Japanese “hands-off” approach to conflict can create learning opportunities

Published on Tuesday, 24 August 2021
Last updated on Tuesday, 24 August 2021

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When a tussle breaks out between children in child care an educator’s usual practice is to immediately intervene to stop the conflict, and then mediate with children to resolve the issue.

In comparison, Japanese preschools have a “hands-off” approach, which creates more opportunities for children to nurture social and interpersonal skills on their own, according to a new study published in the Early Childhood Education Journal.

This approach is a pedagogical strategy known as mimamoru. It’s a non-intervention practice that involves educators and adults in Japan intentionally letting children handle their own disagreements.

Mimamoru is a blending of Japanese words mi, meaning watch, and mamoru, meaning guard or protect, it corresponds to a method of “teaching by watching”.

“Watching” the researchers clarified, doesn’t mean that adults ignore the safety of children. Rather it allows Japanese educators the ‘option’ of non-intervention for responding to fights.

Educators intervene when the risk of physical harm caused by fighting is greater than the benefit for children to learn. This allows the children to learn through their exploration of autonomy while still under the protection of adults. When children begin to fight, Japanese educators will prepare to intervene, including moving closer to the children and observing them carefully to determine if any intervention is necessary.

According to study author, ECEC specialist and associate professor at Hiroshima University's Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Fuminori Nakatsubo, this study aims to understand the reason why Japanese early childhood educators tend not to intervene, and how and in what contexts they do.

The Japanese Hiroshima University research team involved early childhood educators from Japan and the United States participating in focus groups. The researcher said insights gleaned from exploring the mimamoru approach could provide educators with fresh perspectives on disciplinary practices, particularly in countries where direct and immediate intervention is prioritised.

While mimamoru is not an official part of Japan’s early childhood education and care curriculum, it is treated as a general guideline.

The mimamoru approach reflects Japanese socialisation practices at home and school, where it is a norm for adults to wait for children to respond to problems and guide them to take ownership of their learning.

In Japan, 97 per cent of children ages three to six attend early childhood education and care facilities.

Maximising learning through minimal intervention

The implication of this unique approach is that if an adult steps in immediately to stop the conflict, they are not allowing children the opportunity of learning about what is going on and how they should behave to manage it.

By intentionally allowing children to handle their own disagreements, educators and adults are promoting learning through voluntary explorations and actions.

The study noted that allowing children to experience a feeling of “It hurts!” (physical pain) or “Oh no, I shouldn’t have done it!” (guilt) can be a teachable moment and that physical fights do not solve any problem.

A total of 34 Japanese and 12 United States early childhood educators participated in focus groups that used video-cued multi-vocal ethnography (these are video recordings of typical days in preschool, which are used as interviewing cues with teachers, directors, and early childhood education experts to identify cultural beliefs and practices).

These videos were used to scrutinise the non-intervention strategy. After watching a video clip, the educators discussed non-verbal cues exhibited by the children and educators and the timing of intervention.

The three major characteristics of the approach are defined as:

  • Temporary, minimal intervention to reduce the immediate risk of physical harm
  • Non-intervention or staying out of the fight to encourage children to solve their problem and
  • Non-presence or leaving the children by themselves once determined that they can sort out their dilemma without adult support.

Selecting which to apply among these three characteristics relies heavily on an educator’s patience in balancing benefits in relation to threats, careful observation of behaviours, and trust in the children’s capacity to learn from their own experiences.

“Although the mimamoru approach looks passive, it challenges educators to remain patient, watching and waiting for children to think and act on their own. An underlying assumption of this Japanese practice is adults’ trust in children’s inherent goodness, more specifically, their ability to learn through everyday social interactions,” the researchers explained. 

Participants in the study from the United States observed that policies to protect children from any physical harm may not allow educators in their country to wait for children to solve their own problems.

But they recognised that it might be worth trying it out in their classrooms once they secured parental consent and applied some modifications that fit with the country’s educational and policy contexts.

A New Zealand perspective to handling conflict

An article in The Education Hub titled How to handle conflicts between young children, by educator Dr Vicki Hargraves says: While conflict should not be avoided, or quickly stopped by adults imposing solutions, too much conflict can be stressful for everyone in an early childhood setting and so preventative measures, such as clearly understood routines and behavioural expectations, are important.”

Following is a summary of Dr Hargraves suggestions to support children to learn from conflicts:

  • Being alert to situations that may lead to conflict, such as over-crowding in an area, a lack of resources or children’s preferences for special items.
  • Taking a moment to think, observe, and get calm, before responding, to help you in professional decision-making.
  • Intentionally deciding whether to intervene in conflicts, or give children the opportunity for independent practice. Research suggests children under three are capable of independent conflict resolution, using strategies such as withdrawing or retreating, giving up without a fight, or using non-verbal strategies such as smiling or offering toys, especially if they are engaged in joint play before the conflict. Research with older children shows that children can resolve conflicts themselves using strategies such as reasoning, apologising, or suggesting cooperative ideas for play. Observe children’s progress, so you can support children if necessary.
  • Facilitating learning opportunities for children within conflict resolution, rather than directing children, restating rules, distracting children from the conflict, or other strategies intended to restore harmony for the sake of classroom management, as these remove children’s involvement from the process. Avoid focusing on ideas of fairness or justice, which will lead you to direct the choose solutions for children rather than listening to children’s ideas for resolution.
  • Questioning to seek clarification about what is going on and each child’s perspective. This encourages children to communicate with each other, and also gives children the message that the responsibility for resolving the conflict belongs to them.
  • Comforting, encouraging and affirming children, which is found to increase children’s participation in problem-solving and sharing of perspectives with peers.
  • Restating the problem clearly back to children with statements like “Oh I see, there’s only one truck”, to encourage children’s involvement in solving their own conflict problem.
  • Offering children a range of possible things to say (“please can I have a turn?” or “I am playing with this now”” or “that annoys me!”) to help children learn social skills and appropriate language.

References and further reading:

Eureka Alert Media Release: Japan's hands-off formula in disciplining schoolchildren works. Is it worth a try elsewhere?

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