Be strong, Be Mean, or Give In?

Two lessons for grades 3-5:


Note to the Teacher:

Children meet situations every day in which they must decide how to balance their own interests in relation to the interests of other people:

  • You want to be alone, but a friend wants to be with you. What do you do?
  • A classmate teases you or calls you a name. How do you respond?
  • You're walking along a busy city street with your mom and decide you want an ice cream cone. You know your mom won't be enthusiastic about the idea. How do you ask?
  • Your family is having a conversation around the dinner table, and you have an opinion you'd like to state, but everyone is talking so fast. How do you get people to listen to what you have to say?
  • An older kid says you have to give him the cake from your lunch or he'll beat you up.
  • Two close friends ask you to join them in stealing money from another kid's backpack.
  • Your younger brother keeps bothering you when you're trying to do your homework.

In these situations, children need to know that they have choices. They can go on the attack. They can stand up for their interests or convictions. Or they can give in, going along with the other person's request, even though they don't want to. Adults call these choices "aggression," "assertiveness," and "submission." With children, we speak of being mean, being strong, and giving in.

Although we're partial to assertiveness, there is no one right way to respond to the myriad of complex situations children (or adults) confront daily. Sometimes we'll agree to "give in" and let a friend join us even if we really want to be alone. We may see that the friend is feeling blue and needs some companionship; or perhaps the friend has a compelling reason for spending time with us now — she's going away or has something important to tell us. Sometimes we may need to be very firm to get our point across to someone who just isn't getting it, and that person may experience us as mean.

Our aim is that children learn to think flexibly in order to come up with the approach that fits the situation and develop skills to carry it out. This means showing youngsters that they have a range of choices in any given situation and expanding their repertoire of ways to be strong. Too often children (and adults) in our society fall into the habit of being aggressive or submissive rather than taking the path that is usually most effective in the long run: assertiveness.

Like active listening, assertiveness is a stance toward life, a way of being in the world. Like active listening, assertiveness also involves a set of skills we can practice and improve. With young children (grades K-2) we focus on the most basic skills of assertiveness: saying no; and making a strong, clear, confident statement of what you want. With older children, we introduce additional strategies, such as "I-messages."

In the following two lessons, we apply ideas of assertiveness to the kinds of situations children face daily, and give them a chance to practice skills in standing up for themselves and being strong.

Lesson #1:

A Role Play on Choices

Students will:

  • observe a role play in which two friends are having a conflict

  • describe the problem and how the characters are feeling

  • identify the choices the characters have in the situation


Role plays are useful for working on assertiveness with students in Grades 3-5. The role play below picks up on the theme of being different as well as on the challenge of standing up to peer pressure. If it doesn't seem appropriate for your class, please create another tailored to your class's needs.

Here's the situation. Jennie is different from the other kids in the class in several ways: she always wears dresses (rather than the jeans and t-shirts the other kids wear); the dresses often seem out of style and a bit big on her; she's shy; and whether in the classroom, the lunchroom or the school yard, she always carries a notebook around with her for her favorite activity, writing.

Victoria is the most popular girl in the class, a leader. She decides she wants to have some fun by getting several other girls to join her in a plan to get Jennie's notebook away from her and hide it.

Victoria approaches Latoya, one of several girls in the class who like to hang out with her, and tells her of the plan. "The only time she isn't holding that stupid notebook is when she works at the computer," says Victoria. "Watch her closely and when you get your chance, take the notebook and give it to me. I'll find a good place for it."

Latoya admires Victoria and enjoys being her friend. Being friends with Victoria gives her status in the class. However, she doesn't like this idea. First, she's pretty sure that if she takes part in the scheme, she'll get in trouble. But she also has nothing against Jennie. Sure, she's a little strange, but Jennie has always been nice to her; in fact, Jennie gave her half of her sandwich when she'd forgotten her lunch one day.

So Latoya doesn't want to take part in Victoria's plan. In fact, she doesn't want Victoria to do anything to hurt Jennie. But it's also important for her to remain Victoria's friend. And she doesn't want the other kids in the class to look down on her, as they do Jennie.
Ask for three volunteers: one to play Victoria, one to play Latoya, and one to be the narrator (who will fill in necessary background). Brief your actors on their roles. Make name tags for them with the names they will have in the role play. Use the names suggested above only if they are the names of no children in your class.

A good ritual for beginning role plays is to lead the class saying in unison, "Lights, camera, action!"

Now, run the skit.

  • Freeze the action while Victoria is still trying to convince Latoya to help her carry out her plan.

  • Ask, what is happening? Encourage the students to describe what is going on as objectively as possible. Then ask, how do you think the characters are feeling?

  • Ask, what are Latoya's choices? What are the different ways she might deal with the situation?

  • Elicit the student's ideas and write them on the board. Push them to come up with a wide range of possibilities.

  • Discuss: What do you think is the right thing for Latoya to do in this situation? Why? Do you think that will be easy or hard for her? What would you do? Why?


Lesson #2:

Strong, Mean, and Giving In / Assertive, Aggressive, Submissive

Students will:

  • learn the words "strong," "mean," and "giving in" to describe the choices they have in conflict situations

  • apply those ideas to clarify the choices faced by characters in a role play

  • practice predicting the results or consequences of certain choices

Introduce the words "mean," "strong," and "giving in." The students will probably have a good idea of the usual meanings of these words. Elicit their understandings. Then summarize the discussion by putting forth the following definitions:

Mean = doing something to hurt another person (their body or their feelings) or using force or threats to make somebody do something they don't want to do.

Giving in = going along with what someone wants you to do even though you'd rather do something else; and

Strong = being nice and respecting the other person while standing up firmly for yourself (your rights, your interests)

For each of the three definitions, elicit examples from students. (Depending on the age and maturity of your students, you may also want to introduce them to the "adult" words: assertive, aggressive, and submissive.)

Now apply those categories of response to the choices Latoya had in her interaction with Victoria. Which were "giving in"? Which were "strong"? Were any "mean"?


Refer to the role play with Victoria and Latoya. Ask the children to recall the situation. Say that one way to make a good choice is to think ahead about what is likely to happen as a result of your choice.

Select student volunteers to replay the skit as before, except this time they will act out one of the ideas the class proposed as choices for Latoya. Confer with the student playing Latoya and ask her to decide which course of action she'll have Latoya follow. It can be any of the choices; it doesn't have to be the one the student thinks is best.
Run the skit: "Lights, camera, action!"

Freeze the action after the two characters have had some dialogue back and forth. Ask the students to describe what has happened in the role play. What choice did the character Latoya make? How has Victoria responded? What do they think will happen next?

Have student actors act out several of Latoya's choices and discuss as above. The aim is not to arrive at a definitive answer about what will happen in any given situation, but to show the children that it's possible — and important — to anticipate consequences.