones that best define them and help them find their place in their cohort of peers. Some of these experiments work out (friends laugh and want to play with you) and some fail (friends get mad at you or yell or cry). As humans, we take these experiments and store their outcomes for future reference. Our job as adults is to recognize these attempts and help the children navigate their way through both the successes and the failures.
Children often have a very hard time dealing with the botched attempts at communicating their thoughts and might become sullen, angry, or even react in what appears to be a mean way. The adults can assist by helping the child recognize that everyone makes social mistakes. It is o.k. to tell a joke that nobody gets. However, we need to be aware of the feelings of those around us. If our attempt at humor has hurt someone’s feelings, it is our job to apologize and let them know that we were not trying to hurt them.
If you imagine this behavior as a way of “saving face”, it might help you understand what the children are going through when they make a social blunder. When Bill tells Cindy that her picture looks like a pumpkin head eating a popsicle and Cindy gets mad and starts to cry, Bill may have no idea what to do next. He is now also confused and hurt because he thought what he was saying was funny. Making a mean comment in response to Cindy’s tears can be his way of dealing with this confusion. As adults, we know that this response is not acceptable, so we need to help Bill learn what to do in the face of his mistake.
First, he needs permission to be able to say, “Whoops! That was the wrong thing to say.” We usually just jump right to, “Wow, you are being really mean, Bill.” I do not deny that children can be mean, but many times the behaviors I see in my classroom are more often social interactions gone wrong. Bill needs to know that although his words were not appreciated, he has the power to recognize the mistake and move on.
Second, Bill must be shown how he can revise his statement. If he truly isn’t angry at Cindy and really was just trying to be friendly, a chance to make amends is very important. In our class we practice saying, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I was trying to be silly.” If more of an apology of action is necessary, he should be supported as he goes through this process. The point is not punishment, but learning. We are practicing “What to do when you mess up: 101”.
The acceptance that we all make social mistakes and have the power to attempt reconciliation is important throughout our lives. Practice at the early childhood stage will support their growth in this area as they reach their very awkward teen years. Most adults that I know could certainly use a little permission to not be perfect, but to simply do their best.