In my office, I have two green chairs that are more comfortable than my other office chairs. As chairs go, they’re entirely unexceptional. They’re comfortable enough but not extraordinarily so. But if you were to watch the way some of our kids argue over them, you’d assume they were truly heaven on earth for the butt cheeks of our nation’s youth!
Groups at Academy MetroWest happen in a gym. In a typical, 75 minute session, we do two cooperative, physical activities and then head into the office for a snack. Our kids play pretty hard during our gym activities. But it’s incredible to see how many budding Olympic sprinters are in our midst once they start heading for those green chairs. Kids have a knack for being able to argue about anything, but my chairs seem to possess some special quality that makes their occupancy something particularly worth battling over. If I let them, some of my kids with would argue for hours to prove that they are the ones most entitled to one of the thrones. In fact, I don’t let them do that because it really could go on for hours. Listening to extended arguments over this type of silliness will gradually eat away at your soul. Nobody wants that.
Among kids with social skills issues, particularly those on the autism spectrum, a propensity to argue can be a manifestation of deficits in any or all of three cognitive abilities; Theory of Mind – better known as perspective taking, Central Coherence – or the ability to see the big picture, and Executive Function, “an umbrella term for the management (regulation, control) of cognitive processes, including working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving as well as planning and execution.” (1) Seeing how deficits in perspective taking could affect one’s tendency to argue is pretty simple. If understanding others’ perspectives is something that doesn’t come easily or intuitively to you, you’re likely to view your participation in arguments as simply advocating for something to which you’re obviously entitled or for a position that’s clearly correct. This summer, someone wore a t-shirt to our summer camp that read “I’m not arguing. I’m just explaining why I’m right!” It made me laugh because it was such a great representation of the way some kids – and adults for that matter – think. It disregards the possibility that anyone else has a valid position that might be worth hearing. It also doesn’t take into account what a drag it is to being on the receiving end of one of those “explanations.”
Executive functions like impulsiveness, cognitive inflexibility, and deficits in emotional regulation also make it difficult for people to avoid “taking the bait” and becoming involved in arguments. They can also lead to people becoming stuck or being overwhelmed by anger and frustration, all of which make resolving the conflict or moving on from it very difficult.
A typical instance of “chair wars,” starts with claims of “I got here first!” or “He had it last week!” or “He only got to the chair first because he pushed me out of the way!” Cogent and captivating arguments, right?
Maybe the easiest and most obvious solution to the problem would be to set up a weekly schedule of who gets to sit in the comfy chairs. In fact, I’ve done this a few times with younger kids and it can, in fact, deflect these disagreements before they happen. You get some of the hard core arguers who might have a problem if they were absent on their scheduled week but, for the most part, it provides a concrete, structured way of ending arguments before they start. Even though this strategy can be helpful in facilitating a peaceful snack time, I tend not to use it much once kids reach 8 or 9 years old for the simple reason that learning to resolve conflicts is such an important aspect of social skills. By the time kids reach a certain age, it’s reasonable to expect that they should be able to settle petty disagreements, with or without adult support.
Another way to settle the argument is to listen to each kid state their case in an effort to fairly and equitably determine which of them is, in fact, most entitled to plant themselves in one of the chairs on any given week. Some of the kids I work with have spectacular verbal skills and I’m sure I’d hear some arguments worthy of a Supreme Court case. But if we followed that path, we’d never get to any activities and kids would inevitably leave the session feeling cheated and irritated.
I’ve found that the best way to resolve silly disagreements like the ones over my chairs is to help kids take a step back and see the big picture. What I’ve been doing lately has been to ask the kids to stop arguing for a moment to ask them a few questions. First, I ask “Before you got here today, how many of you were looking forward to coming?” Most of our kids enjoy the time they spend here and raise their hands. Then I ask “When you think about the group and what you enjoy about it, how many of you list ‘sitting in Bruce’s green chairs’ as the most important thing? How many of you have it in your top 5? Top 10?” Then I’ll say “If sitting in a green chair is not one of your 10 favorite things about coming here, why is it that right now it’s become the only important thing to you? Because what you’re doing is, in effect, choosing to spend the last 10 minutes of our group arguing over who gets to sit in these chairs, rather than having snack and doing something fun.” In response I’m usually met with a group of sheepish expressions, and a collective willingness to return to the group’s agenda. That’s not to say that a similar issue won’t arise during the following session but I’ve found that the more we practice working out disagreements like this, the less intense the successive arguments become.
1 Executive functions. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Executive_functions