Brawling In The Pre-K

Does fighting in the preschool have a place?

Frank and Brad are running around the play yard bumping into another, pretending to be hunters. In the play yard Frank begins flailing his arms and his fists collide with Brad’s back. Brad is quick to retreat and begins yelling, “your stupid…what did you do that for.” As a teacher I closely observe the sudden escalation of tension, knowing this occasionally occurs between them; I trust my instincts to allow them to hash it out. After Brad reams Frank with some not so nice verbiage, he flees the scene and blends into the play yard. Frank stands with his face glazed over for a minute, noticing he is alone with out his friend, and runs off to rejoin Brad. Within seconds they are off running together – all smiles in the wind.

Frank and Brad are constantly making forts, building sophisticated weaponry out of toys, making “setups” (a term Frank’s mom uses when he organizes several toys into groups and rows), and running around in a imaginary world of battle.

Brad has said it before that the battle is just “pretend.” Cognitively these two boys run at light speed, they are always restless and wanting to engage physically through their rapid-fire imagination. And they are not alone, as we have a few others who exhibit idiosyncratic, spasmodic physical play. Between the two of them there exists a non-verbal tribal pack of full on contact, until it reaches a certain thresh hold, where they are both not afraid to voice their rejection.

Frank and Brad are quick to settle their differences much faster then any adult intervention, such as pulling them a part from each other or giving them “time outs.” I have bestowed the trust in them to figure out most of their problems by themselves, as long as no one is threatened, harmed, or interrupted by their play. As there are a few in the class who sometimes feel intimidated by their behavior, however these kids are not frightened enough to voice their concern, often telling them to “stop” or “I don’t like that,” and either walking away, standing their ground or calling on an adult.

Lets face it, they don’t always heed the word of anothers, request and a teacher can tip off a subtle reminder or a friendly request – “to take their play or game elsewhere.” And then there is the method of other kid “holding their ground,” from surly, rude behavior, with a shove.

Every school has a group of kids who interact with their world mostly through physical play. Like most kids at a tender age of four and five they are also sensitive, and often their rough play exudes insecurities they may be having about themselves.

There is always the blurred line on when to interject as an adult, and as concerned adults we want to reassure that young people find a sense of power, and can feel secure about their sense of self in the world. As teachers, parents, and adult mentors in a child’s life we walk the fine line to not cripple their confidence to scream “stop” or to protect themselves physically, when feeling threatened or harmed, as this is an important tool of communication they need to apply within their lives leading well into their adult years. As educators it is our job to listen to their needs and to coach them through these adversities by setting examples of effective, yet strong communication.

Some times a teacher or parent can pick up on non-verbal clues, of a child being mistreated by another child. One key sign is their willingness to stay clinged to your side. This is a prime time to give these kids verbal tools, sometimes often providing a verbal example: “You need to make sure you tell them to stop, and be sure that it is loud enough for them to hear,” a teacher will commonly reply to a complaint a child may have about another. Often I let kids know that they don’t have to play with the person who is upsetting them and can play with someone else, if they so choose.

And then there’s the question: What if they don’t stop the behavior? Is there a point where a physical response can be an effective means for children to stand their own “ground.”? As teachers we don’t advocate for violence, but is there a point where…enough is enough?

Often times in a preschool classroom I have witnessed where a physical altercation has proven to strengthen bonds between kids at school.

A typical scenario where close play can turn physical can look like this: “I had that first…no I had it first, as they both pull back and forth, hands gripped tightly around a fire truck. “It’s mine,” the two boys shout back and forth, and then there is a shove and arms begin to flail across each other’s faces. Both parties wind up crying and they separate, to regroup together moments later, as if a non-verbal bond of trust has just formed. Minutes following their struggle, they cooperate on putting out a pretend fire outside, with the water from the sensory table.

At Albany Free School kids learn a safe alternative with dealing with other youth who are non-compliant with their wishes and insists on being physical with others. A child can sit on them, until the one causing harm, agrees to stop. Chris Mercogliana, the author of Teaching The Restless, explains this method of where the kids send a clear, yet safe message. At Albany Free School age gaps among students runs rampant – from preschool to eight grade, as they find having this age diversity as an effective means to empowering mentorships, positive communication, a diverse community, while enriching experiences for learning. When the word “stop” becomes ineffective while the child is incessant about being physically unsafe, the kids at the Free School know a technique which is effective, and a very last resort to keep their community safe.

In Teaching The Restless, Mercogliana explains:

“Preset rules and punishments, such as “time-out” chairs, and later detention rooms, quickly loose their effectiveness. They seldom bring about any real change in a child’ overall attitude or character. They reinforce anger, resistance, and resentment instead of fostering personal responsibility.”

Fighting, as a non-verbal reaction, is a natural response to feeling threatened or unsafe. This is one way a child can protect themselves and to regain a sense of power and well-being.

However, there are ways of reducing these areas of tension, while creating a safe environment for kids to explore. There are the “hot spots” among certain groups or individuals in the preschool school setting that can be carefully watched before things “boil over.” We can suggest other activities of play, invite them to take on a certain responsibility or we can ask them, “if they are feeling safe about the play their involved in.” And we can remind them that words to have POWER and meaning. As educators or parents we can make a query into their reasoning for their actions and share some communication tools to give power to their voice, when faced with conflict.

But, punishment is not the answer nor is the enactment of a non-violent policy. This is never a case of violence. Violence is a behavior taught and can never be perpetuated in an environment where a child is surrounded by loving and compassionate support.

Preschoolers usually are in a crowded environment and intimate relationships and close play is a product of this. In close quarters of the classroom conflict is inevitable. When a group of twenty preschoolers are herded into a classroom, a bout is bound to happen. Play is an intimate situation, kids are not afraid of closeness – in fact they crave it. Play is an innate part of their development and it creates an external disorder because they are naturally thirsty for learning. In the fast pace world of play and imagination, bodies move in the classroom, like comets in the universe. You never know when one kid will collide with another or a serious disagreement will arise.

In a close community environment in any preschool, taunting, degrees of tension, and testing of the waters is bound to happen, as relationships develop. These are healthy developmentally appropriate social interactions, as kids who are four and five years old learn significantly through making mistakes. Yes, teachers and parents have important roles of providing examples of clear, concise, and respectful forms of communication, but kids also need the ability to express themselves physically if they are feeling frightened or angry. And a fair punch in the face can have it’s place, if a kid seriously needs to protect him or her self. I’m not talking about “bullying” but if a child has a knee jerk response to push someone else out of their way because they are feeling unsafe by the behavior – then this is not grounds for a “time out,” nor “ a “pat on the back,” but perhaps a suggestion that they use “words” instead of fists. After all many relationships can form out of these physical altercations and these relationships can be an important bond, which just may last a lifetime.

Preschool Punks. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint/publish, please contact Paul at

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