Learning Center
Plans & pricing Sign in
Sign Out

Conflict Resolution for Pre-Schoolers


Conflict Resolution for Pre-Schoolers

Word Count:

We all want our children to learn how to get along with their peers, but
some of our strategies backfire. Learn from a pre-school teacher with
over ten years of experience, how to help your children learn to resolve
conflict peacefully. Even pre-verbal children can benefit.

conflict resolution, preschoolers, pre-schoolers, toddlers, play dates,
sibling rivalry

Article Body:
When I began teaching straight out of college, I had much experience with
children, but my degree was in political science. People used to ask me
how my BA was useful in teaching nursery school, to which I often
replied, “I do a lot of conflict resolution.” Since then I’ve received
my Masters degree in Education, and my Political Science degree has been
relegated to education for education’s sake, but conflict resolution
remains a huge chunk of my professional life. Children have conflicts,
and one of the important tasks of childhood is learning how to manage
conflict successfully.
     Ideally, education in conflict resolution begins at pre-school age
or even earlier. With appropriate help from parents, even pre-verbal
children can benefit. In order for conflict resolution education to work
with children this young, it needs to be offered within an authentic
context. Information that is relevant and meaningful is always learned
more easily and understood more deeply. For young children who are not
yet thinking abstractly this cannot be overstated. That is why conflict
resolution programs that emphasize rehearsal of various strategies of
deescalating conflict can be useful for older children but would not be
appropriate in a pre-school setting. Thankfully, real life provides no
shortage of opportunities within which to practice strategies for
handling conflict.
      What are the conflicts that young children face? One of the most
common disputes among toddlers is over a mutually desired toy. This may
be a toy that legitimately belongs to one child and not to the other, or
it may be a toy that is held in common, belonging to the whole family or
group.   The best parents have lofty goals for their children, wanting
them to grow up to be kind and generous human beings. This legitimate
aspiration often leads parents to strongly encourage or even force their
children to share their toys with others.    What many fail to recognize
is that kindness and generosity necessarily come from a place of
security.    Not many of us find it satisfying to give to someone who has
just tried to steal something of ours, particularly something to which we
attach great value. Yet that is exactly what we expect from our
children. Rather than being our child’s ally and protector, we so often
side with the child who they experience as the aggressor. We fear being
perceived as selfish or greedy and strive to make our children act
generously.   Our response to the conflict has the undesired effect of
making our child hold their toy ever tighter. In fact, they are no
longer even playing with the toy, but simply holding it to make certain
that no one takes it away. Where they should be losing themselves in
play, they are now hyper-vigilant to the ever present threat of their
toys being grabbed.   Instead of being the friendly welcoming children
their parents would be proud of, they loudly proclaim their ownership of
the object in question when another child approaches. Unfortunately,
this defensive posture becomes necessary when there is no one to defend
their rights. These conflicts are often punctuated by bursts of crying,
screaming, and grabbing.
      Let us deal first with the situation of two children fighting over
a toy that belongs equally to both children. How can we respond in a way
that will bring out the kind, generous, loving potential in every child?
By first respecting a child’s need to have exclusive use of a toy until
she has achieved a sense of completion. When your child is given the
freedom to use a toy until they feel ready to move on to something else,
then they can loosen their grip on the toy in question.
      So, how can we help to resolve the conflict without forcing the
children to share? There are a few simple strategies that when practiced
over time, and paired with a true respect for both children’s needs, help
young children learn to resolve conflicts peacefully.   One of our jobs
as parents and teachers is to give children the words that they need to
use to successfully navigate the world.   One helpful phrase for children
to learn is, “Can I have that when you’re finished?” This phrase allows
the child to get their needs met in a direct, yet non-confrontational
manner. They are stating their needs while simultaneously reassuring the
other child that they will wait until they are finished, and will not
grab. In many cases, this simple turn of phrase is all that is necessary
to transform what would have been a crying, grabbing, screaming match,
into a successful dialogue. Often the child will quickly finish up with
the toy and hand it over.   If your child is used to having her toys
grabbed, or being forced to give them up, she may need some additional
reassurance from a parent that she will be able to use the toy until she
is finished. At the point when it is clear that she is finished with the
toy, it is beneficial to encourage her to actually hand it over to the
child who is waiting. This way, she is actively giving the toy rather
than passively allowing it to be given. This ensures that she will not
feel that the toy has been taken from her before she was ready to let go.
Handing over the toy also develops a sense of empathy. She understands
that something she does has an effect on how another person feels, and
that she has the power to make another person happy. Empathy cannot be
taught to the young child during a conflict. Developmentally, they can
only respond to another person’s needs when those needs are not in
conflict with their own. It is important to encourage moments of empathy
that are appropriate to the child’s stage of development.   Having them
hand over the toy when they feel ready, allows them to exercise
generosity in a way that feels safe to them.
      In the case of the pre-verbal child, parents can ask the question
in a way that involves the child. For instance, “You want that toy, but
Tim is playing with it now. Let’s ask him if you can have it when he’s
finished.” “Tim, can you give Jane that truck when you’re finished with
it?” As the child begins speaking, she will have already integrated the
concept. She may start by simply saying “finished?” A nearby parent can
intercede in case the request is not understood.
      Children can also be taught to say, “You can have it when I’m
finished,” if someone is grabbing or demanding their toy. This serves as
a way to protect their rights, while simultaneously deescalating the
conflict by letting the child know that they will have a turn, just not
quite yet.
      In the case of one child coveting a toy that actually belongs to
another, I invite parents to think about your own possessions. You may
cheerfully write out checks to various charities that respectfully ask
for your money to do good works that you value. At the same time, you
may be loath to give your money to someone who demands it, regardless of
how needy they may be.   Who wouldn’t feel violated if while riding the
subway we came across someone who wanted our jewelry, pocket book, or
even newspaper, and simply took it? Children can often be persuaded to
give something of theirs so long as their rights are respected. Most
children are able to give if they are asked first, and if their
experience shows them that it is safe to trust that their toys will be
It is important for children to have something that belongs only to them.
This could be a beloved stuffed animal or blankie, or something else that
they regard as special. Other children in the family can learn to
respect that a particular toy is their brother or sister’s special toy,
and is not to be touched without permission. Toddlers can certainly be
trusted to figure out the word “mine !” and are well within their rights
to use it.   Parents can help children ask to join a game, and can help
older siblings figure out a role for their younger sister or brother in
their game. Eventually this type of problem solving becomes second nature
to children, but not without an adult first investing a lot of time.
Children should not be forced to play with a sibling. This will cause
resentment rather than effective problem solving
      One special case that needs mention is the play date. Play dates
are unique because all or most of the toys are likely to belong to only
one child. No parent wants to invite another child to their house and
have to tell them that they cannot play with any of the toys. At the
same time, you do not want to throw all your principles out the window
and try to force your child to share when they are not ready. It is
important to prepare one’s child for a play date before the fact.
Parents can ask children either to choose some toys that are special, to
put away for personal use later, or to choose several toys they are
willing to allow their friend to use. Parents may also want to bring
along a choice game or two when going to play dates at other children’s
      Conflict is something that many adults shy away from. Watching our
children engage in conflict head on can be scary. Young children
however, have a special opportunity to learn to resolve conflicts without
severing relationships. Children, who live so much in the present
moment, do not tend to hold grudges for long. We should grab this
opportunity to help our children grow before the stakes start to feel too
high. Learning to manage conflict in an assertive yet non-
confrontational manner now, will serve them well throughout their lives.
Respecting their rights now also frees them to engage wholeheartedly in

To top