Conflict gets a bad rap. I mean, who wakes up in the morning eager to greet a whole face-full-of-conflict? And yet, points of conflict provide exactly what young children need to assimilate necessary life skills. So while I don’t (often) set the stage for conflict, I do view conflict – and the way it is supported and mediated – as an important indicator of quality in early childhood environments.
Why is conflict such an important teacher?
Reason #1: Problem solving skills
There is more than one solution for every problem, and children come up with the wildest, craziest, most effective solutions to their problems when we support their efforts. When we force our way into the middle of a conflict that is not ours, and enforce a rule-oriented solution, we cheat the process. Our decontextualized fix seems irrelevant and disrespectful for the children who are living the problem. Instead, when we gracefully accompany children through the conflict, reflecting thoughts, mirroring solutions, and modeling a process of problem solving, we equip children to do the same with increasing independence. With repeated practice, children learn not to fear conflict, but to engage, confident that problems have solutions.
Reason #2: Perspective taking
Most of the conflicts here at Abundant Life are unintentional – a wayward step topples a tower or a script suddenly changes directions because a new player thoughtlessly usurped the controlling role. Sometimes, conflicts are a result of hurt feelings or a desire to get back at someone who was at fault in a previous incident. Along with problem solving, perspective taking is one of the more powerful skills that children practice when they work through a conflict with a peer. The question why always accompanies any discussion so peers can articulate their position. Sometimes, adults aid this process by modeling.
For example, an adult might offer: That would have made me worried if I saw you spinning toward my tower. Maybe that’s why she pushed you out of the way. Or, a less instructive, You must have been feeling strongly to push your friend, might help nudge children to fill out the context.
Ideally, when a conflict arises, everyone involved gathers and states their perspective before a mutually agreed-upon solution arises. With wee ones, this is not the starting point, but the goal as we support children’s independent movement through conflict. We help the victim speak up for himself, and we help the aggressor manage her strong, hurtful behaviors. Our goal is that children will grow up to be assertive, able to clearly and confidently advocate for their own needs and the needs of those around them.
It sounds like you don’t want to be pushed. Did you want to be pushed? You can tell him with strong words, “I do not like to be pushed.”
When you kick your friends, it hurts them. Instead, you can say, “I want to play.”
Reason #4: Competency, baby!
Early childhood is one stop on the way to adulthood – the most sheltered and supported stop. When children argue, we can feel inwardly confident that they get to practice the skills necessary advocate for themselves as they grow. They get to develop emotional vocabulary to articulate their feelings and needs when their energy is high.
Reason #5: Motivation, motivation, motivation.
Children who are in conflict are highly motivated to find a solution to the problem, and working on skills in context is the most effective way to nurture developing skills. A conflict might be interrupting play when two children can’t come to an agreement over the script. Conflict – unmanaged – might result in a physically dangerous situation when a child who is angered lashes out physically. Regardless of a conflict’s progression, children have a strong interest in getting to the other side.
1. Help everyone discharge high energy so constructive problem solving can take place. Use a dedicated centering space, offer a hug or snuggle, suggest hand-washing or pounding dough. When children are centered, they can access the problem solving tools in their brains.
2. Use a set phrase (I have a song!) to signal to children that they need to switch to problem-solving mode. Children are often so immersed in play that recognizing the need for conflict mediation can be hard. For beginning problem solvers, come close and put a hand gently on the child’s back, saying, “I see friends who need to solve a problem” and stay close while the problem unfolds. For more experienced problem solvers, a simple, “Sounds like a problem. Do you need support to solve it?” will likely suffice.
3. Walk them through the process. [1. Identify the problem] I see two friends who both want the red truck. or I wonder why you pushed your friend. Were you feeling concerned? [2. Brainstorm solutions] What can we do? We can take turns? You can offer to trade? You can play with different toys? [3. Pick a solution] You want to take turns? Great. Who will go first? You will? Okay. When you’re done, will you come and get your friend?
4. Check in and see if it worked. Whatever you do, don’t skip this step. When children see that their solutions were effective, their trust in the process grows. We often do a simple check-in during our nap time wind-down routine. Before reading books, we offer affirmations of the constructive work done that morning, and we check-in to see how the solutions worked. “I know you two came up with a plan for staying safe while jumping on the trampoline. Did your plan work? Do we need to come up with a different plan?”
In the end, you will say the same phrases over and over. You will wonder if this process will ever become second-nature for the children in your care. And then, one day, it does. Unbelievably, it does. You will likely write down the process as you observe it unfolding. You will tell everyone. You might even update your Facebook status or text loved ones. And you will feel assured that the children in your care are gaining the skills they need to manage tough situations with confidence through their lives.
For more on conflict…