0 to 2 "WANT TRUCK!" by Carla Poole

Six-month-old Matthew wails while his teacher hurries to prepare a bottle for him. But when she tries to feed him, Matthew turns his head away and flails his arms. His teacher calmly tries again, thinking he just needs to settle a little. Again he refuses. His teacher decides to try something else and begins rocking him. Surprisingly, this calms him down and he begins to fall asleep.

Both baby and teacher feel relieved. Managing problems with sensitivity creates a trusting and secure relationship. This is the first step toward helping a child learn how to handle the conflicts that life offers all of us.

Exploring With Peers

During the first year, babies see each other as interesting objects to explore. What looks like conflict-pulling hair, grabbing, poking, or pinching-is common exploratory behavior. When babies are sitting or lying near each other, stay nearby and physically model gentle behavior. Hold the infant's hand and stroke the other baby's head gently.

Managing Emotions

Twenty-month-old Sasha stands as if he is glued to the floor and shrieks loudly as Ryan yanks a fire truck from his hands. Their teacher gently corrals the toddlers together. With a calm, firm voice she explains, "Sasha is very angry that you grabbed the fire truck." Turning to Sasha, she says, "Sasha, tell Ryan you want the fire truck." Sasha flushes with anger and yells, "Want truck!" The teacher continues to describe the toddlers' feelings and desires. Eventually Ryan begrudgingly drops the fire truck after being reassured that he will get to play with it when Sasha is done.

Young toddlers have passionate feelings. Anger is a useful emotion that helps toddlers stand up for themselves or persevere at a challenging task. When the emotion is too strong, toddlers need an adult to help them handle their anger.

Learning Through Conflict

Fortunately, thinking about what you want toddlers to learn from conflicts helps you to stay calm and respect their honest feelings. In this example, the teacher is helping Sasha learn to assert himself by using words to express how he is feeling and what he wants. Ryan is learning that he does not have to be aggressive to get what he wants. The teacher is teaching the toddlers to talk and listen to each other.

Stepping in

Sometimes toddler squabbles blow over quickly if teachers don't intervene. If you step in too soon, or too often, you become a referee who rewards the behavior with your full attention. Of course, when toddlers are in danger of being harmed, you must intervene.

Making Choices

Two-year-olds are known to dig in their heels during conflict. This is because they are starting to feel powerful while simultaneously realizing how little control they have over their own lives. Be sure they have opportunities to make choices about important things, such as which activity they will do. Two-year-olds will challenge being rushed or bossed and do the opposite. So talk through the situations with respect.

What You Can Do:

With Infants:

  • Try to limit the number of times you say no to an infant.
  • Offer babies encouragement and guidance to set the tone for their developing style of being with other children.
  • Offer another toy when a baby grabs one from a friend.

With Toddlers:

  • Keep the overall level of frustration low. Too much sitting or waiting time creates conflict.
  • Provide lots of physical activity and sensory materials. This reduces conflicts between children.
  • If two toddlers are fussing over a toy, play with another toy yourself. Your attention makes that toy desirable!

3 to 4 "NO, YOU CAN'T PLAY!" by  Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

Two 4-year-old boys, Dana and Nour, are creating a space rocket from large cardboard boxes. Jamie, 3 ½, watches this exciting action on the nearby "launch pad." After a while, Jamie asks, "Can I play astronaut?" Dana immediately responds, "No, weirdo! You are not strong enough to build a big rocket." Angry, his feelings hurt, Jamie kicks over a box. Then he retorts, "You can't come to my birthday party," and runs away to tell his teacher.

Squabbling Leads to Learning

Such squabbling takes place frequently among preschoolers. It is a common and very natural occurrence that helps young children learn how to relate to others while developing their social skills.

Using Verbal Strategies

With a good command of vocabulary, threes and, particularly, fours have learned about the power of language. During their conflict, the boys used such tactics as yelling at each other, name calling, and making threats. Although these verbal strategies may make those using them feel powerful, the recipient frequently ends up with bruised feelings. This situation is due, of course, to the preschoolers' egocentrism, which may not allow them to completely understand the others' hurt feelings.

Another way that preschoolers deal with conflict is to back away from it or run away to tell the teacher, as Jamie did. Young preschoolers have very short attention spans. They are involved with many different brief interactions every day. Because they must continually gain entry daily into many groups, the potential for conflict is great. It is often easier, especially for less socially mature threes, to simply move on to another interesting activity or ask the teacher for help.

Getting Attention Through Aggression

At times, because they are frustrated or angry at not getting their way or their feelings are hurt, preschoolers may act out physically. This is just what Jamie did when he interrupted the boys' play action by kicking the box. Hitting others and knocking over things are also ways of demanding attention during a conflict. By using physical aggression, a child is saying, "Look at me. I'm powerful!"

Struggling for Power

Threes are most apt to quarrel over possession of toys and playthings. By the time they are 4, because of their need to feel more grown-up, preschoolers become involved with power struggles over control issues. They want to be first in line or have the biggest piece of cake at lunch. Some children try to control by assigning play roles or telling others how to do something, and then conflicts ensue. Fours, in particular, learn they can overpower by yelling and taking advantage of smaller, less assertive children.

Preschoolers often misread others' intentions because of their difficulty conceptualizing things from another's viewpoint. If they feel someone is receiving a special privilege, there may be a real conflict or a personality clash.

What You Can Do:

Model pro-social behavior. When issues arise between children, demonstrate problem solving in positive, kind ways.

Use active listening. Help children define their problems. As you interpret children's feelings, give names to the feelings and reflect the feelings and names back to the children.

Coach children to empower them. When a child has been refused entry to a group, show him techniques that may help him gain access to play. be available to assist if help is needed.

Use self-regulating devices. For group entry conflicts, try using necklace tags at the entrance to a center so children can independently control how many are allowed to play with materials in an area.

5 to 6 "DO IT MY WAY!" by Ellen Booth Church

A small group of children is overheard as they are playing in the block area. "That's not how to build a road. See, it has to be wide and straight to fit all the cars." "No, it doesn't. I want it small so it can wind around the buildings."

The children argue back and forth about the size of the road until the first child finally says, "Well, I got here first so you have to do it MY way! "-at which point they call in the teacher. Ms. Grass listens to both ideas and then asks the children to consider a way to incorporate both of their ideas.

Using Language to Problem Solve

At 5 and 6 years old, children are becoming more and more aware of ways to manage conflict. Instead of reacting with hitting or pushing, children at this stage are aware of the "power of their words" and may be willing to talk about a problem before it escalates. Fives and sixes may even try working things out with peers before asking an adult for help. At the same time, they know that the adult in charge is a resource during conflicts and that they can ask for help when they can't negotiate a problem.

Considering the Big Picture

Typically, 5- and 6-year-olds tend to focus on one thing at a time. They want to do something their way, and they want to be first. They need adults to help them consider the broader picture by considering more options. Fortunately, 5- and 6-year-olds can consider options when presented with an opportunity to think about a problem. Your role is to help children stand back and look at the big picture.

Learning Right From Wrong

At the 5- and 6-year-old stage, children are developing a basic understanding of right and wrong. They know they are not supposed to fight with each other. Some fives may still express anger and frustration physically, but they can use their words when reminded. By 6, they are beginning to internalize rules of behavior and are developing self-control and a sense of conscience regarding their actions. At this stage, they know they are supposed to share, and are quite capable of doing so.

Being Boss

Add to the "developmental mix" the fact that fives and sixes can be bossy. They like to organize other children, activities, and things. They like to be first, best, and right. At the same time, their cognitive and linguistic development gives them the ability to consider other opinions and discuss them. It's fascinating to watch a group of kindergartners negotiate their play. Often, there are more leaders than followers in the group. With all these bosses, stalemates can occur and children either end up cooperating on a shared idea or going off to do their own thing. It's helpful to let children work out these situations-as long as the interactions proceed peacefully. They will learn to express their feelings as well as listen to others.

What You Can Do

Talk about conflict. By identifying what it is and discussing it together, children gain a deeper understanding of the feelings that arise during these difficult times.

Brainstorm a list of ways to positively handle conflict. Children may want to illustrate the list with drawings and magazine pictures. Post the list in the room for quick reference during conflicts.

Read books about conflict resolution. Try It's Mine, by Leo Lionni (Dragonfly, 1996; $5.99), Stevie, by John Steptoe (HarperTrophy, 1969; $6.99) and Let's be Enemies, by Janice May Udry (HarperTrophy, 1988; $5.95).