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How To Teach Debating To Young Children

A sanity kit for the teachers of Debaters

Motto: "Whoever has the last word, wins!"  

  • are determined,
  • often dispute things and don't give in,
  • are well suited to a career in the law courts, and 
  • have often learned at home to argue with brothers and sisters, and they bring this well-honed skill into your classroom. 
One great example is the former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. 
How To Teach Debating To Young Children

Helping Debaters to change 

"I put it to you that at 2:13 p.m. last Thursday, when your back was turned, Michael ate my piece of chocolate while Sally scribbled in my book and Emily smirked at me. A great travesty of justice has occurred!"

No, you are not in a courtroom, you are listening to a Debater complain to his or her teacher. You have in your class a student with the verve, energy, and analytical skills of an expert prosecutor, able to debate, cite examples, and refute defensive teachers in a single bound. Having a Debater in your class is like teaching a Human Rights Commissioner. "It's not fair" is a claim you may hear a lot.

Minor variations in procedures can escalate into major infringements of human liberty, fraternity and egalitarianism. You'll hear claims like:

  • "It's not fair, [choose any of the following:]
  • I didn't get four minutes on the computer."
  • I wasn't allowed out till I finished the work." 
  • my piece of chocolate cake is not as big as..." 
  • I had to bring my own pencil. Why doesn't ... have to bring theirs?" 
The list is endless, and is often accompanied by: "And I'll get my Mom [or Dad] up here to talk to you about this!" 

You can end up in incredible knots with these kids as you try to justify the fairness of it all: "No, it is fair, because last week when you were away at the dentist, Mick missed out on two minutes on the computer, Sally had a smaller piece of chocolate cake, David finished his work early, and Briony brought her own pencil," you might reply.
It's enough to send you around the twist! Unless you want to become a rule-bound teacher who rigidly applies the same procedures to everyone, whether they need it or not, you'll have to find another way to handle complaints from the Debaters.


First, allow them to briefly articulate their point of view. Restate your decision and then, rather than going for justification, aim for empathy.
"You must be finding it difficult/be upset that this time you didn't get the biggest piece/more computer time." "Try to be kind and understanding, but don't offer to shift your position.

Sometimes Debaters will want to continue the discussion. If so, say something like, "I'm really interested and would like to hear more about it another time. Come and chat with me at the end of the day."

If they do come to see you later, ask them to explain and then ask them to tell you what would make it fair. Don't promise to do what they suggest. Just listen, then say, "Thanks for your ideas."

With Debaters, it's important to recognize that you don't have to solve the issue right away. In fact it's often a good idea to be caring but not particularly useful in resolving their complaints.

If they do grind you to the point where you shift your position, be honest about it and say something like, "You're right, it would be fairer the way you suggested." Don't shift your position too much, though. If you do, you teach Debaters and the rest of the class that everything is negotiable. This will allow open season on one of your most prized possessions - your sanity.

Giving in too much to Debaters can result in other children feeling like you are playing favorites, and can also lead to you trying to balance favors. For example: I let [Debater] have her way last time, so this time I will make her wait. Trying to keep an ongoing tally of who got what when is too complicated and exhausting.

Oh, one last thought: try not to sit them next to Manipulators. The two in collusion is a wild mix. To find out more, you can check out How To Teach Debating To Young Children.