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Children and Conflict in the Classroom

by Cindy Finch
Children and Conflict

Among the many tasks of early childhood, two stand out: to communicate needs in a respectful way to other children and to listen with respect to the ideas of others. These areas of learning are important to all young children, but especially to those who participate in group settings away from home—preschool and child care programs, playgroups, or summer camps. With the support of knowledgeable adults, children are able to learn the skills necessary for effective communication within peer groups. 

As children learn to be together in a group, they will inevitably experience conflict with another child. Many adults find conflict among children frustrating and feel uncertain about how to be helpful. However, when adults are thoughtful and skilled in their approach to classroom conflict, children benefit. Conflict resolution is an important foundation for future growth and learning.

What is conflict?

Conflict is defined as a challenge to the way a person thinks or behaves. It can be an uncomfortable process for young children, causing one, both, or all children involved uneasiness, fear, or a range of other strong emotions.

Conflict is a natural and daily occurrence in early childhood programs. It is typical for young children in early childhood programs to experience conflict over:

  • toys
  • relationships
  • ideas
  • space
  • power
  • incomplete understanding

Through conflict, children learn. Conflict can be a positive or negative force in learning. In order for the learning to promote positive growth —  emotionally, socially, and intellectually — two conditions are recommended:

  1. That classroom conflict is kept at an optimal level. Too much conflict is overwhelming and can lead to overstimulation or withdrawal. Too little conflict is under-challenging for children and can lead to educational complacency.
  2. That classroom conflict is met with support from adults who facilitate peaceful conflict resolution.

What is peaceful conflict resolution?

Peaceful conflict resolution in the early childhood classroom is working through a problem or conflict in a way that does not physically, emotionally, or socially hurt anyone involved.

Peaceful conflict resolution provides children with opportunities to feel competent in handling situations and relationships. It fosters feelings of respect for the self and other people, as well as respect for new ideas.

What is the teacher’s role in peaceful conflict resolution?

The teacher’s role in peaceful conflict resolution is to

  • anticipate that conflict will occur within groups of children
  • respond to children as conflict occurs naturally in the classroom
  • support all children in conflict with the intent to promote positive growth

Teachers often find their role in peaceful conflict resolution a challenge. The following six strategies assist teachers in defining their role and relationship to children and conflict:

  1. Preparing for conflict
  2. Knowing about children
  3. Knowing each child
  4. Creating a culture of respect
  5. Making decisions
  6. Refocusing conflict to teach

Children have opportunities to learn positively when teachers respond to conflict with peaceful conflict resolution strategies.

Preparing for Conflict

A prepared teacher is ready to spend the day with children. A prepared teacher knows that some of the day with children will include child-child conflict.

Peaceful conflict resolution is supported or hindered by the role a teacher takes when conflict occurs between children. Teachers who unintentionally hinder peaceful conflict resolution may try to avoid classroom conflict, punish children who experience social conflict, fix classroom conflict for children, or let children work out conflict for themselves. Teachers who consistently respond to typical classroom conflict in any of these ways teach children to comply with the teacher’s expectations at the expense of the child’s development, to withdraw in conflict, to be helpless, or to survive in conflict. None of these outcomes for children are supportive of peaceful conflict resolution. A prepared teacher approaches child-child classroom conflict by being supportive to children in very intentional ways.

One of the reasons a teacher may hinder peaceful conflict resolution in the classroom is because she has not taken the time to reflect on her personal or professional experiences with conflict. Everyone has experiences with conflict — from early childhood days to the present. These experiences produce strong feelings and memories that guide personal and professional responses to conflict. These feelings and memories can lead teachers to miss the value of classroom conflict and to seek a conflict-free teaching environment. A prepared teacher knows that conflict has educational and social value in children’s development.

Many teachers find that thinking about teaching, evaluating the effectiveness of the day with children, and planning for the future is a helpful process. Reflection is the professional process of thinking, evaluating, and planning. Reflection is:

  • becoming aware of feelings about conflict
  • acknowledging the real experiences with conflict that guide personal and professional feelings about conflict
  • observing or being aware of teaching practices
  • being aware of children’s responses to teaching
  • thinking about the decisions made and the actions taken as a teacher
  • celebrating successes and preparing for professional growth where it is needed

Reflection is a recommended process for new and experienced teachers. A prepared teacher is reflective about her or his feelings, knowledge, and practice in response to conflict in the early childhood classroom.

Educational resources are available for teachers who want to explore peaceful conflict resolution practices. Resources can be informal or formal. Colleagues, supervisors, classes, professional readings, and discussion groups can all provide support to teachers. A prepared teacher is open to learning about peaceful conflict resolution and will seek out resources to support learning.

Teachers and early childhood programs have choices about what is emphasized in classrooms. When peaceful conflict resolution is a priority, teachers handle conflict as it occurs, without feeling that it interrupts real learning. When a prepared teacher is committed to peaceful conflict resolution, handling conflict effectively becomes a classroom priority.

Other Strategies

Anticipating conflict and preparing for its occurrence in the classroom are important first steps in effectively handling children’s conflict. Other strategies are critical for teachers to develop: the knowledge of child development and early childhood curriculum; respect for and sensitivity to children and families that shows in every interaction, in every communication, and in every area of the classroom; the knowledge, skill, and confidence to decide how to respond to conflict based on the situation and the children involved; and, the ability to use common conflict situations in teaching in ways that benefit everyone in the classroom.

Manageable conflict situations in the classroom provide children with opportunities to feel competent, to handle and learn in new situations and relationships, and to foster feelings of respect for other people and new ideas. Therefore conflict and conflict resolution are not viewed as interfering with the child’s experience or the teacher’s plans in the classroom, but rather as an expected and essential part of early childhood curriculum.

Four Recommended Strategies for Teachers of Young Children

1) Stepping in quickly to stop dangerous behaviors and to keep children from getting hurt.

Examples:

  • Teachers use differentiated responses and strategies based on the individual children involved. Therefore, teachers are able to assess, and children are able to express intention. An accident is an accident and is treated differently from intentional aggression.
  • Opportunities for restitution are available and handled positively. Both/all children are respected in every conflict.

2) Not stepping in too soon when conflict begins.

Examples:

  • Teachers' calmness about conflict is pervasive.
  • Classroom systems reassure and empower children.

3) Watching children as they interact with others or use materials.

Examples:

  • Teachers analyze children's behaviors by observing and being physically close to children at play. They are alert to chronic conflict seeking behaviors in children, are sensitive to all children, and approach children in conflict without prejudging children's behaviors.
  • Teachers realize that they are a resource and that children are capable people ("what can I do?" and "what can you do?"). Children are trusted to succeed.

4) Interacting with children actively.

Examples:

  • Teachers provide the framework to help children know where and how to begin to resolve conflict, and to help children see conflict situations accurately and in an understandable context. ("You wanted the window blocks and so did you. You took them from her so you could have them right now.")
  • Talking and listening to each other is encouraged. Teachers are respectful. They often restate and summarize as well as describe what they see and hear. ("I'll hold the blocks so they'll be safe while we work this out. You look mad that he took the window blocks from you".  The teacher listens. "You look upset that you can't have the blocks now. Hmmm, you both want the blocks." What are your ideas about how we could figure this out?" The teacher listens and continues to facilitate conversation and problem solving.) 
About the Author
Cindy Finch is currently director of The Children's School of Boise, a NAEYC accredited school with programs for children from two years old through second grade. Over the past 25 years she has been able to teach children of all early childhood ages and work with adults in supervisory and instructive settings who are at varying levels of professional development. Co-directing the project that led to the creation of the Children and Conflict materials has proven to be a professionally synthesizing experience. Cindy, the parent of two children, gets to spend every day watching conflict resolution principles make a difference for children, families, and teachers.


Lisa Wirtanen
is currently co-teaching a mixed age group classroom of preschoolers at The Children's School of Boise. She is back in the classroom after 19 years as a staff development coordinator, administrator, district manager, university adjunct faculty member, sexuality educator, grant project co-director, and co-author. Lisa is the parent of two children and believes that this peaceful conflict resolution work can change the world, beginning in her own home, classroom and school.