Ages & Stages: Learning to Resolve Conflicts

As they develop social and language skills, young children begin to make strides in their ability to work through conflicts and problem-solve

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Stage by Stage 3 - 4 

  • Threes are still quite egocentric, so sharing can be difficult at this age.
  • Since fours have more experience in social situations than threes, they are often able to compromise, share, and take turns.
  • Fours may resort to negative behaviors, such as name calling, as a way to feel powerful during disputes.

Stage by Stage 5 - 6

  • Fives and sixes can begin to understand abstract concepts about sharing and communication wher they directly relate to their immediate experience.
  • Children at this age are capable of "using their words" to resolve problems and conflicts
  • Fives and sixes can understand the idea of cause and effect when this is pointed out to them as they work to problem-solve.

3 to 4 Learning to Resolve Conflicts by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

While acting out roles in their fire station play, Jeremy, a 3-year-old, runs over to Phyllis and force fully grabs the fire fighter's helmet off her head. Phyllis begins to rub her head and cry. The teacher asks Jeremy, "Why did you take Phyllis's helmet away?" He replies with great sincerity, "I need it!" On the other side of the refrigerator box fire station, 4-year-old Brett tells his best buddy, Tony, "I want the fire truck back now. You've had a long enough turn. " When Tony doesn't give the truck back right away, Brett then suggests, "Here. You take my fire hose while I use the truck."

So many of the conflicts in a preschool classroom revolve around possession disputes. How preschoolers handle these depends upon their social and language skills and their perception of the situation. Not yet a highly verbal problem solver; 3-year-old Jeremy is often inclined to physically take what he needs instead of asking for it. Because threes are still quite egocentric, he considers the toys in his preschool center to be his. For this reason, it is very difficult for him to share. He feels he should get the helmet because he wants to have it and it is right there in front of him. He does not mean to make Phyllis cry, nor does he intentionally want to hurt her Even after the teacher explains why they should take turns, it is still difficult for 3-year-olds to understand this concept.

Pathways to Problem Solving

On the other hand, 4-year-old Brett is asserting himself in a more positive manner His extensive language skills enable him to let his friend, Tony, know exactly how he is feeling about the situation. Because 4-year-- olds are beginning to be able to see things from another child's point of view, Brett realizes that Tony won't have anything to play with if he takes the truck away. Brett tries out his negotiation skills as he attempts to avoid a conflict with his best friend by offering to trade the fire truck for the hose. Socially more experienced than threes, 4-year-olds often exhibit reciprocal behaviors such as compromising, bargaining, sharing, or taking turns with desired possessions.

Rules and Expectations

Rules made up by the children help preschoolers define their play and practice their social and language skills.

When 3-year-old Jill says to Jessica, "Follow me!" and Jessica doesn't do this, she may receive a frown, another verbal reminder, and then be left behind. The 3-- year-old calling out directions is usually more interested in her own activity than the other child's feelings. She may then try to engage a new playmate. The child left behind may decide to look for a more interesting project.

This activity is more complicated for fours. By demanding, "Follow me to the swings!" Marco may feel the need to make it clear to his friends that he is the leader in charge and a power struggle can arise. Frequently, a child who doesn't follow the rules is excluded from a small select group of threes.

Challenged by Conflict

Fours often resort to name calling or insults as a way to feel powerful during a dispute. They may declare, "Only a dummy doesn't follow the Captain!" Competition can create a further conflict and disagreement as one member of the group boasts, "I can swing higher than you!" As a solution to these kinds of conflicts, some young children resort to force, while others may walk away. As they exercise their social and language skills, some preschoolers learn to negotiate, share and take turns to help resolve disputes peacefully.

It's important to help children solve problems or conflicts in ways that they are comfortable with, keeping in mind their families' customs and their own learning styles and personalities.

What You Can Do

Help children to verbalize their thoughts. Demonstrate how they can use words to assert themselves instead of using force. Use puppets to help children practice a simple dialogue about taking turns and sharing.

Model sharing during daily activities. For example, explain, "I have a new can of red clay. How can I make sure everyone at the table has a lump to play with?"

Give children a voice in decision making. If one group wants to turn the block area into a hospital, and the class members seem to be having a territorial dispute, talk through and list their ideas so they can see others' viewpoints and make a community decision.

Read various stories about resolving conflicts. In Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose (Tricycle Press, 1998; $14.95), young readers are given an opportunity to discuss how they might solve a dilemma. In Kevin Henkes's Sheila Rae's Peppermint Stick (Greenwillow, 2001; $6.95), preschoolers discover that sometimes conflicts resolve themselves!

5 to 6 Able Problem Solvers by Ellen Booth Church

Connor and Martin are busily building next to each other in the block area when they reach for the same block. Tugging on the block, they angrily say in unison, "It's mine. I had it first!" Each child clearly believes the block  belongs to him. A conflict has emerged that will take some immediate action and discussion to resolve.

How can the teacher help Connor and Martin resolve their conflict? By encouraging children to use the skills they have available to them. Five and 6-year-olds are able to grasp abstract concepts about sharing and communication, as long as they are presented in a concrete way. As 5-year-olds, Connor and Martin are "here and now" children. They can apply conflict resolution skills presented by an adult when they are in the midst of a situation. This is different from younger children who tend to stay fixed in an emotional state during conflict and may not be able to imagine or even hear suggestions made by an adult to resolve their conflicts.

Discussing the "It's Mine!" Conflict

It is important for children to take an active role in solving social conflict. At this stage of development, children are capable of understanding the importance of "using their words" to discuss the problem. However, they may need an adult negotiator to help them through the situation. The teacher in this kindergarten knew that the first step was to help Connor and Martin control their emotions and define the problem. As she held the block in question (while the children calmed down) she invited each child, one at a time, to tell his version of the event while the other listened.

Brainstorming Solutions

The key next step was to invite the children to verbalize possible solutions to the problem that would be satisfying to both of them. In this situation, there may be similar blocks on the shelf that can be counted out equally and shared. Or perhaps they can combine their blocks and build a larger structure together. The teacher helped Connor and Martin choose a solution and then observed for a few moments as they tried it out. Under the watchful eye of a compassionate adult, the children not only solved the problem but also learned the steps to problem solving. By expanding their conflict-resolution vocabulary and brainstorming options, she has used the developmental strengths of their age level to move the children to a more mature method of dealing with conflict that they will (with additional experiences) be able to apply to many different situations.

Talking About Results

Five- and 6-year-olds can clearly understand the principles of cause and effect, but they may need to have these principles pointed out in each situation. After children have worked through a conflict, talking about the effects of their resolution provides concrete understanding about the value of working things out.

What You Can Do

  • Do it NOW! Deal with conflict in the moment instead of waiting. Children will grasp the situation and experiment with solutions better when events are current.
  • Introduce the "ABCD" steps to problem solving. A: Ask what is the problem; B: Brainstorm solutions; C: Choose a solution to try; D: Do it!
  • Model vocabulary that can be used in conflict resolution. Try showing children how you resolved a conflict of your own.

Five- and 6-year-olds are at the stage of developing conflict resolution skills-not necessarily mastering them. It will take some time and experience for children to use some of these skills independently. 

  • Subjects:
    Early Social Skills, Social and Emotional Development
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