Hitting as Play: A Slippery Slope
Kindergarteners, like all people, hit for a range of reasons- it can be a form of play, while also an expression of anger. From my perspective, it is difficult to differentiate between the two. Furthermore, my students don’t always express their discomfort when someone hits them (identical to adults who don’t express their pain when someone is hurting them).
I often find a child at recess lying prostrate on the turf, with another child above them, in some sort of physical contact that appears aggressive. The first child smiles, as if in glee. As soon as I disentangle the situation, I ask that child if he or she enjoyed being hit. The answer is always “no”, and I remind the child that was being hit that their facial expression signaled an engagement to the other person that belied how it felt to be attacked.
Last Friday during a cold temperature-induced indoor recess, the kids were more wily than usual. I have found that the setting of the gym is conducive to increased hitting. The way that voices echo, the smaller space, and the alluring forbidden forest of the bleachers create an atmosphere of heightened tension.
My colleague told me that a boy in my class, Denel, “literally slammed Ryan to the ground.” I was surprised to hear this, and disturbed as well. Denel came to our school in early December and has had difficulty adjusting to academic and social expectations. On top of that, I have become aware of the lack of intonation in his voice. Whether he is reading, speaking, or interacting with adults or children, he faces the world with perpetually wide, round eyes, and speaks in a monotonous, fast, and high pitched voice. I rarely see him smile or grimace. Hearing that this almost robotic person had erupted into an act of aggression was particularly alarming to me.
As Denel sat out of recess, another boy, John, who is friends with Ryan, threw a ball at Denel. I didn’t witness this either, but my colleague saw it and soon John was sitting out as well. I decided it was time for a community meeting when recess was over, even though Denel, Ryan, John, and a fourth boy, Jeffrey, do not set the tone for the classroom culture. They are limited in their verbal expression, and have a challenging time staying in-sync with classroom conversations and routines. I was not worried that this group's physical violence would spread. But I was concerned that it would become a pattern amongst them, so I wanted to address it with something larger than my intervention. On top of that, it was Friday afternoon, 2 hours before the weekend, and I was too tired and impatient to meditate a truth and reconciliation commission on my own.
Earlier this week, a friend of mine, also a teacher, and I were exchanging social-emotional conflict resolution tools and strategies that we have been using in the classroom. He suggested that I look into a system called ‘sanctuary’. I had never heard of it but immediately the word conjured images of cathedrals and monks who had taken vows of silence. Even though the name didn't sell it to me, my friend’s explanation was intriguing. He explained that sanctuary required the class to fishbowl the group of students with a conflict; the class was to sit in a circle, while the people with the problem sat inside the circle and held a discussion about what happened. This was my understanding of sanctuary, at this point. I hadn’t so much as Googled it to find out more. While it was somewhat irresponsible of me to unroll it without educating myself further, I decided to try it.
We came back from recess and I told the class that some teammates needed to resolve a conflict. The four boys sat knee-to-knee in the center and the rest of us sat in a circle. I told the class that their only job was to listen, and ask questions. I improvised this latter responsibility- I didn't even remember what my friend had told me about the role of the audience, but I knew that the boys in the middle would need to be prompted while having the conversation, and I knew that the people on the outside needed a way to stay engaged.
Ryan turned to Denel and said, “You pushed me on the ground at recess.” Denel responded with a reflexive, “Sorry." They looked at me for my approval that they had resolved the problem. I told them that what happened was so unsafe that “sorry” wasn't enough. I asked the class if they could help. Tina jumped in without missing a beat “Denel,” she said in a calm and caring voice, “why did you push Ryan?” Denel, with his elbows on his knees, and his hands under his chin, responded in his only voice, “Because I thought Ryan was a monster.”
The room was silent for a moment. I kept a straight face and in my mind noted that perhaps there are complicated connections happening in Denel’s mind, and noted the potential need for an emotional and maybe even psychiatric evaluation. The other students were silent too. I assume they thought that the comment was unacceptably offensive and were wondering how I would respond. I waited for someone to ask, “How do you think it makes him feel when you call him a monster?” No one did. Instead, Tina asked one of the most brilliant and eye opening questions I have heard all year.
“Were you playing the monster game?”
This question jerked me back into reality. I was stunned about how far I had gone into the pathologizing adult world. I was embarrassed about how myopic and pessimistic I had been in interpreting Denel’s answer. I was also in awe of Tina. She is able to navigate through and analyze the child’s perspective, while also having a deep understanding of the way many adults want to run the world (her next statement demonstrates this second intelligence). Her emotional intelligence of being able to empathize and relate to a variety of perspectives is unparalleled.
The boys in the middle of the circle immediately responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” to her question. John added, “We were playing the monster game and the swing your friends around game.” Someone asked, “Why?”. “Because it was fun.” Tina, breaking protocol, made a statement instead of asking a question. “You should only play games that are app…” and then her voice got faint, and she tucked her chin in, a slight bashful smile on her face, as she shied away from using a big word that she might mispronounce. “That are appropriate,” she whispered.
At this point I decided to jump in. I could feel the kids starting to get antsy, and I felt that we had uncovered enough misunderstandings to create takeaways and next steps. I asked Tina what appropriate is. She said an appropriate game is one that is good, and a not-appropriate game is one that is bad. Someone asked, “What’s a bad game?” Another student responded, “ A bad game is one where someone gets hurt, and a good game is one where no one gets hurt.” I asked them to invert this to the positive, and another student said, “An appropriate game is one where everyone stays safe.” I addressed the boys in the center, and asked how it felt to play the monster game today. "It felt scary," said Ryan.
I pointed out that even though they thought the game would be fun by the end it was scary. Denel jumped in to defend himself again, “I thought he was a monster.” In a classic moment of child forgiveness, Ryan responded, in a silly voice, “I’m not a monster, I don’t have a tail, I don’t have a tongue.” The kids, reacting to his purposefully humorous tone, started laughing loudly. Ryan continued, in the same voice, to list a variety of things that he wasn’t: "I’m not chicken nuggets, I don’t have …..” I couldn’t understand a lot of what he was saying, but every person in the room, including myself was laughing in gratitude for this comic relief.
Our classroom had returned to being a safe and joyful setting. Our sanctuary had been restored.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.