Picture the scene: the sun shining, birds singing, and the gentle laughter of children playing in the sand. Then, all of a sudden, “That’s mine!” “No it’s mine!” “Arghhhh” and Celia and Emily play tug-of-war with a spade. Eventually, Emily says the worst insult anyone can think of: “You’re not coming to my birthday party!”
As practitioners, we sometimes feel under pressure to rush in and sort out these arguments as soon as possible or, better still, attempt to stop them from happening in the first place by buying multiple sets of, well, let’s face it, everything! However, these little arguments and conflicts happen frequently and are a normal part of growing up. We need to allow children time and opportunities to resolve such issues themselves.
As a young teacher, I came across HighScope’s wonderful 6 steps to conflict resolution which I highly recommend using and have since used successfully with children as young as 18 months old.
So, let’s think about Celia and Emily fighting over the spade and work through those 6 steps:
Step 1. Approach calmly
If we rushed over to the girls calling loudly, “Celia, Emily, what’s going on…?” we could make the problem worse. Rather – approach calmly, using a gentle voice and get down to their level. Hold the spade but still allow Celia and Emily to hold it too. This will stop the tug-of-war whilst allowing both children to still feel that they have some control as they still hold part of the spade.
Step 2. Acknowledge children’s feelings
Acknowledging feelings is a powerful way of demonstrating to children that you are open, actively listening and remaining non-judgemental. You may think you saw Celia take the spade from Emily, but try to remain neutral and open-minded, without allocating blame. Say, “Celia, you look very upset” and “Emily, you look very cross” – sometimes the mere fact that an adult is acknowledging feelings will calm things down very rapidly. This process also enables children to be more emotionally literate.
Step 3. Gather information
Ask the children what happened and describe the problem, or ask ‘what?’ questions to find out their view of what happened. Allow both children to speak. “So, what happened?”
Step 4. Restate the problem
Again, try to remain neutral and matter-of-fact and repeat the information you have observed or heard. Check with the children that you have fully understood the issue.
“OK, so Emily was digging with the red spade and Celia really wanted the red spade so Celia took it from Emily. Is that what happened?” As you can imagine, they will soon tell you if you have got it wrong! Be prepared for the tug-of-war to begin again.
Step 5. Ask for ideas for solutions and choose one together
Tell the children, “Celia and Emily, we have a problem! We have one red spade and… 1, 2 children who want to use it. What should we do?”
You will probably have a crowd of children around you by this point, as children love to watch other children fighting! Use this and ask your audience to help you with ideas. With very young children, or for the first few times of using this approach, you will need to role model by offering ideas for solutions yourself. Over time, children soon get the hang of it and will come up with all sorts of creative solutions to the problem.
Value all ideas that the children suggest and explain if they are not workable options. For example, if someone suggests they buy a new red spade, you may need to explain that you haven’t got enough money to do that. Equally, they may come up with an idea that sounds good but won’t work for these particular children, for example, Emily could have the blue spade and Celia could have the red spade. Emily may insist that she, too, wants the red spade so this won’t work. At some point, the term share is usually bandied about…It is important that you unpick this word as sharing means different things in different contexts. Celia and Emily choose to take it in turns to use the spade and to use the 5 minute sand timer to allocate time.
Step 6. Be prepared to give follow-up support
Start off Celia and Emily with the sand timer, ensuring that they are both happy with the solution. Tell them “You solved the problem!” then ensure that you are available when the sand has gone through the timer and the 5 minutes is up. Both children must get their turn or they will lose all faith in this process.
Picture the scene: the sun shining, birds singing, and the gentle laughter of children playing in the sand. Then, all of a sudden, “Please miss, can we have the sand timer?” Success!
About the author
Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.