Betsy Evans

Top of Her Field in Conflict Resolution, Toddler Teacher Says Even Little Ones Can Learn to Resolve Disputes

THE RECORDER, by Richie Davis, Recorder Staff

GILL -- The toddlers are barely up to your knees, but already they sound like they’re facing big problems.

Ian and Carl are 4-year-olds happily playing with trucks in their preschool’s block area. Then Ian moves over to Carl and grabs for his toy truck.

“I want this!” he says, and a conflict erupts.

Anyone who’s been around young children for more than a couple of minutes knows how quickly a moment of blissful play can erupt into a verbal or nonverbal argument – often with plenty of screaming, crying and maybe even hitting.

But by carefully watching and listening, you discover how deeply these spats are felt by children – maybe even shaping the way they deal with conflict throughout life.

Betsy Evans has taken the time to observe in her 30 years in early childhood education – most of it as founding lead teacher and director of The Giving Tree preschool in Gill. Now the president of the 28-year-old preschool, Evans is also the author of a book, as well as the director of two videos, on how parents and teachers can help children settle conflicts. The point isn’t to just halt the meltdown of the moment, but that every problem-solving experience can be as important as any other lesson. Rather than solving conflicts for children, Evans advises it is best to guide them through solving it for themselves.

Conflicts are “absolutely normal, healthy good stuff,” said Evans, who had seen plenty of it in the classroom, and who recently returned from training Mexican teachers in resolution techniques that closely resemble mediation. “It’s how we respond to it.”

After the first seven years of gathering examples of how even toddlers can be effective at resolving disputes, Evans said, “I was astounded by the stories I was hearing.”

A favorite involves an 18-month-old English boy named Tom, who began crying when his mother went to the closet to get a stroller so they could walk to the store.

“No! No stroller!” the boy cried to her. Calmly she knelt down and consoled her son. “You’re so upset. You really don’t want to go in the stroller, do you?”

As he began calming down, the mother – who’d been trained in mediation – told her son, “You know, Tom, I think we have a problem. I can’t carry you to the store, and it’s too far for you to walk. What do you think we should do?”

Since he had no solution, she suggested, “I have an idea. Do you want to hear it? You can get in the stroller yourself or I can put you in. Which do you want?”

“Me do it,” Tom answered.

Evans explained, “If we can give children choices, it helps them to be a participant in the process.”

It wasn’t too long before the same woman had an identical experience with her second, 16-month-old, son. As she summoned up the strength to show the same empathy to Jack, she heard his now 3-year-old brother, Tom, tell him, “Jack, we have a problem. Mommy can’t carry you all the way. Do you want Mommy to put you in the stroller, or do you want to get in the stroller yourself?” Jack hopped in the stroller.

Evans – author of “You Can’t Come to My Birthday Party! Conflict Resolution With Young Children (2002: HighScope Educational Research Foundation) and video script author and director of “It’s Mine! Responding to Problems and Conflicts” (2002) and “Supporting Young Children in Resolving Conflicts” (1998) – trains teachers and administrators at schools, preschools and day-care centers around the United States, Great Britain and Mexico. She has done workshops for the Family Resource Center in Greenfield and Deerfield Public Schools, as well as working as a behavioral consultant for Fitchburg Public Schools.

A graduate of Skidmore College and the University of Massachusetts, Evans trained in the Michigan-based HighScope Foundation’s program as well as the Mediation and Training Collaborative adult mediation program in Greenfield.

“I use her book as a resource,” said Cheryl Fox, a trainer at the Mediation and Training Collaborative, which also trains preschool staff in mediating conflicts.

It wasn’t until her sister was assaulted in Chicago that Evans began to connect her years of dealing with classroom conflicts with the larger issue of violence in society. Where does violence begin? How do children learn to respond to conflict?

“As soon as children can nod their head ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and have any receptive language, they can begin to process the idea that there’s a problem, that somebody else has needs and wants,” Evans said. “To my amazement, they can even indicate solutions.”

In a New York City classroom, Evans watched a dispute start up between two 3-year-old boys over a block.

“I don’t like you! You can’t come to my birthday party!” one boy, Fabian, emphasized to the other, Sean.

A teacher interceded, trying to calm the situation and validating the feelings of the boys, who already had been through the process in their class. Taking the block away to neutralize the situation, the teacher told them, “It sounds like we have a problem,” – a trigger for them to try to help by coming up with their own remedy.

“I know,” said Fabian: “ I can have it for 24 hours, and then Sean can have a turn.”

“No!” said Sean. “That’s too long!”

“How about 23 hours?” was Fabian’s counteroffer.

“Ok,” said Sean. He handed the block to Fabian, who returned it to Sean after a few minutes of playing.

Evans, whose work has focused on everyday classroom and family conflicts, and especially to helping children identify and name their feelings, said it’s important that adults support ideas the children offer through their words and gestures.

“Their solutions may sound unjust or unrealistic to adults, but it’s an emerging skill,” she said. Toddler diplomacy plays a valuable role in and of itself. “My hope for them is they’ll see all of the possibilities that are there.”

The creative ideas that children offer can be “startling,” and bring a new perspective that adults may not have even thought of, said Evans. And the extra time it takes is not time wasted.

“Very often teachers think, ‘If I could just now have all these conflicts, I’d have much more learning time,’” she said. “In fact almost everything children need to learn can be in this moment: classification, numbers, maybe even writing. It’s teaching a life skill.”

In fact, often the most creative peer mediators in elementary school settings are the same children who had been pegged as bullies when they were younger, Evans said. They’ve channeled their provocative behavior into a helpful role where they’re attuned to the feelings of peers.

In Mexico City, where Evans recently offered a 12 hour training for teachers, she heard a child who’d brought her own new-found problem-solving ability home to help her parents when the couple was embroiled in a heated argument. “Mom and Dad,” she told them in a way that soon had an impact on the family, “I think we have a problem.”

You can reach Richie Davis at or 413 772-0261, ext. 269