A Safe Place To Struggle

By Sara Zacuto

“Social relations are rewarding, but rarely easy. Young kids are making their first forays into friendship and just beginning to figure this out. Instead of forcing friendships, adults need to guide all kids in gaining better social skills.”

~Heather Shumaker


We’ve been talking a lot lately about troubled friendships here at Little Owl. Every year there are peer relationships that seem extra challenging, and as children explore the depth of their power by excluding others, feelings inevitably become hurt. We know this to be a common struggle for children at this age, and do not ascribe to the belief that children are “mean” or “bullies”, but rather exploring the boundaries around socially risky behavior, or perhaps acting out of a sense of powerlessness in other aspects of their own life. These kinds of struggles can happen when children feel like their close friendships are threatened by a third or fourth joining in. And sometimes children really do want or need space from others too, and that is a kind of self-advocacy that is healthy and desirable. There seems to be a fine line though, when these exclusions are happening, and teachers can feel caught in an ethical dilemma.

Who or what do we advocate for in these situations?

How much should we intervene?

What verbiage do we use around these tricky circumstances?

Is it our place to “make” children play together?

It is often difficult to watch some of these dynamics between children play out. Our own adult sense of justice can color our perception of their play. Our awareness of what is “fair” or “right” in any given circumstance is often tied up with our feelings about what we want for our children. This is why remaining a neutral observer is actually quite difficult, and takes practice. Taking our strong emotional responses out of the equation serves the children who are experiencing these struggles by giving them the opportunity to “own” the problem themselves. It sends the message that we believe in their abilities to figure things out. They can decide whether to re-engage with each other, or move on to something else. We trust them to make the decision that is right for them, even if sometimes that means going toward more conflict, or hurt feelings.


We trust that children can determine if a problem feels resolved, or needs more attention. The only help we offer as teachers is when a child reaches out, or seems completely overwhelmed, or it becomes clear that a problem is escalating and might become physical. We challenge the inhibiting and polarizing view that there is a “victim” and a “bully” and simply attempt to understand and clarify the needs of both parties, and work to re-frame some of the hurtful words that might be spoken. For a wonderful tool to do this look here. This is the hardest part to explain to parents who have concerns that their child is feeling sad or upset here at school. And one day it struck me…the best way I can offer comfort to our families is to let them know:

This is a safe place to struggle.

No school or individual can shield a child from sadness, or worry, or rejection. In fact, going through these feelings is a huge factor in their social-emotional growth in these early years. They are working on gaining a better understanding of the complexity of relationship building, and continuing to form a sense of self, and how to articulate and communicate their needs in emotionally charged situations. It’s a lot of work, and it’s not always joyful and rewarding, but it is what learning looks like. It’s messy and non-linear. It’s fraught and tense at times, but it builds confidence and resilience. That is why we value it so much, and actually make the space and time for issues to be hashed out. We don’t distract or hurry children through the process because what they need in these times of upset is to be seen, and heard, and validated.


The goal is not to keep children happy and busy all day long, but rather to meet the needs of each individual, unique child…to lay the foundation for them to begin gaining the language and courage to face these kinds of struggles with more and more confidence. We are not here to judge, or fix children’s problems. Struggle is inevitable. Scraped knees and bumped heads and hurt feelings are part of everyone’s stories. This is the place where these chapters of their books are written.

This is a safe place to struggle.


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