Conflict is normal
Conﬂict is a normal part of children’s lives. Having different needs or wants, or wanting the same thing when only one is available, can easily lead children into conﬂict with one another. “She won’t let me play,” “He took my …”, “Tom’s being mean!” are complaints that parents, carers and school staff often hear when children get into conﬂict and are unable to resolve it. Common ways that children respond to conﬂ ict include arguing and physical aggression, as well as more passive responses such as backing off and avoiding one another.
When conﬂict is poorly managed it can have a negative impact on children’s relationships, on their self-esteem and on their learning. However, teaching children the skills for resolving conﬂict can help signiﬁ cantly. By learning to manage conﬂict effectively, children’s skills for getting along with others can be improved. Children are much happier, have better friendships and are better learners at school when they know how to manage conﬂict well.
Different ways of responding to conflict
Since children have different needs and preferences, experiencing conﬂict with others is unavoidable. Many children (and adults) think of conﬂict as a competition that can only be decided by having a winner and a loser. The problem with thinking about conﬂict in this way is that it promotes win-lose behaviour: children who want to win try to dominate the other person; children who think they can’t win try to avoid the conﬂict. This does not result in effective conﬂict resolution.
Win-lose approaches to conflict
Children may try to get their way in a conﬂict by using force. Some children give in to try to stop the conﬂict, while others try to avoid the situation altogether. These different styles are shown below. When introducing younger children to the different ways that conﬂicts can be handled, talking about the ways the animals included as examples below might deal with conﬂict can help their understanding. It introduces an element of fun and enjoyment.
||Shark, bull, lion
||Argues, yells, debates, threatens, uses logic to impose own view.
||Jelly fish, teddy bear
||Prevents fights, tries to make others happy.
||Thinks or says: “I don’t want conflict.” Distracts, talks about something else, leaves the room or the relationship.
Sometimes these approaches appear to work in the short-term, but they create other sets of problems. When children use force to win in a conﬂict it creates resentment and fear in others. Children who ‘win’ using this approach may develop a pattern of dominating and bullying others to get what they want. Children who tend to give in or avoid conﬂict may lack both conﬁdence and skills for appropriate assertive behaviour. They are more likely to be dominated or bullied by others and may feel anxious and negative about themselves.
It is possible instead to respond to conﬂict in positive ways that seek a fair outcome. Instead of being seen as a win-lose competition, conﬂict can be seen as an opportunity to build healthier and more respectful relationships through understanding the perspectives of others.
Win-some lose-some: Using compromise to resolve conflict
Adults have a signiﬁcant impact on how children deal with conﬂict. Often adults encourage children to deal with conﬂict by compromising. Compromising means that no-one wins or loses outright. Each person gets some of what they want and also gives up some of what they want. Many children learn how to compromise as they grow and ﬁnd ways to negotiate friendships. It is common around the middle of primary school for children to become very concerned with fairness and with rules as a way of ensuring fairness. This may correspond with an approach to resolving conﬂict that is based on compromise.
||I give a bit and expect you to give a bit too.
Win-win: Using cooperation to resolve conflict
Using a win-win approach means ﬁnding out more about the problem and looking together for creative solutions so that everyone can get what they want.
|Sort out the problem
||Discover ways of helping everyone in the conflict to get what they want.
Skills required for effective conflict resolution
Effective conﬂict resolution requires children to apply a combination of well-developed social and emotional skills. These include skills for managing feelings, understanding others, communicating effectively and making decisions. Children need guidance and ‘coaching’ to learn these skills. Learning to use all the skills effectively in combination takes practice and maturity. However, with guidance children can begin to use a win-win model and gradually develop their abilities to resolve conﬂicts independently.
||What to encourage children to learn
- Use strategies to control strong feelings
- Verbally express own thoughts and feelings
- Identify and communicate thoughts and feelings
- Identify the problem and express own needs
- Talk about their own wants/needs/fears/concerns without demanding an immediate solution
- Understand the other person’s perspective
- Listen to what the other person wants/needs
- Understand the other person’s fears/concerns
- Understand without having to agree
- Respond sensitively and appropriately
- Generate a number of solutions to the problem
- Think of a variety of options
- Try to include the needs and concerns of everyone involved
- Negotiate a win-win solution
- Be ﬂexible
- Be open-minded
- Look after own needs as well as the other person’s needs (be assertive)
Guiding children through the steps of conflict resolution
1. Set the stage for WIN-WIN outcomes
Conﬂict arises when people have different needs or views of a situation. Make it clear that you are going to help the children listen to each other’s point of view and look for ways to solve the problem that everyone can agree to.
- Ask, “What’s the problem here?” Be sure to get both sides of the story (eg “He won’t let me have a turn” from one child, and “I only just started and it’s my game,” from another).
- Say, I’m sure if we talk this through we’ll be able to sort it out so that everyone is happy.”
2. Have children state their own needs and concerns
The aim is to ﬁnd out how each child sees the problem. Help children identify and communicate their needs and concerns without judging or blaming.
- Ask, “What do you want or need? What are you most concerned about?”
3. Help children listen to the other person and understand their needs and concerns
In the heat of conﬂict it can be difﬁcult to understand that the other person has feelings and needs too. Listening to the other person helps to reduce the conﬂict and allows children to think of the problem as something they can solve together.
- Ask, “So you want to have a turn at this game now because it’s nearly time to go home? And you want to keep playing to see if you can get to the next level?”
- Show children that you understand both points of view: “I can understand why you want to get your turn. I can see why you don’t want to stop now.”
4. Help children think of different ways to solve the problem
Often children who get into conﬂict can only think of one solution. Getting them to think of creative ways for solving the conﬂict encourages them to come up with new solutions that no-one thought of before. Ask them to let the ideas ﬂow and think of as many options as they can, without judging any of them.
- Encourage them: “Let’s think of at least three things we could do to solve this problem.”
5. Build win-win solutions
Help children sort through the list of options you have come up with together and choose those that appear to meet everybody’s needs. Sometimes a combination of the options they have thought of will work best. Together, you can help them build a solution that everyone agrees to.
- Ask: Which solution do you think can work? Which option can we make work together?
6. Put the solution into action and see how it works
Make sure that children understand what they have agreed to and what this means in practice.
- Say, “Okay, so this is what we’ve agreed. Tom, you’re going to show Wendy how to play the game, then Wendy, you’re going to have a try, and I’m going to let you know when 15 minutes is up.”
Key points for helping children resolve conﬂict
The ways that adults respond to children’s conﬂicts have powerful effects on their behaviour and skill development. Until they have developed their own skills for managing conﬂict effectively most children will need very speciﬁc adult guidance to help them reach a good resolution. Parents, carers and teaching staff can help children in sorting out conflict together, by seeing conﬂict as a shared problem that can be solved by understanding both points of view and ﬁnding a solution that everyone is happy with.
Guide and coach
When adults impose a solution on children it may solve the conﬂict in the short term, but it can leave children feeling that their wishes have not been taken into account. Coaching children through the conﬂict resolution steps helps them feel involved. It shows them how effective conﬂict resolution can work so that they can start to build their own skills.
Listen to all sides without judging
To learn the skills for effective conﬂict resolution children need to be able to acknowledge their own point of view and listen to others’ views without fearing that they will be blamed or judged. Being heard encourages children to hear and understand what others have to say and how they feel, and helps them to learn to value others.
Support children to work through strong feelings
Conﬂict often generates strong feelings such as anger or anxiety. These feelings can get in the way of being able to think through conﬂicts fairly and reasonably. Acknowledge children’s feelings and help them to manage them. It may be necessary to help children calm down before trying to resolve the conﬂict.
- Praise children for ﬁnding a solution and carrying it out.
- If an agreed solution doesn’t work out the ﬁrst time, go through the steps again to understand the needs and concerns and ﬁnd a different solution.
The information in this resource is based on Wertheim, E., Love, A., Peck, C. & Littlefield, L. (2006). Skills for resolving conflict (2nd Edition). Melbourne: Eruditions Publishing.