Enter the preschool classroom at Irving Elementary School and you will see youngsters solving problems. Not math problems or word problems, but the social problems many grown-ups still struggle with.
The 4- and 5-year-old children at the Mesa school ask for what they want and they stand up for themselves. They practice empathy and resolve conflicts with words, not fists. They each have a job and contribute to their community — in this case, a classroom.
By setting the stage in preschool, educators believe these children can lead a new generation of kids who won’t turn into bullies or allow themselves to be bullied.
"They are so nurturing and caring of one another, and they love their jobs," said teacher Venus Leopold, who began using the "conscious discipline" method four years ago and also trains East Valley parents and teachers.
In Leopold’s class, child- ren are taught that when a classmate is sad, anyone can comfort him, not just the teacher. When a student acts out, they deserve as much attention as the person they may have hurt.
"They view him as someone who needs help, not the bad guy," she said. "If we mess up, we are still deserving of love."
Research shows that children who bully are more likely to struggle academically and socially, and get involved with crime as adults. Child development experts say that these kids typically have had trouble expressing their needs and getting them met from a very early age. Their victims may be passive and allow the abuse.
"I seriously believe that if we could start in the early years giving kids the language and the skills to advocate for themselves, we could eliminate the bullying that takes place in the schools," said Peggy Senn, who coordinates parenting programs for Mesa Unified School District.
The old ways of handling conflicts impose consequences without teaching a skill. These include the common classroom behavioral techniques of giving kids green, yellow or red lights, putting their names on the board, giving them checkmarks or excluding them from recess, parties or other events if they misbehave.
As children get older, discipline may mean suspension or expulsion from school. Recent antibullying legislation, which stalled in the state Senate, would have required school districts to toughen their reporting and disciplinary procedures for bullies.
But once a bully is expelled, what then?
"If all we do is isolate our kids — we read them the rules, they break the rules and we kick them out — how do we help them become contributing, young adults?" Senn said. "We don’t. We just isolate them. And that isolation builds up all that anger and fear."
Like all preschoolers who are learning social skills, there are daily conflicts in Leopold’s classroom. They’re just handled a bit differently.
On a recent morning, preschoolers Landon and Allen both wanted to play with the same telephone.
"You want to use the telephone and you want to use the telephone — what can we do?" Leopold asked them.
Landon thought for minute, then found another play phone and handed it to Allen. Allen shook his head. Then Landon offered to give the phone to Allen after he had used it for a little while. Allen thought that sounded OK.
"Come with me and we’ll set the timer," Leopold said to the 5-year-olds.
When the timer rang five minutes later, Landon gave a grimace, then handed the phone to Allen.
Instead of taking the phone away — a common solution for parents and teachers, but basically useless for the children — Leopold let the boys solve their problem. The children stood up for themselves and got what they needed.
"It doesn’t matter who had it first," she said. "It matters that they both wanted it."
Conscious discipline, developed by Florida educator Becky Bailey, doesn’t mean giving in and letting kids have their way. It means helping them choose to do the right thing.
"There are consequences, and I would’ve taken that phone if they couldn’t come to an agreement," Leopold said.
Now in practice at several Mesa elementary schools, conscious discipline techniques will be expanding to more. Leopold began training teachers and parents in the Higley Unified School District last semester, and will continue sessions in both districts this fall.
There is a beanbag chair near some books in Leopold’s classroom that serves as the "safe place" for children anytime they feel like they need it. When times are tough at home, such as when parents are going through a divorce, she said, "some kids will come and spend their whole day sitting in that safe place."
Lunchtime aide Rebecca Dwyer, who took Leopold’s five-week training, has designated a playground bench as a "safe place."
Parent Tammy Rodriguez also took the training. Her son, Stevan, is in Leopold’s class, but she said it’s helped her most with 3-year-old Justin. She makes a point to have one-on-one time with him: "It makes him feel like he’s important."
"I just felt like I needed to control him," she said. "But he needs to have choices."
To learn more about "conscious discipline" and how to bring it into your home or classroom, as well as other parenting classes, call Mesa Unified School District’s Parent University, (480) 472-0373, or visit www.mpsaz.org/parentu or www.beckybailey.comhttp://www.beckybailey.com