Parallel Voices Commentary—Reframing Teachers’ Understandings of Conflicted Play
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Christopher Taaffe’s close study of a social triangle amongst young preschoolers led to deep insights gained from paying attention to the intricacies of children’s social interactions during play. This piece illustrated a process of teacher inquiry that began with one practical question about how to ease the painful experiences children have with exclusion and peer conflict, but then shifted to a critical inquiry into the lenses this teaching team used to interpret the behaviors and their roles as teachers. Through the process of reconsidering the view of children, a more complex understanding of the social interactions emerged, paired with a view of social learning that acknowledges children’s agency.
As a program leader who has the privilege of supporting teachers’ development of critical inquiry, I commend the way Christopher’s narrative brings us alongside his journey to retool his stance as a teacher observer. Throughout the piece, we also learn about the specific reframing strategies he used. First, Christopher acknowledged the influences on his initial point of view, from theoretical backgrounds to his own situated teacher training influences. This step should not be overlooked; opening to a revised point of view requires an awareness of the ideas and experiences that have shaped one’s present subjectivities (Taguchi 2008). Christopher then deftly illustrated how the shift in perspective grew from a planful, systematic, and intentional strategy of observation and interpretation of the children’s interactions. By taking a closer look at the documentation, Christopher’s questions morphed from how to resolve these conflicts for the girls to a new curiosity about how the girls’ “experimental efforts” with friendship gave them important practice in developing social competence. These efforts to critically reflect on one’s prior knowledge and create revised meanings of children’s work echo processes we enact in small group collaborative inquiry seminars in our program (Brookshire 2014). Christopher’s work resonates well with the approaches we have tried and contributes a vivid portrait of critical reflective inquiry toward a highly relatable set of early childhood social dilemmas.
"Conflicted sparring” served as a resource for the girls in their cognitive, social, and language development.
Christopher took a long view of friendship struggles, patiently analyzing multiple forms of data, and emerged with an appreciation of the possible functions of conflict. This shift in his lens as a teacher not only revealed more complex and nuanced meanings, but also anchored the modified view in assumptions of children’s competence, agency, and effort. Instead of framing the friendship struggles as failures that required teacher rescue, Christopher’s insights informed decisions that joined up with the children’s ongoing processes of exploration, experimentation, and growing self-awareness.
In Christopher’s analysis, he began to recognize how the observed “conflicted sparring” served as a resource for the girls in their cognitive, social, and language development. This reframing effectively blended his prior knowledge about development with a fresh view of conflict. Notably, this piece can help other teachers recognize that they could critically examine whether they have discomfort with children’s conflict and unpack the roots of assumptions about negative emotional experiences. Part of this awareness lies in remembering that adults and children have different perceptions of conflict (Hall & Maher 2015). What emotions lead us to want to shield children from conflict? What fears do we possibly have about letting children practice (and fumble with) relationship work? In the same ways that we can recognize the necessity for children to hypothesize and experiment with problems they encounter with physical materials during project work, we can also see how children need to discover and test things out in their relationships with others. The same principles we use in guiding project work can then guide our pedagogy to support–not take over–children’s knots in their relationships.
While reading Christopher’s piece, I felt inspired to share his study with the teachers I work with so that we could engage in shared reflection about how his findings resonate with our journey as a community of practice. I anticipate that we will be prompted into conversation about how we need to understand our compulsion to shield children from negative conflicts, critically examining the fears that may arise for ourselves as we play the adult role of being “in charge” of the classroom. From interrogations of our understandings of teacher roles, as situated in personal and cultural histories, we can cultivate expansive and responsive approaches to children’s capabilities. More than anything, this piece can support our ongoing conversations about how to gather multiple meanings from children’s work and struggles (with each other, with the world they encounter), even the moments that seem painful such as the conflict of social triangles. Christopher’s work can help us replace a deficit view of difficulty with a more trusting approach to children as they work through the challenges that serve their current developmental and relationship growth (Madrid, Fernie, & Kantor 2015). I am reminded from reading this teacher research that if we pay attention, and carefully follow the documentation, children continually show us what matters to them, to their learning, and to their relationships. We can draw upon their struggles to re-imagine the ways children and adults inhabit the emotional spaces of early childhood settings.
Brookshire, R. A. 2014. “Critical Teacher Inquiry: Collaborative Action Research Using Post-Structuralist and Cross-National Provocations.” Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The University of Tennessee.
Hall, E. & A. Maher. 2015. “Recognizing, Respecting, and Reconsidering the Emotions of Conflict.” In Reframing the Emotional Worlds of the Early Childhood Classroom, edited by S. Madrid, D. Fernie, & R. Kantor, 1-15. New York, NY: Routledge.
Madrid, S., D. Fernie, & R. Kantor. 2015. “Introduction to Reframing Emotion.” In Reframing the Emotional Worlds of the Early Childhood Classroom, edited by S. Madrid, D. Fernie, & R. Kantor, 1-15. New York, NY: Routledge.
Taguchi, H. L. 2008. “An ‘Ethics of Resistance’ Challenges Taken-for-Granted Ideas in Swedish Early Childhood Education.” International Journal of Educational Research 47 (5): 270-282.
Robyn Brookshire, PhD, is Director of the Early Learning Center for Research and Practice at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. Her work and research focus on early childhood teacher preparation, teacher action research, and pedagogical leadership.