Based on the Dutch Early Years Blog written by Melissa Be and Anouk van Dijk
Dani (4) is building a tower on the floor. Very carefully she places one block on top of another as the tower is already at shoulder height. When Dani is not paying attention, Yara (4) approaches the tower and picks up a block of the floor. When she tries to put the block on top, the entire tower tumbles down. Dani is spooked by the sound of the collapsing tower and screams at Yara: “This is all your fault!”
As a teacher or as a parent you probably recognize situations like this. But how do you deal with it? How can you help young children in judging whether something happens on purpose or by accident? Trying to understand why somebody acts the way they do can already be a challenge for adults, so how can you support children in this? We discussed the topic with researcher Anouk van Dijk (University of Amsterdam), who studies these questions in her research [1,2].
“We investigated how 236 children between the ages of 3 and 8 interpret a situation in which something goes wrong”, Anouk explains. Her research team provided children with situations like the falling tower and asked them why they think Yara was acting the way she did. Many children answered that it wasn’t Yara’s fault and that something like this can happen. “This is what we call a positive evaluation”, Anouk says. “But there were also children who believed that Yara pushed over the tower on purpose, which is a negative evaluation”.
Negative evaluations are related to children’s social play and can lead to aggression problems or social anxieties at a later age [3,4]. Anouk: “If you constantly feel like others are out to get you and want to harm you on purpose, you can become very angry or anxious. Our study shows that the use of this negative evaluation is already visible at a very young age.” So why do children use this negative evaluation and what can we do about it?
Experiences as basis
The direct environment has a strong impact on how children interpret the world. Anouk: “If a child uses negative evaluations, it is necessary to investigate what’s behind this. You can view children as little scientists: they construct theories about the world around them by trying out and experiencing things. When a child is raised in a hostile environment with many arguments, children tend to interpret human interaction more often as hostile. They develop an internal mechanism that believes people cannot be trusted. This is also visible in children who are bullied extensively. The tough part is that this mechanism often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if children believe others have negative intentions, they are more likely to react in a negative way themselves. As a result, other children are less likely to interact with them in a positive way in the future. Therefore, it is important to catch these negative evaluations at an early age.”
The importance of exemplary behavior
For young children exemplary behavior has a crucial role in learning how to judge another person’s intentions. Anouk: “Our study showed this as well. We asked parents to read out the falling tower situation. Many of them provided exemplary behavior of a positive evaluation: ‘Oh no, there was an accident, how unfortunate!’. However, there were also parents that used a negative evaluation to explain the situation to their children: ‘Now that’s not nice, isn’t it? She was probably jealous and broke the tower on purpose!’
“In a follow up study, we asked some parents to give the situation an extremely positive spin”, Anouk continues. “We compared the reactions of their children to those of parents who were asked to tell the story neutrally. We found that children who got presented with the positive evaluation had more often used positive evaluations themselves.”
These results raise the question: Do teachers and parents need to explain every situation to children as being an accident? Or is that a shortsighted interpretation of these results? Anouk states: “In my experience, it is indeed somewhat shortsighted to stimulate children in using a positive evaluation in every situation. However, teachers should be aware of the importance of positive evaluations. They need to support children in their understanding that negative outcomes (such as the falling tower) are not always caused by negative intentions. One way of supporting this is by helping children investigate the situation.”
After the tower tumbled down, Dani rans to the teacher and says: “Yara knocked over my tower!” The teacher places her hand on Dani’s shoulder and says: “Oh no, that’s unfortunate! How do you think that happened? Let’s think about this together! It could be that Yara pushed it over on purpose right, but perhaps that’s not the only explanation. What do you think? What else could have happened?”
Anouk: “The teacher in this example uses a nice strategy. She helps Dani figure out on her own that it could also be an accident. By asking children these questions, you give them ownership of their ideas. Sometimes they even come up with alternative explanations we adults never even considered”.
Living the positive evaluation life
As adults we constantly interpret other’s intentions as well. The way you evaluate situations yourself sets an example for children. Anouk: “Whenever there is a conflict between two children you could for instance ask the ‘guilty party’: ‘Look at this, they are in pain, and you made them sad. Was this really your intention?’. That way you teach children that even when there is a conflict, a negative outcome (hurting and crying) is not always caused by negative intentions.”
The take home message here is that what you do as a teacher impacts how children interpret the world around them. Anouk states: “You help them shape their glasses through which they see the world. I have two tips to make this impact you have a positive one.”
- Discuss situations with children and help them investigate what happened. Using investigative questions, you can help children understand whether something happened on purpose or by accident. Especially for children who often use a negative evaluation of other’s intentions, asking these questions helps them to perceive the world as less hostile.
- Set a good example. How do you deal with conflict in the classroom? Does your reaction show children that people usually have good intentions? And that despite these good intentions, things could still go wrong and that’s okay? And that the most important thing is to search together for a solution to the problem?
Anouk: “Of course, these tips are easier said than done, but it’s worth a shot. So which glasses do you give a child to view their world?”
Sources van Dijk, A., Thomaes, S., Poorthuis, A.M.G. et al. Can Self-Persuasion Reduce Hostile Attribution Bias in Young Children?. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 47, 989–1000 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-018-0499-2  van Dijk, A., Astrid M.G. Poorthuis, Sander Thomaes, Bram O. de Castro. Does Parent-Child Discussion of Peer Provocations Reduce Young Children’s Hostile Attributional Bias? Child Development, 2018; DOI: 10.1111/cdev.13087  Dodge, K. A., & Pettit, G. S. (2003). A biopsychosocial model of the development of chronic conduct problems in adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 39, 349–371. http://doi.org/ 10.1037/00121622.214.171.1249  Nikolić, M. (2020). Social emotions and social cognition in the development of social anxiety disorder. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 17, 649–663. https://doi.org/10.1080/17405629.2020. 1722633