We all know the headlines of fear and worry facing our children: bullies, school shootings, apathy, and disagreement. But our current responses—overprotecting our kids by keeping them in a nurturing bubble or overreacting by punishing them in advance with zero-tolerance policies and metal detectors—only worsen the problem. Our children are neither potential victims nor perpetrators and instead, they are born perfect, whole and complete and can be agents for positive change. In other words, we need to prepare our young people to be peacemakers. Not holding-hands-and-singing-songs peacemaking (although lovely), but the crucial work of compassion, coming together to solve problems and taking risks to assist others.
According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), “children’s social and emotional development is crucial to their success in school. When children communicate their feelings appropriately, develop positive relationships with their peers, and come up with ways to solve problems and make peace in their world, they are better able to focus and learn.” However, many childhood educators are regularly asked to prioritize academic skills, leaving little time to focus on important social skills such as curiosity, self-awareness, and problem-solving.
Educators and caregivers are often tempted to fix or scold negative language or questionable judgment, where a child is seen as “wrong”. At Forest School, we prioritize peacemaking as a crucial skill in being human, as peacemaking offers the opportunity to free us from a no-win situation. This unique invitation is one that enables the disputing learners to calmly express their feelings to each other and to reach an amicable agreement on their own, all while feeling seen and heard.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve fine-tuned our peacemaking process in response to children’s almost daily interpersonal conflicts and we’d love to share our findings and process with you, so you can try it out in your environment:
1. Provide Expectations + Support: When one of our community agreements is disregarded, forgotten, and/or creates an unsafe situation, we’ll remind the learners of our agreements and what’s expected. For example, “It’s expected that you don’t throw sticks at your friends. You can throw them away from your friends if you’d like.” We’ll also encourage disagreeing learners to use their strong voices to express to each other how they’re feeling and if something upset them. We then let them know that if they continue having issues with another learner, they can come to find us and we can do peacemaking with them. The goal is here to provide expectations, opportunities for conflict resolution, and support.
2. Set Up the Peacemaking Process: If a peacemaking session is needed, we’ll take the learners included in the disagreement out of their play space and over to a more quiet space (it doesn’t have to be a specific place if that’s not convenient). We’ll let them know that we’re going to make peace and will prepare our peace tools, which consist of a talking stick made and crafted for Aishling Forest School, and a cleansing wand, and a lighter for clearing the air after the process. The talking stick, used in many Indigenous cultures, is an ancient and powerful “communication tool” that ensures a code of conduct of respect during meetings is followed. The person holding the stick, and only that person, is designated as having the right to speak and all others must listen quietly and respectfully.
3. Listen + Feel: The first learner is offered the talking stick and asked to finish this sentence…”I feel…” Once they express how they’re feeling, they can then explain the situation in their own words, while the rest of us actively listen to the learner speaking.
4. Validate Feelings + Experiences: After the first earner is done speaking (you can limit it to 2-3 minutes to avoid getting caught up in the story of the disagreement), then the mentor will validate the learner to ensure their feelings and experience was properly understood. The mentor asks the learner, “Did I get everything?” After we validate the first learner, it’s the next learner’s turn to express their feelings and experience. A mentor validates them, as well.
5. Conflict-Resolution: Once the learners understand each other’s feelings and that their actions have consequences, it’s now time to conflict-resolve in an amicable way. A mentor asks, “How can we resolve this? Now that we know better, how can we do better?” If no one has an answer, that’s ok too. Give them time, in their peacemaking space to think on this. Oftentimes, we’ll set a time for 10 minutes and provide the learners with their journals to draw, write, and get creative. During this time, we sit with the learners to provide support and to brainstorm any ideas THEY come up with, as it’s not our job to fix or problem-solve for them. Once 10 minutes is up, we revisit the question, and almost always, they come to a solution and agreement.
6. Clearing the Air: To close the peacemaking process, we ask the learners if they want to shake it off, with some somatic movements or perhaps to let out a group howl to create energetic movement through sound. Then, we light up our cleansing wand and ask the learners to take a deep breath and to literally “clear the air”. Each learner has a chance to clear the air, watch the smoke rise, and breathe. Once that’s complete, we thank the learners for their beautiful peacemaking and they can go about their play.
7. Beyond Peacemaking: Some learners may have 1-2 peacemaking opportunities per Forest School session and that’s perfectly ok. If a 3rd peacemaking is needed within a session (or within a day at home), we take this as a sign that the learner may need a change of environment, some personal space, and/or individual attention. This is where a 1-on-1 nature walk works nicely and encourages them to talk more deeply about their feelings. At home, this might look like going into bed for extra snuggles or going together to sit under a tree for a chat.
Our full-length peacemaking processes may take between 10-20 minutes in the beginning and that can seem lengthy, but we promise it’s worth it!
Once the learners understand the process, we can abbreviate it, as needed by simply creating space for each learner to express their feelings and experiences and then come to a solution. Soon, this communication method becomes an on-the-go tool for them to resolve conflicts on their own.
- Research the use of a traditional “talking stick” and possibly find a special item that you can use to distinguish who is talking and who is listening. in Our home, we use a special rock that we’ve painted as a family.
- If expressing explicit feelings for your little ones isn’t easy to do, you can help them to express their feelings in colors. The Zones of Regulation book has helpful tools to do just this.
- Celebrate positive stories throughout the day to describe successes. “I noticed that James was struggling to open his container, and Will offered to help him. When Will got the container open, James smiled. I could tell that he was happy to have such a kind brother.”
- Share Books About Peace: Books about peace (and peacemaking) are also great resources for the what, why, and how of peacemaking:
The Peace Book, by Todd Parr
The Peace Rose, by Alicia Olson
Can You Say Peace?, by Karen Katz
What Does Peace Feel Like?, by Vladimir Radunsky
Peace Begins With You, by Katherine Scholes
Peace One Day, by Jeremy Gilley