Setting up Boundaries

Last month we touched upon ways that adults can help empower children to learn ways to problem solve, specifically in regards to conflict resolution.  Dealing with children in the moment is a great way to help children learn to apply new skills.  As with all new skills, the best way to teach is through engaging the learner, in this case the child or children involved in a conflict.  Engagement of participants is also desirable when we are talking about setting up proactive systems, or rules in our homes and schools which provide structure and boundaries. Setting up rules lays the foundation for conflict resolution if a dispute arises.  Let’s examine this topic a little more deeply.

First, we need to accept the fact that conflict will arise.  When we are living and working with children, these conflicts can escalate quickly as children are first learning to recognize and to control emotions.  When setting up rules, we need to set aside time before a conflict occurs to discuss in concrete terms acceptable parameters for behavior.  Keep the age of the children in mind when creating rules, the younger the children, the shorter the list.  When dealing with young children, a general rule of thumb is one rule for each year old of the youngest child (family), or average age (classroom).  Since two year olds are starting to assert their independence, this is a great age to start by repeating the basics when correcting and redirecting behavior, for example (age 2 – 2 rules!) “We do not hurt other people” and “I need to keep you safe.” Yes, two year olds will still protest being moved away from a toy or activity, but you are also offering information as to why the rule needs to be enforced.  Granted, your words may not always be heard, but you are modeling important behaviors that a young child will internalize before being able to verbalize their own actions.

Second, we need to engage the learner – that is, we need to include children in age-appropriate ways when setting up the rules.  In our example in the paragraph above, our two-year-old is not able to participate actively in rule making, however, since we have been verbalizing the rules to the child, by age 3 most children can contribute.  Whether at home or in a class setting, start by asking the three-year-old child, or children, to state the first two rules, then ask them for suggestions for a rule #3.  I do not mean to imply that a preschooler runs your home or classroom, but that you take the opportunity to hear what the child in your care considers important.  You may be surprised.  Once several options are presented, as the adult, take charge to openly critique the possibilities and lead the group, or your child, to a final choice.  An example may be “Each child is allowed one special toy that needs to be put away when others are around to play.”  While the rule list may not be all inclusive, every rule on the list should be able to be enforced consistently.

Consistency is paramount when creating rules.  Children thrive on predictability.  To give rules meaning, a child needs to know the rules will be enforced.  Again, let’s look at our example above.  You are a teacher in a classroom of three-year-old children who are having Show and Tell time.  After the activity one of the children wants to play with the toy that someone else brought from home, and tries to invoke the group care mantra “we all share”.  You can support both children involved by pointing to rule #3 which everyone chose together, “I know you would like to play with Joey’s puzzle, but that is his one special toy…. Joey, you need to put your puzzle in your cubby now that Show and Tell has ended and we are all playing together.” Neither child is the “winner” or “loser” since both were involved in the creation of the rule, “What does Rule #3 say?”.  Of course, there still may be disappointment, that’s ok to acknowledge, but the solution is not a matter of choosing one child over the other.  When children are involved in setting up the rules ahead of time they are more likely to accept the consequence during a dispute, even if they are upset in the moment.

 All children will not respond equally.  Some of our kids may be living with needs which require a different approach than that which works with most.  Rules are important in setting up appropriate environments in which children can thrive, and the needs of each child needs to be considered when we examine our expectations.  Next month KIDapp will be hosting a guest blogger, an attorney practicing in education law, who will offer some information on how parents and schools can work together in developing appropriate accommodations for a child who needs special help.  Any parent or professional who has concern about a child in their care who just seems to need “more” will want to be sure to read this special article.  In the meantime, make some time to truly listen to a child.