We hold these as truths: children are competent, strong, resilient, resourceful and driven toward relationship with each other, with ideas, and with the world. Though they come to us as full citizens of the world, they do need us. What can we as adults offer them? Tools and techniques we have learned from experience. The loan of control when theirs is not quite sufficient for the situation. The loan of confidence while theirs is still growing.

What does this look like? How does our adult-child interaction reflect our image of the child? And how do we stay consistent with that interaction so that children come to trust our support? That’s what this post, adapted from a Young Children article[1] from some time ago, is about. Read on….

Five-year-old J’Quan is playing with a racecar in his Kindergarten classroom. He puts the car down to attend to another part of his block-corner racetrack. Anthony, a newcomer to the block corner this morning, sees the racecar on the floor and picks it up. J’Quan, seeing that he is about to lose his car, quickly grabs it. A tug of war ensues, with both children angry and shouting, and play is disrupted around the room as a crowd of children gathers. The teacher arrives at the block corner to find both boys in tears.

Here is where some teachers might swoop in and make a decision for the boys: J’Quan had it first so he should have it. Or J’Quan took it out of Anthony’s hand, so Anthony should have it. Or she might even punish both boys for their emotional outburst. Sound familiar? If we follow through with that trajectory, we would see that it results in shame, anger or passivity…none of them conducive to learning, or supportive of the boys’ relationship.

Fortunately, J’Quan and Anthony’s teacher understands that the boys can resolve this problem (and similar ones) in a way that will result not in anger or shame, but in growth in the boys’ arsenal of strategies for resolving conflict and in a stronger friendship. When Anthony picked up the car and J’Quan objected, their teacher, sensing tension in that corner of the room, walked up to the boys, close enough to touch them. Feeling slightly safer, J’Quan relaxes a bit, although Anthony still holds onto the car. The teacher says calmly, “J’Quan, you were playing with the car and put it down to check on the other parts of your racetrack?” J’Quan nods but doesn’t say anything to Anthony. The teacher wants J’Quan to understand that his words are what will get his car back. Kneeling at eye level and as close to Anthony as she is to J’Quan, the teacher pauses a moment and then says, “What can you say to Anthony to get your car back?” J’Quan looks at the teacher and says, “I was playing with it first?” The teacher nods and smiles and, after a few seconds says, “And what do you want to ask Anthony to do?” J’Quan answers tentatively, “Give me the car back?” Again, the teacher nods. J’Quan turns to Anthony and says, “I was playing with it first. Can I have it back now?” Anthony gives the racecar back. J’Quan says, “Here, you can have this truck. Wanna help me make the rest of the road?” The teacher, seeing that the boys have solved the problem, quietly leaves them to their play.

The different outcome of the second scenario is due in part to adult support early in the interaction and to the teacher having a flexible set of strategies to use…a plan for helping J’Quan and Anthony use language rather than their bodies to get what they want. Having such a plan can also support the interdependence we hope that children will develop within their learning communities: children supporting each other in play, with relationship nudging ownership aside in importance when they seem to be in conflict with each other.

The Adult-Child Interaction Continuum

The teacher in the second scenario engaged a plan of teacher-child interaction that we used in my classroom for 25 years with great success. The Adult-Child Interaction Continuum (ACIC)[2] represents a continuum of adult responses, strategies to try in sequence when interacting with children who are facing a problem of one kind or another (see Figure 1). The left side of the continuum represents the least amount of teacher intervention. The teacher exerts little of her control, because the children in the situation handle the problem themselves, perhaps needing only the teacher’s presence and moral support to do so. The right side of the continuum represents the greatest amount of teacher intervention. The teacher engages in this level of intervention if the children can exercise little or no control over a situation without borrowing control from the teacher. Each increment going from left to right on the continuum represents the teacher’s use of just a little more control to supplement the child’s.

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Using The Continuum

 If our hope is that children eventually use language to solve problems interdependently, we want to start on the left side of the continuum and go only as far to the right as needed for the children to speak for or solve the problems for themselves. For example, when Anthony took the racecar with which J’Quan had been playing, J’Quan’s job was to use language to get it back. The teacher started at the left side of the continuum and went only as far to the right as necessary to give J’Quan the support he needed to ask for the racecar back. At first she simply approached the children and looked on. If the children already had strategies for solving the problem, the mere support of an adult’s presence might have been enough to spur them to begin to negotiate. The teacher waited a moment to allow this to happen. When it didn’t, she moved one increment to the right on the continuum, becoming one increment more “helpful.” She made a nondirective statement, a statement that put into words what happened. She could also have made another statement to help J’Quan find words for his feelings: “J’Quan, you looked angry when Anthony took the racecar you were playing with.” If that had been enough to trigger a strategy in J’Quan’s mind so that he could say something like, “Yeah. Give me back my racecar,” the teacher would have then turned her attention to Anthony, to support his response. Because J’Quan did not respond to the indirect statement, the teacher then asked a “What question”: “What can you say to Anthony to get your car back?” (or “What can you do to get your car back?”) Teachers try not to “Why did you…” questions. Children may not know why and may feel a need to make something up to please us. Essentially worthless why’s. J’Quan looked at his teacher and asked, “Give me the car back?” The teacher supported J’Quan with a smile and nod, and J’Quan asked Anthony for the car back. If J’Quan had not asked Anthony for the car, however, the teacher would then have made a directive statement, perhaps saying, “J’Quan, tell Anthony, ‘Please give me my car back.’” If J’Quan could not do this, the teacher would have said, “It looks as if you are not ready to ask for the racecar back. Let’s see what else you can use.” The physical support component of the Continuum is unnecessary in this situation.

It is important to note that the teacher did not solve the problem for J’Quan and Anthony. If she had, the answer to the question, “What’s being learned here?” would be

  • J’Quan is learning that he cannot solve this problem himself and that the teacher will do it for him.
  • Anthony is learning that the teacher can make him do what she wants, not that he must respond to J’Quan’s words or that J’Quan won’t let him take things away.

Fortunately, the boys’ teacher knows that by spending the time supporting their negotiation, they learn

  • that their words are powerful
  • they must respond to the language of others, even if that entails counter-arguments until an agreement is made
  • It feels good to resolve conflict through negotiation. Relationships remain intact.

When helping children solve their problems, the adult tries to remain calm and matter-of-fact. Learning to use words to solve problems is a cognitive task. If the child senses that his teacher is angry or upset, her anger and his feelings may become salient for him, and he will not be able to attend to the problem-solving process.

Antagonist and The Victim: Addressing the Injured Party First

 In a situation involving a dispute between two children, we want to engage the ACIC focusing on the “victim” (if there is one) first. By helping children learn strategies for using language to get what they want, we support their learning…and teaching other children…that they are not victims. If, during the ACIC process, the “victim” uses her language, the teacher’s attention then turns to the other child (remembering again to start near the left side of the continuum). The teacher first looks on for a moment, to give Anthony (in this scenario) a chance to respond to J’Quan’s language. If Anthony does not respond (or says, “No”), the teacher would make a nondirective statement: “Anthony, J’Quan had the car first, and he asked you to give it back.” If Anthony gives it back, the teacher shifts to offering whatever additional support either boy needs (for example, if J’Quan hadn’t offered Anthony an alternative, the teacher could have). If Anthony does not give the racecar back, the teacher would ask a “What?” question: “J’Quan asked for the racecar back. What can you do now?” If Anthony still does not give the toy back, the teacher makes a directive statement: “Anthony, J’Quan asked for the car back. He had it first. Please give it to him now.” If Anthony still cannot part with the racecar, the teacher repeats the statement and gently takes the toy from Anthony and gives it to J’Quan (physical support). She must then be ready to help Anthony save face and find something else to use in order to stay in that play if he wants to. With a calm and nonjudgmental demeanor, using care not to “take sides,” but to support both children in their roles in solving the problem, the teacher demonstrates the problem-solving process and the children learn strategies that they can use another time. Children also learn the spirit of helpfulness demonstrated by the teacher, and they will often pull back into play the children with whom they were arguing moments before.

What If There Is No “Victim” and No “Antagonist?”

 As children get more interdependent at resolving their arguments, the problems for which teacher support is needed become more complex. No longer is there a clear protagonist and injured party. Rather, there are misunderstandings, hurt feelings, or complex conflicts of interest at play. The continuum works as well in these situations as in simpler ones, but our expectations change. Whereas our goal for toddlers may have been for them to say, “No!” or “Stop!” instead of grabbing or hitting, older preschoolers can use more elaborate language: “I don’t like it when you…” or “I had it first. Please give it back.” Later still, children engage in more sophisticated negotiation as we help them learn to “make deals,” such as, “You can play with it first, and then it’s my turn,” or “We’ll both play with it. It can be a truck to carry your stuff and my stuff.” Children can come up with these kinds of compromises collaboratively, often with a little support from an adult.

It sometimes helps to set up a system for proposing solutions to a problem. For example, if Sasha has an idea but Leah rejects it, it becomes Leah’s turn to think of an idea, different from those she has proposed already…an important guideline for this system, lest the interaction turn into a “yes-no” battle. The protagonists can call other children to help with ideas if they want to. Of course, the teacher can make suggestions as well, although the children are free to accept or reject those ideas. It’s not always comfortable to support children with strong, opposing ideas as they engage in a long back-and-forth, neither agreeing with the other’s proposals. But in my experience, eventually the children’s ideas come closer and closer to each other, and agreement is accomplished. Children usually emerge from the experience with renewed energy for the play or project that the disagreement threatened to disrupt.

How Does A Teacher Know When To Engage?

 If children are emotionally distraught, they will not be able to think, and the problem-solving process will be lost to them. Intervention must begin before an argument gets heated. At the first sign of tension, the teacher can approach the children calmly and silently and simply “look on.” She may not need to engage. She can then just walk away, unless her physical presence is just the support the children need to solve their own problem. If the children cannot resolve their conflict, she is there to help before they become flooded emotionally and lose the ability to think and before play is disrupted permanently.

What About Tattling?

 Celie runs up to her teacher on the playground.

Celie: Teacher, Lucy is being mean to me!

Teacher: She’s being mean to you, and it looks as if you are really angry. (Indirect statement. Unspoken Message: “Tell me more.” If Celie does not elaborate, the teacher will make other efforts to hear what is on Celie’s mind.)

Celie: She won’t let me play in the sandbox with her!

Teacher: What do you suppose you could do if you want to play there? (“What” question. Unspoken Message: “I know you can solve this problem.”)

Celie: I could ask her…but I already did and she wouldn’t!

Teacher: Would you like me to go with you while you ask again? (Equivalent of looking on. Unspoken Message: “I am here to support you while you use your words to get what you want.”)

Celie nods, and together they walk over to the sandbox. Celie again asks Lucy if she can play, and this time, with the nonjudgmental adult there, Lucy invites her in.

Teachers often feel annoyed by “tattling” and find themselves either contradicting (“Oh, I’m sure she wasn’t being mean!”) or commandeering the problem (“Lucy, let Celie play in the sandbox.”). The ACIC can help us to focus on what the child is really asking of us and to respond in a way that will help her learn to handle the situation better another time.

Sometimes children “tattle” in search of comfort, simply needing to tell what happened. Once bolstered by contact with the adult, they can then go back into play. Only by listening to the child who is complaining can we determine whether she just needs an ear or needs our help to get what she wants through socially acceptable means. If she needs our help and we dismiss the problem (and the tattler), we are not helping the child learn strategies for solving her own problems. If we respond to tattling by settling the issue ourselves, as by reprimand or decree, we are not helping the child learn strategies but may be encouraging her to use the teacher as a “weapon.” By giving Celie a chance to express what she thinks is really happening, and then by giving her the support she needs to solve the problem, we help Celie learn that she can expect others to respond to her language…that using words works. And Lucy learns that she is expected to respond to the language of others.

When Tempers Flare

At times it is necessary to violate the left-side orientation of the ACIC to assure the physical safety of the children. If a child is wielding a block over the head of a classmate, for example, the teacher’s first action is physical support, i.e. taking away the block. Then she can move from right to left on the continuum (from physical support to directive statement): “I can’t let you hit anyone with a block. I need to keep everyone here safe.”

The Emotional Development Component

 Using the ACIC helps teachers know what strategies for managing frustration and getting what they want children have. That knowledge, in turn, allows teachers to offer enough support for a child without offering too much, thereby landing on that “sweet spot” where learning occurs best. Learning strategies for negotiating is a cognitive endeavor. Controlling one’s response to feelings in the face of conflict is an emotional task. Using the ACIC allows the teacher to supplement emotional control for the child, and having a cognitive overlay to the emotion of frustration does support children’s emotional development. If a child has all the language he needs to solve problems with a friend but doesn’t have the emotional control to use that language, the ACIC helps the teacher supplement the child’s emotional control as his grows robust enough for him to negotiate without support. Similarly, if he has the emotional maturity he needs but not the language, the teacher using the ACIC can offer the child the words to express his thoughts and negotiate for what he wants.

Introducing The Continuum

 Whenever children encounter more than one adult at school, consistency in the adult-child interaction can be a challenge. Some teachers lean more toward “let the children solve it themselves” and some toward “let me give them guidance.” When all adults in the classroom use the ACIC, however, we can come closer to maintaining consistency. The ACIC also offers a common vocabulary for adults to discuss and evaluate their interactions with children. In our classrooms, each adult who will work with the children is given a copy of the continuum and a short introduction on how it is used.

We also share the continuum with parents, usually at parent-teacher conferences. Parents appreciate knowing that we have a plan to help children learn to solve problems themselves. When a child complains at home about an interaction with another child, parents armed with the ACIC can use it to talk about the interaction with the child. They might say, “That sounds upsetting.” Pause for the child to respond. If he doesn’t, the parent might say, “What did you do then?” or “What do you think you could have done?” That way, the parent knows whether the child knows a strategy that might have helped and, if not, can offer suggestions for next time.

The ACIC As An Alternative

 When teachers habitually solve problems for children, the children tend to become dependent upon adults in the face of conflicts. Or, if left alone to solve a problem without strategies, the child may do so emotionally. I have observed “pecking orders” develop in classrooms where children are sent back to the scene to “work it out.” When we ask ourselves, “What’s being learned here?” the answers are frightening. In the classroom where teachers are solving the problems (“All right, since you two can’t share, no one will have the car!” or “Give it back, Anthony!”) the children are not learning to solve the problem themselves; they are not learning to use language to negotiate, nor are they learning to respond to the language of their peers; they are learning to remain dependent. In the classroom where children are left to solve their problems without adult support (“You two will have to solve this yourselves.”), some children are learning that they can dominate without considering the feelings of others; others learn that they are powerless in the presence of more assertive children. In neither situation do the children feel as safe or as competent as they could.

The ACIC can free teachers from the uncertainty of not having a plan --- of “shooting from the hip” and perhaps reacting unpredictably to children’s needs. If we want respect to characterize our interactions with children, it helps to have a plan for difficult times so that, flustered, we don’t lose the consistent tone children trust we will have.

Use of the ACIC can facilitate teachers’ trust in children’s increasing ability to control their own interactions. The ACIC can be a flexible, liberating tool for teachers. Care must be taken to avoid allowing it to become a rigid instrument. We must also give ourselves time to become comfortable with it and leniency when we make mistakes. The ACIC can help us keep in mind the reasons we do what we do and our image of the child as capable and resourceful, with positive intent and a drive toward relationship.

[1]Oken-Wright, P. “From Tug of War to ‘Let’s Make a Deal’: The Teacher’s Role,” Young Children, Nov. 1992

[2] Adapted from Dr. Charles Wolfgang’s Teacher Behavior Continuum. Personal communication.