Transforming Squabbles

by Betty Yoder


In the last several weeks I have heard myself repeatedly telling my students about my growing conviction that recess is a very important part of the day.  It truly is. Active playtime is consistent with how God created our bodies. It also offers regular and precious opportunities to mentor relationships as we discuss how sportsmanship.  Because respecting others and apologizing appropriately does not come naturally, recess is a natural time to teach those skills.

Those mentoring sessions can become both lengthy and draining, especially when I view them as stealing from my carefully crafted book-learning plans.  But when I affirm recess as a vital part of the day rather than begrudge the energy required to navigate all the variables in the differing opinions of whatever the current disagreement was about, it prepares me to listen to the Shepherd’s voice as He instructs me how to respond.  Truly, these are golden opportunities.

I find, to my relief, that they don’t really even need to feel very golden in the moment. Just acknowledging in my heart that this could actually be something positive rather than merely a rude interruption changes my perspective a tiny bit.  This miniature shift actually ends up giving me a smidgen more vision to step into the situation with redemptive grace.  I think that heart response would accurately reflect God’s thoughts, certainly more than begrudging the moment does.

Recently when thrust unwillingly into the midst of several students’ passionate recess complaints, I pondered anew various things the Lord has patiently been teaching me (over and over) the past years regarding recess squabbles.  What can guide me in effectively embracing these unwelcome, yet teachable, moments?  Only God, whose understanding no one can fathom (Is. 40:28b) is able to sort through the maze of multiple variables, but He ongoingly invites me to sit at His feet and learn from Him.

Here I offer a few ideas that have helped shape my responses to squabbles.

  1. Offended students must report complaints respectfully. It is important that students come to me quietly to report their displeasure.  Loudly proclaiming grievances in front of the whole class is not an option.  At the beginning of the year, we even practice how that looks. When they respectfully report to me how they felt disrespected by others, they have taken an important first step.  Isn’t that the Jesus way to live—to give to others what we wish for ourselves?
  2. As much as possible, limit the discussion to those involved. Although it may become a larger group discussion, if possible it should involve a small group – hopefully only with those involved.  I intentionally plan the day’s schedule so that, as much as possible, students have something they can work on without my immediate assistance—such as penmanship or a fact sheet—as soon as they come in from recess.  While it makes the transition back into the classroom much smoother after a recess break, it also helps when I have recess issues to deal with.  In this way, often the rest of the class can keep going while I step out with a couple students.
  3. Care about the child’s heart. It is important to care about the arrow of pain in the offended one’s heart.  Many a tear has been dried when, after listening carefully to discern the core pain behind the anger, I simply sat in quietness and then repeatedly affirmed that it matters how they feel.  Genuine care from the adult with words like, “I am so sorry you felt disrespected,” regularly hit the bull’s eye and help heal heart wounds.  After that, often the initial problem is no longer as big a deal. Everyone needs to know that what they feel matters, including children.

But I recently forgot this important lesson about caring for their hearts when I was reluctantly swept into several demanding complaints.  In retrospect, I easily made the connection between my spirit of unwillingness and feeling blocked from hearing and heeding the guiding voice of the Shepherd.  And it showed.  Afterwards, He gently reminded me of the importance of affirming their worth, of letting them know that it matters how they feel.  It would have made my interaction much more redemptive had I responded first by thoughtfully considering what lay behind their angry, blaming words.  Perhaps the greatest redemption of that recent failure is that it was this scenario that prompted me to ponder these lessons He has taught me over the years.

  1. Pursue direct interaction between the offended and the offender. Follow the Matthew 18 directive and have the offended child speak to the offender—usually in your presence. If a student reports a complaint to me, occasionally I interact with the offender alone before arranging for the two to talk.  But at some point there needs to be direct interaction between the two.  In fact if the offended child is not willing to be also involved in speaking to the offender, I figure it is OK for me to simply drop it.  End of matter.  When I do speak with the offender alone ahead of the confrontation, it works much better to approach him with, “Can you tell me what happened?” rather than assume Child A told me is the full story.  The Matthew 18 approach is very applicable to students of all ages. In fact, I suspect it is most easily lived out in the lowest grades.

Although I want to have the offended one do his own speaking, with timid students it works better for me to relate what I heard him say and then ask the child if I accurately conveyed what he is feeling.  Remember also how extremely intimidating it can be for a student to confront an offender who is several years older.  In both those scenarios, I assume a highly active role.  At some point, students are often ready to step out on their own, to try resolving differences without me along, but I choose to not push that before I sense they are ready.

A favorite memory is when an opinionated student respectfully reported to me a conflict with an equally opinionated student by simply saying, “Miss Yoder, I need to talk to           .”
“Sure, do you want me to be along?”
“No, I think we can handle it.”

Still without a clue as to what the issue was, I gave them permission to step outside to discuss their differences.  I could see glimpses of them through the window and saw dialogue happening while we continued with class inside.  After about ten minutes they both came in smiling broadly.  To this day I have no idea what happened, but I know it was good!   The fact that two equally passionate youngsters had been able to talk out their differences is to me a beautiful picture of how Matthew 18 works.

  1. Deal with the issue the day you become aware of it. Years ago, a mentor friend advised me of the need to acknowledge problems in a very timely manner.  He added that there are times you cannot completely deal with it that same day. In those cases, he simply tells the child that he needs time to think and pray about it and will get back with the following day.  Following this example has served me well.  I assume that was the basis for a mother reporting that her leader-in-training-son commented, “Miss Yoder thinks she has to pray about everything!”  I don’t know that it was meant as a compliment, but I received it as such.
  2. Eye contact is an essential part of apologizing. A mere “sorry” while looking down at the ground doesn’t cut it.  It is hard to look at someone in the eye when you are apologizing; this I have learned (over and over) from personal experience.  But something happens in my heart when I do it. Somehow it ushers in a more complete repentance.  As students learn this important discipline, I often have them practice on me what they will say to the offended one.  We practice not only the eye contact but actually verbalizing the underlying offense such as, “I am sorry for not respecting you,” rather than a meager “Sorry”.  I find that not forcing an immediate apology often brings about much deeper resolution.  It is OK to wait until later in the day or even the following day to apologize.  The Shepherd actively speaks to their hearts and He alone can prepare them to speak out of genuine repentance.
  3. Use questions more than statementsbut choose your questions carefully. Questions starting with “Why?” often invite blaming.  A goal is to have the offenders—usually there are are least two!—confess with their own mouths their own misdeeds.  “What” questions tend to work better for that.  But even the “what questions” can degenerate quickly.  Listening to each child involved in the conflict recount all the wrong things the other did, all the while angrily interrupting and arguing, rarely turns into redemption.  Sometimes, after getting a bit of a picture of the tangled mess (and realizing I have no clue of how to move forward) I have used the approach of asking each side to tell only what they themselves did wrong.  This is a real switch in thinking and swimming upstream is hard.  I found it might take a couple interruptions by the teacher, “Remember now you only say what you did wrong.  Who is strong enough to start?” before the entrance of that bit of silence that invariably foreshadows the redemption to come.

Child A starts, “I – I pushed (sniff, sniff) him first.”

Tears roll down his cheeks and suddenly Child B interrupts with, “And then I pushed him even harder.  It was really my fault.  I know he didn’t mean it.”

Confession, repentance, and mercy are beautiful companions.  It makes me think of Proverbs 18:13:  “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.”

To recap: Every day brings new dimensions to situations, and each scenario is different.  We can never lay it all out and simply follow step 1-2-3. We interact with humans all day long, not machines and formulas.  Only our kind Father is wise enough to navigate all the variables, but He does invite us to ask Him boldly for wisdom.

I continue to affirm my belief that recess is an essential part of school life. I choose daily either  to reject the mentoring opportunities recess times often generate or to receive them as teachable moments.  Using a new lens to see them, I can believe these glorious intruders actually invite Emmanuel to walk among us—the Messiah who regularly turns ashes into beauty.  After all, transformation is His specialty.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Betty Yoder

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