Young Children and Conflict Resolution


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Preschool is a time when children acquire important foundational skills that they will carry with them into elementary school and beyond. In addition to learning academic concepts, children also learn social-emotional skills that help them communicate, build healthy relationships, and resolve conflicts with peers. 

As children fight over a toy, argue about who should be first in line, or debate over roles in pretend play, they are learning important skills in conflict resolution. To form healthy relationships, now and in the future, children will need to know how to cope with feelings of frustration, have healthy conversations, and constructively express feelings. As caregivers and educators, it is our job to give children the tools to resolve conflicts when they arise. 

Encouraging Communication

Children in early learning programs often spend long days together sharing toys, materials, and space, so it is inevitable that arguments will arise. Because these situations happen so often, you might feel frustrated and be tempted to avoid getting involved. However, young children do not always have the skills or abilities to constructively work through an argument, and sometimes they require the support of an adult to learn how to address the situation.

When children come up to you with complaints, such as “he did…” or “she won’t let me…” they are asking for your support to help them resolve the situation. Rather than instructing them to work it out on their own, take a moment to sit down with the children. Encourage both children to express their perspectives about what is going on and how they are feeling, allowing each child a chance to speak without interruption. Then, repeat back what they said, highlighting each child’s feelings. You might say something like, “Jack, it sounds like you really wanted to use the dinosaur, and you were sad that you didn’t get a turn…and, Max, it sounds like you weren’t finished using the dinosaur and felt angry when Jack tried to take it from you.” 

This will help children learn to articulate their feelings and develop empathy as they acknowledge the feelings of their peers. Once feelings have been identified, you can ask the children how they might work this out with a question like, “What do you think we could do to make sure everyone feels like they have a fair turn to use the dinosaur?” This will help children learn to work together to find solutions, rather than having an adult come up with the answer. If the children don’t have an idea, you can offer a suggestion and ask if both children think it feels fair. 

Although whining, crying, and fighting children can sometimes be difficult to engage with, children need our support to learn how to address these conflicts. If we give children the tools to diffuse these situations on their own, they can eventually start to handle them with more independence. 

Remember your ABC’s

Scholastic recommends an ABCD approach to helping children solve conflicts. This acronym can be a handy reminder during moments of high-stress conflict. 

A: Ask children what the problem is

B: Brainstorm solutions with the children involved

C: Choose a solution to try (make sure that everyone is on board and that the solution is fair) 

D: Do it!

So, take a deep breath, think about your ABCs, and then start a conversation with the children!

After the final step, you might want to check back in with the children to see how the solution worked. Was it successful? Is this something they might want to try again in the future? How are the children feeling? Asking these questions will help children reflect. When children answer your questions, they will also be continuing to practice articulating their thoughts and expressing their feelings. 

Know When Children Need a Break

Some days, there is one child who seems to be in conflict with everyone. The child might be irritable, impatient, whiny, or moody, and might have a difficult time getting along with the other children. In these situations, the issue might be less about each individual conflict, and more about the child. He or she might have things going on at home or could simply be tired. Whatever the reason, you might want to pull that particular child aside and ask if they need anything. 

Rather than scold the child in front of the rest of the children, quietly initiate a conversation with the child and ask if he or she is doing okay. You might even invite the child to take a break from the rest of the class and have one-on-one time with you or another educator. In these situations, when children are calling out for attention, the best approach is often to give them that attention. While we should always address any harmful or inappropriate behavior, we can do this in a supportive way that recognizes the child’s struggle.

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