Classroom Discipline: Taking Toys

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During one of my more recent workshops we were discussing observation and what to do if there is a conflict in the classroom. “If we don’t know who had a toy first, and two kids are fighting over it,” said a teacher, “its okay to take the toy and put it up, right?”

Why We Shouldn’t Take Toys

It is almost a reflex that we have, as teachers: if children are fighting over a toy, we put the toy up and give the children a chance to cool off, usually saying something like, “If you can’t play with the toy without fighting over it, then you won’t be able to play with it.” The problem with using this method is that most tug-of-wards over toys happen because children don’t know the words to use to express what they want, so they try to take. If we are simply taking the toy away and moving the children to another activity, they aren’t learning the words that they need in order to prevent a tug-of-war from happening again. Children need to learn how to stand up for themselves and say “NO” to another child that is trying to take their work, or even trying to harm them in some way. This teaches assertiveness, a key skill that children need that will enable them to stand up to bullying and other threatening behaviors later in life. The ability to be assertive also boosts self-esteem as children learn how to stand up for themselves, their desires, and their needs.

What We Should Do Instead

When children are involved in a tug-of-war over a toy, we should first try to figure out who had the toy first. Teachers should always try to know who had what in the classroom so that they can easily solve these kinds of issues. Usually when I am doing a workshop, the words “Observation is SO important in the classroom” leave my lips at least once during the workshop. This is a time when observation is so important. It is important that we observe enough to know who has what, because we are better able to help children solve their social problems the more we know about the situation. Once we know who had the toy first, we can coach that child to tell the other child “NO” or “I don’t like it” if they are a younger child (1-3 years old). If they are older, we can teach them to use even more words: “I don’t like it when you take my toy. Please give it back.” Usually, the words are enough for the offender to give back the toy.

Our job during these altercations is not to hand down a sentence or an ultimatum; when we take toys and put them up, that is what we are doing. Our job is to coach the children to the solution. We have to back up the child that had the toy first by telling the offender, “He didn’t like it when you took his toy. You can ask him if you can use it when he is done with it.” This teaches the child the words to use if they want something that someone else has, and teaches him how to respect the rights of the child that has the toy. For younger children, we can simply say, “He is playing with this toy right now. Let’s do _________ until he is done with it.” This beginning step shows the younger child how to respect the rights of others, and helps them ease into an alternative while they are waiting for their turn.

But I Already Told You, I Don’t Know Who Had The Toy!

Okay, you really don’t know who had the toy, and this can be a real problem for teachers of younger children who can’t tell you who had the toy first. One thing that I have found through trying to solve this problem in my own classroom is that the child who had the toy first will be the most upset when it is taken. It is almost akin to the story of the Wisdom of King Solomon. When I worked with younger children and there was a tug-of-war, I would take the toy just to end the tug-of-war. Usually one child would move away and the other child would become more upset. I would give the toy back to the child that was upset.

Why Do You Do This?

Any time you take something away from a child, it triggers a fight-or-flight response. The child does not feel safe any longer and reacts to this (hostile, in their minds) takeover by becoming upset. Different children can manifest this response in different ways, from crying to an all-out tantrum. Because we want children to feel safe and loved at preschool, we need to do anything we can to minimize the fight-or-flight response and foster connections and relationships with the child instead. This is one of the reasons why I say that it is SO important to be observant and know what is going on in the classroom as much as you possibly can. The more you know, the more you can do to help children who are involved in tricky social situations like this.

Do You Have Any Questions About How To Handle Other Classroom Situations?

If you do, just post your questions in the comments section below and I will try to feature them in an upcoming blog post!

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