Analyzing conflicts between young children can help us understand how patterns of behavior evolve. Edyth J. Wheeler, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, writes that studying peer conflicts can also help adults develop conflict-resolution strategies that are effective with children.
Disputes among young children, according to previous research, generally revolve around issues of control of the immediate physical or social environment. Disputes about possession of objects, class rules and right or wrong are the most common causes of arguments. Studies also show that although disputes occur frequently, actual aggression occurs rarely.
Typically, children employ nonaggressive strategies to deal with conflict. Verbal strategies range from simple opposition (saying no) to complex reasoning and negotiation. Conflicts in which each party verbally defends his/her position usually get resolved.
Although children often seek adult intervention to resolve disputes, studies have shown that intervention is usually unnecessary, and is often counterproductive. According to researchers, even the presence of adults can lead to more aggressive behavior and almost always leads to an adult-generated solution. When adults impose solutions, children are given no opportunity to develop their own conflict-resolution skills.
Studies indicate that friends, or at least playmates, are more likely to resolve their disputes than children who have not played together. In fact, researchers say, conflicts occur most frequently among playmates, although these tend to be less intense and more conciliatory.
Implications for teachers
By taking the time to observe and understand the issues involved in a conflict, teachers can decide whether to intervene. The ability of children to resolve conflicts increases with their verbal competence and their ability to understand the perspectives of others. If the children involved in a conflict are verbal and empathetic, they should, according to Wheeler, be given the opportunity to try to work things out for themselves. Teachers should bear in mind that conflicts in which there is little discussion are less likely to be resolved without intervention.
Disputes over property and those that involve name-calling seldom lead to constructive discussion. Wheeler recommends that instead of acting as a judge, teachers should encourage both sides to explain their positions. Wheeler suggests that by giving students the choice of negotiating, changing the activity, dropping the issue or creating fair rules acceptable to all, teachers can promote peaceful conflict resolution.
“Peer Conflicts in the Classroom: Drawing Implications from Research”, Childhood Education, Volume 70, Number 5, Annual Theme Issue, pp. 296-299.
Published in ERN, November/December 1994, Volume 7, Number 5.