Every teacher knows, and every parent should know, that hitting happens in preschool, as does biting, kicking, taking things from others, scratching and a whole host of other undesirable behaviors. And every teacher also knows, and every parent should likewise know that their child will at one point or another be both a victim and a perpetrator. Hitting (and for the sake of this post, the word “hit” will refer to the entire spectrum of behaviors) is a fact-of-life in preschool, a necessary part of learning how to live with other people.

I often think of two-year-olds as mad scientists rushing around the laboratory of life pushing buttons to see what happens. They push the “button” of smiling at a stranger: the stranger smiles back. They push the button of helping a friend: the friend says, “Thank you.” They push the button of hitting another kid: the kid cries. When older children hit, it may still be a form of experimentation, although it’s increasingly likely that they are attempting to use it as a tool to get their way.

To put it bluntly, we want them to feel badly about hurting or scaring or otherwise violating another person, but we don’t want it to be because they’ve made us angry or because we are going to punish them, but rather because they have caused pain to another person. In other words, we want them to learn empathy. If we can teach that, we have done the most important job we will ever do.

An 8-Step Plan for Learning Through Conflict

1) Stay calm

2) Stop the violence and attend to the injured 

If the violence is ongoing, use your superior physical strength to stop it. If a child is clearly hurt (blood, visible marks, uncontrollable crying) attend to that child first.

3) Make informative statements

Normally, no one is very hurt and normally there is a clear offender. I like to get my body between the children and hold them in place by gently encircling their waists with my arms. I say something like, "Hitting hurts people,” (something that is not necessarily evident to a young child) or “I can't let you hurt people” (a statement about my own responsibilities). I strive to stick with statements of fact. Commands like, "No hitting!" are fine, but not ideal because they send the message, You shouldn't hit because an authority figure says so. We want them to develop self-control. I know that sometimes it's impossible to keep both parties present, but you should at least try to trot the offender through the following steps, if only to reinforce that one of the consequences of their behavior is the "inquiry.”

4) Help the children talk to one another

Often the victim has something to say. Adults frequently make the mistake of not leaving “space” for the children to talk. Typically the child will say something like, “He hit me!” or, “I had it first!” If the victim doesn’t offer up a statement, I like to prompt them with a statement of my own like, “Susie is crying,” “I saw you take that from him,” or “You hurt her.” The perpetrator then should have a turn to speak. If they opt to say anything, it’s usually an excuse like, “She pushed me first” or “I wanted to play with that.” Spontaneous apologies at this age are exceedingly rare. More typical is a child who says nothing at all, which to me is a sign that they feel badly, or at least are being reflective, about what they’ve done. At this point, I might say, “When I hurt someone, I usually apologize and ask them if there is anything I can do to make it better.” I might also say to the victim, “I think Susie feels badly about what happened. Is there anything she can do to make it better?”

5) Stop talking and wait 

Now is the most difficult part for most adults: stop talking and wait. Let the children fill up that dead air. It sometimes takes awhile, especially for boys, to find words. It's during this time that children will often spontaneously "apologize" by returning the taken item or attempting to hug their crying friend. This is a genuine preschool apology. If it happens, you're done, but it’s rare so don't count on it. Take this time to read their facial and body language. If the victim is ready to move on, let 'em roam. This child has learned an important lesson: life is not fair, but there is often justice. (Remember, there are times we teach from facts and times we teach from intention!) Sometimes the offender is moved to tears -- another version of a genuine preschool apology.

7) Keep the dialog focused

Respond to whatever the offender says (even if they are trying to change the subject) by repeating what you know to be true and by drawing the connection between cause and effect. If the child clearly isn't paying attention, command that attention by asking clear yes-or-no questions (e.g., "Do you like to be hit?" "Are you going to hit your friends?" "Are you going to take things from your friends?"). Preschoolers tend to be pretty honest. If they say they will not hit their friends then consider it a lesson learned, even if it only "takes" for a few minutes. If they say "Yes" they will hit their friends (and I've had many children admit to this), then tell them, "Then I'll have to hold you." After a few minutes ask the question again and repeat until you finally get a "no.”

8) That’s the end of it

For me, that's the end of it, but there are many who don't consider the process complete without a formal apology. An apology that is offered merely out of social convention, rather than out of genuine remorse, just doesn't sit well with me. Besides, I've watched too many conflicts between children get diverted into a conflict between parent and child as the former insists on the word "sorry" and the child refuses. But if you want your child to say, "I'm sorry," I won't judge you.

This is the process that has evolved for me and it varies from situation to situation. Adapt it to your own personality, beliefs and experiences, but try to keep the goal of teaching empathy in mind.

Naturally, empathy is not taught in a single moment and it comes more slowly for some than for others. These are not bad kids, just kids who are struggling to learn something vitally important to live in a community. It’s a long, often painful process and we’re mostly just there to help it along, day-after-day. But still, there are moments of epiphany, and you’ll never know when you’re in the middle of one.