As I write on this topic of “democracy” in early childhood, it continues to grow.  It really is a complex topic that involves every level of our programs.  I also know that this is a “hot” topic… but we usually refer to it as “behavior and guidance”.  So, I want to discuss conflict resolution in a little more depth. After all, in any society or group, there will be conflict.  And learning how to deal with conflict is part of the democratic process.

In my many years of providing mental health services for many programs, I’ve had the honor of helping teachers and children practice conflict resolution skills.  In one particular circumstance, a 4 year old boy who had been identified as a “challenging child”, indeed demonstrated his particular way of resolving problems on this particular day:  Trevor had shoved Collin down to be able to play with a particular truck.  I quickly stepped in, and checked the child who had been knocked down, helping him to his feet. Next, I gently reached for the aggressor’s hand and held it gently and with my other hand reached for the truck and simply said: “Oops we have a problem…let me hold the truck while we figure it out”.

The next step was to help each child tell their ‘story’, so I said: “Collin, tell me what happened”, and Collin proceeds to tell me that Trevor pushed him down.  Then, “Trevor, tell me what happened”.  Trevor’s eyes look downward and he shifts his feet.  It was clear he didn’t want to admit what happened. So, I continued by trying to state his side of the story: “So, Trevor, it looks like you wanted to play with the truck too, is that right?”  He nodded in the affirmative.

Time to sum it up: “So, Collin you were playing with the truck, and then Trevor wanted the truck too and so he pushed you down to get it, is that right? It sounds like you both wanted to play with this truck”.  At this point, other children in the classroom, have become very interested in this exchange. I think partly, because they are truly interested in seeing how Trevor (known to bully) is going to respond.  While this conflict is between two children, it is relevant to all the children in this group. They would all like Trevor to stop pushing!

So, I continued:  “What are some ways we can solve this problem? You both want to play with the truck and our rule is ‘Use Your Words’”.  Suddenly, several bystander children are offering all kinds of solutions and tips to Trevor.  They are offering these ideas matter-of-factly.  No one is being mean to Trevor…it’s like they all have a vested interested in helping him…and they do!  Taking turns, playing somewhere else, asking before grabbing…they have great ideas! They know what they want Trevor to do.  But no one is blaming. They have come together to help and whether or not Trevor senses this, he seems to be touched by their lack of accusations.

Next, I say, “These are some great ideas that will keep us all safe.  How would you all like to solve this problem?”  Trevor, still looking downward, says, “Take turns”.  I ask Collin if he thinks that is a good solution.  He says, “How ‘bout I play with it five minutes, then he can have a turn?”  I add, “Trevor, does that sound like a good plan?”  He nods.  I return the truck to Collin, we set a timer and the turns are taken without further incidence. I tell them, “You all solved the problem”.   I stay close by to ensure things go well.

This scenario could have played out very differently.  I could have taken over and solved the problem thereby robbing them of the opportunity to learn conflict resolution skills.  I could have shamed Trevor and sent him to the “quiet” area to “think about it” which would have only reinforced his negative cycle.  I could have left Collin out of it (since he wasn’t really at fault) and reinforced the role of victim.  I could have told the by-standers to go back to their play areas robbing them of the opportunity to be part of the solution.

Are we looking for blame or are we looking for solutions?

Are we building resolution skills or are we robbing children of opportunities to learn these skills? What are your thoughts on this topic?

Want to learn about the conflict resolution process?  Check out this online class: Beyond Challenging Behaviors.