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Teaching random acts of kindness

The Happy Workers Day Nursery is awash in peace.

By being held and comforted, even the 8-week-olds fussing in their cribs are learning that calm beats chaos. And the older kids are using their peace-making skills to settle differences. School executive director Dr. Virginia Irving hopes her program will make fighting obsolete.

But at this moment, peace isn't in the air. Little voices are rising. Then a whine. A scuffle has broken out.

A problem? Not necessarily. In Mary Conyers' class of 4-year-olds, a peace-making demonstration is about to take place. With 150 children at the school, it was bound to happen.

Bending down, Conyers asks two girls what happened.

"She spit in my face," the girl in a maroon outfit says.

The other girl with braids in her hair hides her face behind her hand and says nothing.

"Are you sorry?" Conyers asks her.

"Was that a peaceful thing to do? You wouldn't want her to spit in your face. Are you ready to apologize?"

The girl with the braids shakes her head no. The girl in maroon throws her arms around the aggressor and gives her a spontaneous hug. The other girl does not return it. Instead, she stands like a statue.

"Do you need time to think about it?" Conyers asks the braided girl. She shakes her head yes and sits at a table, her eyes downcast.

The confrontation, which started out as volatile, ends with a whimper.

"She felt bad in her heart," Conyers said on this recent day. "She'll brood about it for a while, but kids don't stay mad for long, then everyone is on an even keel again."

That's the way Irving, the center's director, wants it.

"Violence is a disease," said Irving, who has a doctorate in early and middle childhood education.

"There is a treatment. The foundation for strong citizens begins in early childhood," she said. She added that there is too much prison-building going on and not enough character-building.

"I think the focus is at the wrong end. This is where it should happen. We can set the stage for peace."

Inspired by the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood show and spurred on by a 20-year interest in peace-making, she started teaching it at the school which "was started 68 years ago with a foundation for peace-making" in 1989 and has been seriously tracking violent acts for more than a year. Happy Workers at 920 19th St. S serves 150 children ages 2 months to 5 years.

The program offers "opportunities to practice skills in conflict resolutions and techniques to identify and prevent violent acts." In other words, the children are saturated with messages of peace from the time they arrive at about 6:30 a.m. to the time they leave at around 5:30 p.m.

Alfie Gillespie teaches the "very young threes."

"I've been here 90 days, but it feels like 90 years," laughs the energetic teacher. A shy little boy is attached to her right leg and won't let go.

"Our slogan is, "Let's get it on by getting along,' " she said.

"The first instinct is to hit or bite. But we have a chart that shows eight ways of conflict resolution."

She holds up a copy of the chart and points to some of the slices of the pie. "They can (choose to) make a deal, go to another learning center, walk away _ the chart is posted in all the little learning centers," she said.

"It teaches kids to handle violence in another way. I've been in this classroom for two weeks, and it's working."

Gillespie hopes the idea will take off.

"The recent racial incident should increase the awareness to create more programs like this," she said, referring to the disturbances that broke out a year ago.

"We're hoping it will be nationwide, or at least communitywide."

Outside of the well-kept green and white school two flags, an American flag and a faded Halloween flag depicting a grinning pumpkin, flap in the breeze.

Behind a chain link fence encased in green plastic is an oasis of peace. White outlines of spray-painted circles _ reminders of a recent art project _ act as reflectors shooting strong sunlight from the ground. A bronze plaque next to the door dedicates the building to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Other than the flapping of the flags and the rhythmic thumping from a rap song blaring on a stereo of a brown Pontiac at the intersection just steps away, there is silence.

It is nap time. The "happy workers" are peacefully asleep inside.

That's how Gertrude Jones likes it. It gives her time to take a breather from the morning and gather her energy for another afternoon of non-stop activity from her pint-sized charges.

She sits at her desk amid a sea of cots filled with tiny, curled-up lumps under blankets. She's been doing this job for 23 years and has seen a lot of fights.

"Some parents will tell the children to hit someone back if they hit them," Jones said.

"That's making matters worse. The children will be angrier, then you have little fistfights going."

She says peace-making is not limited to specific activities such as story time, but is a way of life at the school.

"If we see they are having a conflict, we go over and ask what happened. Normally, one child is crying. We ask them, "How did you feel about what happened?' Normally, they tell you they didn't like it. We then have that child look at the child that (instigated) and have them say, "You had no right to hit me or push me or take my toy.' You have the aggressor say they are sorry. They usually apologize and start playing."

The teacher does not get angry. The children don't get angrier, and, instead of escalating, the fight ends on a positive note.

Jones is on the front line. Since the school has implemented peace-making into the curriculum, she has seen changes. "You can hear the children telling each other, "You were wrong. You shouldn't be doing that.' It shows some progress is coming from it," she said.

It's not just the kids who are benefiting.

"We have a program where the parents come in and learn peace-making skills," said Jones, who also gives them print-outs detailing policies of non-violence in the home reminding parents not to verbally, emotionally or physically abuse their kids which they can post on their refrigerators.

"Some of them are good about it. They learn from their children."

Still, she is unnerved about the rising violence among kids in society.

"It has changed from the '70s when I first started here," she said. She attributed much of the shift to what children see on television.

"We've been getting so many kids who are violent. From 1980 something up until now, I've seen the children become more aggressive. Children are getting blocks and making toy guns and saying pow-pow. The person they're shooting at just falls down."

Outside of Jones' classroom a door abruptly opens, and a teacher emerges from the darkness holding a blue canvas cot away from her body and sets it against the fence. She picks up the hose and points it toward the cot and lets the water roll down it. Someone had had an accident.

Inside the room are Conyers' 4-year-olds.

"We promote peace by resolving problems, how to respect authority, the laws of the land and their parents and teachers," she said. She kept one eye on the young group playing amicably toward the front of the room.

"Today we did the Little Engine That Could. The kids started acting up. I said to them, "Are we listening to our inside voices?" Inside voices talk softer. They shook their heads "no,' and a little boy said, "And we're not being respectful!' And they all apologized."

Irving, the director, can't say how the program has affected the community yet but knows it is contributing to the idea of peace-making.

"We've seen a lot of turn-around," she said. "Last month we had an open house. I sensed parents were relieved and grateful to know their children would be getting these (peace-making) experiences. They're really concerned about violence. They know it's there, but they are so caught up in life."

Last May, the teachers tracked violent acts, writing each one down and collecting the data. There were 136 cases of hair-pulling, pushing, ball snatching, hitting, screaming and physical aggressiveness toward a teacher in a month's time. This month they will do it again.

Will the numbers change for the better?

Irving hopes so. "It's part of collective chaos," she said of the past 20 years.

"The stage is set for a transition from violence to peace. As we move into the 21st century, these children will walk away from a war."

Making peace

Parents can help their children be more peaceful citizens by encouraging them to:

+ Respect the rights of others.

+ Tell others to respect us.

+ Remind them that the earth must be treated kindly.

+ Avoid abusing natural resources.

+ Remember friends are important.

+ Help others in need.

+ Give to others who are in need.

+ Share with one another.

+ Treat others with care.

+ Respect and be kind to themselves.