Helping Children Resolve Conflicts

Conflicts are an inevitable part of life for all of us however for our children mastering positive ways to resolve disputes with others is a long process.  Children are influenced by many factors–their temperaments which come hard wired at birth, their experiences which vary depending on many factors, their cognitive development and of course their emotional and social development.  All of these factors with their many facets can determine our children’s responses to conflict.

In this article we will focus on helping children of preschool age or older resolve conflicts.  The method I will describe was one I learned during my years of working with preschoolers, and it was created at the High Scope Foundation many years ago.  While the components were certainly used by parents and preschool teachers over the decades it was at High Scope that the ‘formula’ was developed and disseminated to the early childhood community.   This process for working with children in conflict honors two basic principles that I have endeavored to follow both as a parent and as a teacher:

  • my behavior and my words would not in any way negatively impact a child’s positive sense of self
  • I would find ways or use strategies that would encourage children to develop their own sense of self-control

The process proposed by High Scope honors both of those principles, and the six steps are:

  1. When your children are in conflict you approach them calmly and quietly.  Our inclination is to move rapidly however unless a child is in physical danger if we run it heightens the emotions for the children.  We are also tempted to shout ‘stop that’ or other similar words, but again yelling only feeds into the emotions that the children are experiencing.  If the conflict has become physical then you need to gently but firmly hold the hands of a child who is hitting or hold the child who is kicking in your arms.  In other words stop the hurtful actions in a calm and respectful manner.
  2. Validate the childrens feelings with words.  “You really look angry” or  “You really wanted her to share the doll.”   If there is a toy that both children are fighting over you need to tell them you will hold the toy until we figure out what to do.  It is often true that the children are so immersed in their feelings that little of what you say will be heard.  Try to make eye contact and keep your words few and simple.
  3. Once the children are calmer gather information by asking what is the problem.  Tell them that each of them will have a turn to talk.  We are interested in having them identify the problem and not the reasons why it happened.
  4. You will repeat what a child told you was the problem however you may need to clean it up a bit be deleting phrases such as she is dumb or he is mean.  Both children need to hear the same problem and agree that is generally what precipitated the conflict
  5. Now it is time to let the children decide how to solve the problem.  Ask for their ideas and suggestions and have them speak one at a time.  Once all of their ideas have been offered then they need to select one to try.  No matter how unlikely you think it is that the idea they agreed upon will work you need to let the decision be their’s.  The goal of all guidance and discipline is ultimately that the child will develop a sense of responsibility for his/her behavior.  So words like ‘you have found and agreed upon a solution to the problem’ would be appropriate.
  6. Monitor the situation in case the conflict is not truly resolved.  If it isn’t working for both of the children then repeat the process.

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