- Teach staff members strategies for preventing and responding to conflicts.
- Model a problem-solving approach to conflicts.
- Observe and provide feedback on staff members’ approaches to problems and conflicts.
According to Joseph and Strain (2003), children must have the words to describe feelings before they can learn how to correctly perceive feelings in themselves and others. A beginning vocabulary may limit a child’s emotional expression to words like “happy” or “mad” or “sad,” and he or she can miss subtle gradations of in-between feelings because they do not have the labels and definitions for those emotions. A more complex feeling vocabulary allows children to make finer discriminations between feelings, to communicate better, and to engage in discussions about their personal experiences with the world. However, simply having these words in their vocabulary is not enough to ensure adequate social and emotional learning. Adults also need to assist children in the development of emotional regulation and problem solving.
Telling a child to stop a certain behavior or to calm down will not likely result in any long-term behavior changes because the adult is still managing the child’s behavior. It is much more effective to model and teach social and emotional skills to help children deal with their feelings, problems, and interactions with others. This, in turn, will lead to a richer and more fulfilling life. This lesson will describe the strategies that will help children learn these important social-emotional skills. This lesson will also describe ways to help staff prevent conflicts and how staff should respond when problems arise.
According to the Committee for Children ( http://www.cfchildren.org/ ), positive guidance and discipline promote children's self-control, teach them responsibility, and help them learn to make thoughtful choices. Inconsistent or harsh discipline that includes physical force, threats, and negative comments may interfere with healthy development. Some tips for positive discipline:
- Pay attention to what children do right. Children thrive on positive attention and are more likely to repeat a behavior if you notice it and comment on it.
- Use consistent, caring consequences for unacceptable behavior. The consequences should be reasonable, directly related to the misbehavior, and respectful of the child.
- Give the message that mistakes are a chance for learning.
- Offer choices whenever possible to provide practice in making decisions.
Social Skills Instruction
Sometimes, children have simply not learned the social skills to handle a situation appropriately. These children will need to be explicitly taught the steps in order to understand all the steps. Adults can help children by rehearsing some strategies to handle disappointment before a potentially disappointing incident occurs. One method is through direct and intentional social skills instruction with individuals or small groups. These lessons can be planned or impromptu. In a typical social skills lesson, a specific skill is introduced, broken down into steps, and practiced. Role playing between adults and children or between children and children allows for the practice of the new skills in a safe environment.
The goal of social skills instruction is to practice the skill steps until they are nearly automatic, as this will increase the likelihood that children will utilize the skills during stressful a situation. Skills to be taught should be chosen based on individual or group needs. Some examples of skills that may need to be explicitly taught are turn-taking, sharing, organization, independence, expressing feelings, and accepting responsibility. Of course, behaviors that are dangerous or unsafe, such as hitting, biting, or running away, should be addressed first. As children are learning new skills, it is important to reinforce any attempts at using those skills.
Adults who make an effort to model appropriate behavior set a good example for children to follow. Mirroring a child’s feelings can help him or her understand what is occurring. For example, if a child is angry, it can be helpful to say, “I can tell you are very angry. I would be angry, too, if someone did that to me.” This tells the child you are listening and understand how frustrating the situation is. It is always important to focus on the positive behaviors you are seeing in children rather than focusing on the negative or mistakes they may make.
Just as children need multiple experiences to learn a new skill in reading or math, they should also have ample opportunities to practice any new social skills. Skill acquisition is rarely automatic, and adults who are patient and remember that setbacks are natural are more likely to see improvements due to the development of stronger relationships with children.
Structure and predictability
The way the classroom and program space is structured can greatly affect the expression of positive behaviors. By adding structure to the day through choreographed transitions, the development of meaningful rules and expectations, and adherence to a daily schedule, children will know which behaviors are expected and which behaviors are unacceptable. This will result in a more positive environment for everyone.
Carefully planned transition procedures can help reduce problematic behaviors. It is important to teach these procedures to children and to practice them until they are automatic. By focusing on one transition procedure to be used across all settings, children will know what to expect. If children have problems during specific times of the day, before or after specific activities, or with particular adults, you will want to take a moment to examine whether or not more structure could help to alleviate the situation and prevent future problematic behaviors.
One effective strategy is to play a three- or four-minute song every time a major transition is scheduled. After some practice, children will know that the end of the song signals when they will need to be transitioned into their assigned areas. Allowing children to suggest and vote on an appropriate song to be played for transition can become a social skills lesson in choice, compromise and consensus. Songs can be changed weekly, with suggestions for the next week’s song written in a designated place. If children choose an inappropriate song, turn it into an impromptu social skills lesson about positive song content and lyrics.
Rules and expectations
Every classroom and program should have three to six rules and expectations that are stated positively. Holding a group meeting to discuss what rules and procedures should be implemented can provide children with a voice in the decision-making process and increase the likelihood of compliance. Children often have good ideas and a good sense of fairness, though it is not uncommon for them to offer suggestions for rules that are negatively stated. Some examples may include, “No shouting” or “No running” or “No hitting.” Be sure to write down the suggestions of each student verbatim. After everyone has had a chance to offer a suggestion, begin to group similar items together. Then, help children to restate the rules and expectations using positive language. Using the examples above, “No shouting” could be positively restated as “Use your inside voice.” “No running” could be positively restated as “Walk.” And “No hitting” could be positively restated as “Safe hands and feet.” Once three to six rules and expectations have been decided on by the group and implemented, reinforce children that model the appropriate behavior. Refer to the rule and expectations frequently throughout the day, especially when a problem arises, at the beginning of an activity, or when transitioning.
Posting a daily schedule informing children of what is to be expected for the day can provide structure and predictability, which can help to reduce problematic behavior. Although the daily schedule should remain fairly consistent, staff may update it each day to communicate the specific activities available (e.g., to share the different choices offered for children within the learning areas/centers that day). Referring to the schedule throughout the day, and allowing children to cross off items as they are completed, helps reinforce executive functioning skills, such as independence, goal setting, and task completion. Changes to the daily plan should always be discussed and reflected in the daily schedule to prevent any surprises.
Notice how this visual schedule is consistent, but is also flexible in that it provides information about the specific areas or activities open at different points in the day (for example, the “blocks and trucks” and the “sensory table” are open at arrival on this day). In this classroom, the teachers also use post-it notes for helpful reminders to themselves about tasks that need completed at different points in the day, or goals they are currently working on in their classroom. You can read more about supportive daily schedules in the Learning Environments and Guidance courses.
Responding to Conflicts: Teaching Problem Solving
What is problem solving and conflict resolution?
Learning to think of alternative solutions and resolving conflicts are important social skills for children and adults. Problem solving and conflict resolution are important skills for making and keeping friends. Teaching children to problem solve can help reduce impulsive behavior and aggression and help children self-regulate and talk about emotions. When children are able to solve problems and resolve conflicts with peers, they are more likely to have positive interactions with peers, make and keep friends, and have more positive transitions within and between programs. Problem solving and conflict resolution involves self-regulation, communication, identifying and talking about emotions, and working together with other children.
Strategies for teaching
Children can learn problem solving and conflict resolution in a step-by-step process. Most children learn these important skills best when they are broken down in a few simple steps. The steps can be directly taught and reviewed throughout the day. Having visual reminders (posters) around the room or program also helps children remember to use the steps when problems arise.
Here are the steps you can teach staff members to use with children:
Step 1: Identify the problem and feelings. Ask: What is my problem and how do I feel?
The first step in problem solving is helping children identify that there is a problem. Children may get upset or angry when a problem arises. When a child is angry or upset, start by having the child take deep breaths and calm down. Once the child is calm, help her or him talk about what is happening and share what he or she is feeling. It may be helpful to use visual cues and modeling to help children calm down and talk about their feelings. At first, you might model the words or help children identify how they are feeling with visuals.
For example, help the child say:
- “They won’t give me a turn on the swings”
- “I’m sad”
- “She took my paint brush”
- “I’m angry”
Step 2: Identify solutions. Ask: What can I do?
Help children identify several solutions for the problem. Depending on the age of the children, they may need help thinking of different solutions. Use pictures and stories and model how to talk about finding solutions. You might also write down the solutions. Help children think of many different solutions that might work. Staff members can help the children create “classroom-solution toolboxes” with pictures and reminders of potential solutions. Children can then get a toolbox when there is a problem and identify solutions that might work. Eventually, children can use the toolbox by themselves when problems arise. Children might even create their own toolboxes. Here are common solutions that could be included in a toolbox:
- Take deep breaths and calm down
- Get a teacher
- Ask your friend to share
- Ignore what happened
- Ask nicely
- Take turns
- Wait a couple minutes
- Find another friend or toy
- Say, “Stop”
- Trade toys
- Play together
- Play with a different friend, toy or activity
Step 3: Identify consequences. Ask: What might happen?
After helping children come up with solutions, help them think about the consequences of each solution. Help the children talk about how things might work out if they tried each solution. For example, have the children ask, “What might she do?,”“Is it safe?,” “How would he feel?” and “Is that OK in this classroom?” Help the children identify which solution might be best to try first. However, remind the children that the solutions do not always work out as we want them to; they might have to try out more than one solution before the problem is resolved. It also is important for children to think about what to do when a solution does not work.
Step 4: Try it out! Ask: Does it work?
Once a child has identified which solution to try, help her or him try it out. Support the child, and remind the child that she or he might have to try out more than one solution before the problem is resolved. Help the child to stay calm while trying possible solutions. Children might get frustrated when solutions do not work right away. Help them practice staying calm and trying different solutions.
- “I asked for a turn and he said no”
- “I waited three minutes and he still won’t share”
- “I ignored him and he didn't stop”
These statements indicate a child has tried a solution, but it was not successful. Ask children what else they could try. Prepare staff to help children repeat steps 2 (identifying possible solutions) and 3 (considering consequences) when their solutions are unsuccessful.
Some children will need more specific teaching to learn problem solving. For example, some children with special needs might need extra visuals of the problem-solving steps or might need a teacher to help them each time a problem occurs. Children with social emotional delays or challenging behaviors might need specific, individualized plans for teaching problem solving. You can help each child make a solution toolkit with personalized pictures showing the solutions being practiced. A problem-solving board or script might be helpful for children who need extra prompts to remember the problem-solving steps. You can use real pictures, drawings or words to describe the problem-solving steps and solutions. Finally, some children might need extra motivation to learn to solve problems. For example, you might use a sticker chart and give children a sticker or star for every time they use the problem-solving steps or for every solution they think of.
Think about your role in preventing and responding to conflicts. There are several ways you can support staff members:
- Model positive approaches to behavior in your interactions with all staff, children and families. This means stating directions or requests positively. You might be tempted to tell a staff member something like, “Stop turning in your plans late.” Instead you could say, “Make sure you turn in your plans by Thursday at 3 p.m.” To a family you might say, “Please move your car to the pick-up spaces” instead of “No parking in the fire zone.” It also means offering staff members choices (e.g., which training they want to attend, which goal they want to discuss first at a meeting).
- Model conflict-resolution strategies between children. When you see a conflict, use the vocabulary of problem solving. Step in and say, “It looks like there’s a problem here. What is the issue?” Walk the children through the problem-solving steps. For younger children, provide a few solutions they could try. For older children, guide them through the brainstorming process.
- Model conflict-resolution strategies between staff members. Conflicts are bound to happen at some point in the program. Ask staff members about the problem and model active listening skills. Remain calm and give staff members strategies to help them remain calm. Brainstorm solutions to the problem together, talk about the outcomes for each party, negotiate a solution, and follow-through to make sure problems are solved.
- Model adult coping skills. Practice deep breathing and exercising. Laugh every day. You can even tell yourself calming positive statements (“I can handle this.” “I am stronger than this is hard.”). Make sure staff members see you using these strategies during difficult situations.
- Reward positive behaviors. When you see staff members help children solve conflicts, celebrate. Have a staff-recognition board in the staff room or create a staff newsletter to recognize positive efforts. Consider leaving little notes for staff members who have worked hard to handle a difficult situation or who have gone through an emotional event. Write encouraging words and describe the effort you saw them make. Don’t forget to reward children, too. Comment on all the positive behaviors you see in the hallways. Tell children, “You are walking so quietly down the hall” or “Thank you for holding the door for your mom.”
Problem solving can be a complex strategy for staff members to use. Although opportunities for problem solving occur many times a day, it can be difficult to recognize them. This section is designed to help you recognize opportunities for problem solving. First you will read a scenario that took place in a classroom. You will then read a “better” scenario in which the same staff member used an opportunity for problem solving. Finally, you will read what you could say to help staff move from the first scenario to the second scenario.
Two toddlers are grabbing for a toy. One child lunges towards the other with his teeth. The other child starts to scream and run towards the adult. The adult says, “Give me that toy. If you two can’t play nicely, no one will play.”
“Whoa, this looks like a problem. Daniel, what happened? Tell Mischa that was scary when he tried to bite. It looks like you both want the train. What could we do? Here’s another train. You can both play with a train.”
“Toddlers are bound to have conflicts over toys. That’s part of learning to play. Let’s think about how we can help them find ways to play with or near each other.”
The mealtime helper passed out one too few plates at one of the tables. A child is crying because there is nowhere for him to sit and eat. The adult says, “Stop crying. You know you’re going to get fed.”
“Acklen, what’s the problem? I see there’s a chair with no plate in front of it. Does anyone have any ideas how we could solve the problem and help Acklen?"
“It’s so important to acknowledge the children’s feelings. It might feel like a little deal to you, but it’s probably a big deal for him. Let’s take a second to think about what he was probably feeling when there was no spot for him. How does thinking that way help put you in a problem solving mindset?"
A group of boys are playing pool. They get in a fight over the rules. Several of the boys start raising their voices and accusing others of cheating. The adult comes over and tells them the rule.
“What’s the problem guys? How could you figure out the rules and solve the problem?” After ideas are generated: ”Would you all agree on following the rules on an official billiards website? Let’s look it up.”
“The pool table is a great opportunity for problem solving. Problems just naturally seem to arise when children play games like this. Let’s think about how you could respond next time that helps the kids figure out the problem a bit more independently.”
One of your classrooms has a child with challenging behavior. The two staff members in the classroom have very different ideas about how to respond to the child’s behavior. One adult believes they should be stern and direct with him. The other believes they should ignore most of his behaviors rather than giving negative attention. They have had heated discussions and aren’t speaking with one another.
“It sounds like we disagree. Maybe we need to bring in someone to help us figure out what to do.”
“It sounds like you two are coming from very different places in how you think we should respond to Barry. I wonder if each of you would tell us a little bit about the ideas and experiences that have gotten you to this point? Why do you believe you should respond each way?”
“It sounds like you both have the same goals for Barry. Let’s see if there is any middle ground we can agree on for strategies. Let’s each describe what we think would work for him.”
The Problem-Solving Matrix activity gives you a chance to practice working with staff members around problem solving. Choose a staff member who knows his or her classroom or program well and is interested in talking about problem solving. This might be someone who comes to you with concerns about his or her classroom or program or someone who has a number of conflicts in the room regularly. Ask the staff member to make an activity matrix like the example below. Together, brainstorm times that problems are most likely to occur in their classroom or program. Work together to identify ways to teach children to solve each of the problems. After you have finished, reflect on the process. Think about how you can use this process with other staff members and how you can help staff members be intentional about supporting problem solving. Follow up with the first staff member to observe and provide feedback on how they are using the strategies they identified.
You should be prepared to help staff plan to teach problem solving to children. Read the Resources for Resolving Conflicts and Promoting Social Problem Solving handout. It provides tips for teaching problem solving along with a list of resources.
Center on the Social Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL). Problem-Solving Steps. Retrieved from http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/resources/strategies.html#teachingskills
Extension Alliance for Better Child Care: A Part of the Cooperative Extension System. (2020). Ways child care providers can teach young children to resolve conflicts. https://childcare.extension.org/
Gartrell, D. (2012). Education for a Civil Society: How Guidance Teaches Young Children Democratic Life Skills. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Joseph, G. E., & Strain, P. S. (2003). You’ve got to have Friends (Module 2; Handout 2.3: Social Emotional Teaching Strategies). The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved from: http://earlyliteracylearning.org/TACSEI_CELL/project_files/content/level_3/pdf/3_10dCSEFELfriendsarticle.pdf
HighScope. Conflict in Early Childhood Programs. https://highscope.org/