Can you imagine life in preschool without conflict? Where there are whole days and weeks of no tears or cross words? Wouldn’t it be bliss!
Or would it?
You see, while the nitty-gritty of conflict is painful and often quite disrupting to the setting, it is within the resolution of that conflict that powerful and long-term learning takes place.
The truth is that children cannot master conflict without having the conflict! In the words of the famous children’s book, we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it; we have to go through it. In a setting, practitioners’ anxiety about keeping peace rather than making it deftly dodges conflict through distraction.
Conflict creates stress. Stress shuts down our ability to think clearly. This is why we might blast off an angry email to someone who has upset us or display some unnecessary road rage. Amygdala hijack is the term for this temporary ‘thinking’ paralysis.
Young children are unable to resolve certain conflict, as the amygdala hijack shuts down their voluntary thinking skills, leading to a lack of control. Think ‘tantrum’ in the supermarket!
Our role in resolving conflict
The peaceful resolution of an angry encounter is a positive experience for both children and adults. Where do we start?
Our role is to bring the child back from that place of temporary paralysis of the amygdala hijack, and to restore their power to think. When we support children in this way, they discover that the acute discomfort of conflict can lead to a peaceful solution. In addition, they learn to think about an alternative to the conflict, often resolving the issue that gave rise to it in the first place.
The power of thinking collaboratively
The culture of listening and thinking together creates the context for resolving conflict. When we facilitate listening and thinking in the midst of a conflict, and allow the children to work out together what to do next, we give them tools of negotiation that last a lifetime. This is backed up by research; children become more competent in mature social skills when they are guided through conflict.
Starting points of conflict
All children possess a ‘starting point’ in their conflict resolution, how they assert their power and engage with each other. This might be simple, such as ‘I want it,’ No, I want it’, where one child mimics the other, and the situation either escalates or de-escalates fast.
‘Elaborate’ conflict is more of a thinking process. With support, children can start to see another’s perspective. They no longer simply mimic, but instead watch and listen. This is connection at its finest. And we can be party to this extraordinary learning process! When we view conflict as a learning process rather than an unwelcome interruption, we do two vital things.
Firstly, we recognise the feelings of the child, ‘You look cross and upset. Let me help you.’ The child feels acknowledged and understood, rather than unacknowledged and misunderstood.
Secondly, we show another perspective. ‘What shall we do now? I wonder what Tom thinks.’ The knowledge that there is another perspective is powerful to a child who doesn’t initially see any other viewpoint in the black cloud of anger and unacknowledged feelings.
Practice makes perfect
Conflict is inevitable because it stems from differences of opinion and needs. And all children possess different opinions and needs!
And so, next time there are raised voices in your setting, square your shoulders and seize this learning opportunity. I know that this is much easier said than done. But as one who has facilitated hundreds of conflict situations over the years, I am always amazed at how very young children can be supported through their tumultuous feelings towards a peaceful solution, time after time. This may happen twice or twenty times a day, but with our support, preschool children can use more sophisticated forms of negotiation, often finding their own resolution.
When early years practitioners have this approach to conflict, children are provided with a ‘conflict toolkit’ for life; tools of negotiation, cooperation and connection. Young children can be awesome ambassadors for peace. We simply need to give them the opportunity to do so.
About the author
Helen Garnett is a mother of 4, and a committed and experienced Early Years consultant. She co-founded a pre-school in 2005 and cares passionately about young children and connection. As a result, she has written a book, ‘Developing Empathy in the Early Years: a guide for practitioners’. She has also co-written an Early Years curriculum and assessment tool, at present being implemented in India. Helen is also on the Think Equal team, a global initiative led by Leslee Udwin, developing empathy in pre-schools and schools across the world.