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A Real Conversation from the Elementary Playground

by Neil Finney

Three small children approach the teacher on duty. Small boy with slight grin masked by concerned eyes and a quick walking pace. Slightly smaller girl with tears in her eyes and hands in pockets. Small girl with no tears, no hands in pockets and look of concern due to fear and the powers of inference.

Small boy: We have a problem. We were all playing in the hole over there on the ice hill and Erica isn’t playing the game with us – but she won’t get out of the hole.

Slightly smaller girl: (Sob. Sob. Deep gasping breaths due to overpowering tears and a lack of control for the situation) I was playing with you. I started the hole and then you guys came along and changed the game. But I wanted to play too. It was my hole. It was my hole.

Small girl: See, we were playing a game and she wouldn’t get out of the hole. But we were playing a game – in the hole. We asked her if she wanted to play – but she didn’t answer. She just laid in the hole, and cried, and started kicking us, and being mad. We were just playing a game.


Ok. Let’s stop there. You’re the duty teacher. Here are two options:

1      Put all three kids on the wall. One for kicking. One for tattling. One for not being inclusive.

Pros: Punitive action may teach students not to cause problems and to just get along.

Cons: May not take anything away from this experience except not to approach an adult for assistance the next time a conflict arises on the schoolyard.


2      Take time to help students solve the problem through communication.


Teacher: (crouches down to be “at their level” and speaks in a calm and concerned voice) Ok. Clearly we have a problem here that needs to be fixed. Erica, did you choose to have “hands on” by kicking the other students?

Erica: Yes. But…

Teacher: Erica. We don’t solved problems by kicking others.

Teacher turns to small girl: Did Erica make the hole and was she there first?

Small girl: Yes, but…

Teacher: Small girl, if Erica was playing in the hole first then you would need to ask her to be included in the game that you wanted to play. If you asked her and she didn’t answer, maybe she didn’t hear you. Erica, did you hear them ask you to be a part of the game?

Erica: No. I thought they were just trying to take over my hole.

Teacher: Ok. Here’s what we do. The hole is a group hole. The game you want to play is a group game. You are all responsible for keeping the hole safe and the game safe. It will include everyone. You will all cooperate and make sure that the rest of this recess is fun and that there are no other problems with people having their feelings hurt or not being included and certainly not being kicked or hit by others. Right? There is still enough time to have some fun, play the game, share the hole and work this out. What do you think? Would you like to try again or do we need to spend the rest of the recess continuing to talk about this problem?

All three: We can get along. C’mon Erica. You can be “it” first. Let’s go tell them all.


Sometimes, it takes far more patience and energy to ask and listen. However, without this conversation, students fail to recognize the opportunity to change and grow, and instead are left with the puzzle pieces scattered all around them and the lingering questions about what went wrong and how they feel. Being a role model means modeling appropriate choices and conversations with them.


Does this situation sound like a problem that you were faced with between students? Do you agree with how the above situation was handled? How would you have handled it differently?

You may be interested in A Picnic Without Ants: How to Include All Children in Play

During Neilʼs 9 years of teaching experience, he has taught in London, England; Ontario; public and private schools; elementary and secondary; junior; intermediate; core french; developmental skills; and now junior gifted (grades 4,5,6). He is a Reading Specialist that has been incorporating technology in his practice consistently throughout his career. Neil has recently published his first book entitled “Ignite. Incite. Inspire.” – Examining 21st Century Issues in Education, which is a collection of teaching articles and posts written from January to December 2011.


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  • http://adunsiger.com Aviva Dunsiger (@avivaloca)

    Neil, your post makes me think of our new restorative justice practices. Now when I have problems outside with students, I try to get them to explain what happened (much like you do), but I also try to get students to understand things from different points of view. How did others feel when you did ____? What could you do differently the next time? Why? It takes time to go through this questioning practice, but the pay-offs are usually big. Students understand the impact of their behaviour on others, and they often take the time to reflect before they act the next time. Have you used restorative justice practices before? What do you think of them?


    • http://neilfinney.blogspot.com neil

      Hi Aviva. Yes, restorative practices are huge right now in my board as well. It is always a powerful thing to have students identify with the emotions – and even motives – of others. I especially find that discussing with intermediate students how a primary or junior student might feel in a particular situation is effective. I think that any time you can bring in an opportunity for a student to be in a role model position – great things can happen!

      Reflection is certainly the key and these conversations – if anything – provide the forum and opportunity for students to do so. Teachers, too, can benefit from the honesty and sharing that takes place during one of these conversations. Thanks for the insights!