Young children can learn how to resolve conflicts with adult guidance and support

Handling conflict productively is an important life skill.

Many young children have difficulty sharing, waiting their turn, or finding appropriate ways to get their needs fulfilled. Conflicts between children can be a daily occurrence with preschoolers and Michigan State University Extension states that “guiding children’s behavior is an ongoing process.”

There are simple steps that adults can begin using immediately to assist children in learning how to resolve conflict. The steps take practice by the children who are learning them and patience by the adult who is modeling and teaching the steps.

  • Help children calm down. Often when children are faced with conflict they are full of emotion and are not ready to begin a process of resolution. Approach the child calmly at his eye level and use gentle touch. Acknowledge that there is an issue and suggest some ways to calm down. “I see that you have a problem. It looks like you might need to take a few deep breaths to relax a little.” Stay neutral! When adults attempt to find blame in a conflict the situation can easily escalate strong emotions. Children at this point need to feel they are being heard in order to calm down.
  • Talk about wants and needs. All children who are involved in a conflict need to have an opportunity to express what it is that they want or need. Stay focused on the ‘want’ and don’t focus on what happened. Reflect what the child is feeling by acknowledging his feelings with a head nod, short phrases, or repeating what he is saying in a clear manner. “You really wanted that toy and Joey had it in his hand.” Give the child’s feeling a name. “It is frustrating to want something that someone else has.”
  • Define the problem. After getting the child to voice his want or need you will have to turn the issue into one neutral statement. Repeat what the children involved in the conflict are saying in a clear statement. “Hmmm, I see that two children want to play with the same toy.”
  • Help the children find a solution. One easy way to get the children thinking about ways to solve a problem is to restate the issue and ask a question that begins with the word “what.” “What could you do to solve this problem?” “What other choices do you think might work?” Assist the children who are involved in the conflict to brainstorm a list of solutions before you assist them in moving forward to put one into practice. In many cases it seems easier to just tell children what they should do. By solving the problem for children you are depriving them of an opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems. Children can only learn this skill from trial and error. Both parties involved in the conflict will need to try the solution to see if it will work.
  • Take a look at the solution. Not all solutions that children recommend will work and if a problem persists, you need to begin the process over. It is important to remind the children that the solution needs to be safe and fair for both parties. Stay nearby to support the solution and praise the children when problem solving has worked. “I see you found a way to take turns with the toy. That’s called cooperation.”

Adults set the stage for teaching conflict resolution by demonstrating, as issues arise, how to approach and solve problems. The goal of adults in this process should not be to prevent conflict from happening but rather to teach children how to resolve conflict in a safe and fair manner.

Many good tips and tools to assist adults to teach conflict resolution are available through the Center for Social Emotional Foundations of Early Learning (CSEFEL) at Vanderbilt University. Families and pre-school care providers can access a solution kit that features picture choices for young children to assist in resolving conflicts.

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