Help Your Preschooler Develop Conflict Resolution Skills

Posted by Tara Sarathy on 7/31/18 4:34 PM

High quality preschool programs provide children many opportunities to develop the broad range of skills that are the building blocks for flourishing in elementary school and are also strongly correlated with health, educational attachment, and financial stability all the way into adulthood. The research is also clear that the first five years are of child’s development are critical. Not only can a high quality preschool foster a positive association with learning, but also the skills needed to be part of a community—including the ever-important skill of resolving conflicts.

I’ve observed the benefits of my two sons’ preschool on many occasions. In my child’s class at Lowell the teachers, Iris and Denielle, created a talking bench—a place where children can go to respectfully discuss and resolve disagreements. It made an impression on my son.

On a spring evening last year, tired and hungry after a long day, not feeling I had the energy to negotiate another sibling argument that was about to erupt between my two sons, my then five-year-old composed himself and said, Mommy, wait. What would Iris and Denielle do? Let’s go to a talking bench!

Road Map for Helping Children Resolve Conflicts

As may be obvious, it simply won’t work to label a bench in your home the talking bench and expect your children to be able to successfully use it to resolve a conflict. My son’s teachers spent a great deal of time developing the children’s social-emotional, language, and communication skills so that they would be ready to use the talking bench to work through their differences.

That said, you need not possess the patience and skills of a great preschool teacher to incorporate a tool like the talking bench or the spirit of one into your family life. When there is a disagreement, you can work on helping your children understand that there are things they can do to manage their feelings, that angry and upset feelings are not permanent, and that they can work through disagreements. How you manage your own conflicts will also serve as a model for your children.

Important relationships take effort. The tips below are what I have learned from my children’s teachers and in doing further research about resolving conflicts at home.

Conflict resolution

Create a Calm Home Environment

  • Young children, and adults for that matter, can’t access language and problem solving skills when they are in the grip of a strong emotion. Give your children the time (and tools) to calm themselves when they need quiet to process their feelings or simply slow down. My son’s teachers have a peace corner in their classroom, and it is something you can recreate at home. A rocking chair or other comfy chair in a quiet space with with books and soothing objects will provide a safe space for your children to regain their equilibrium.

Try not to rush your children. In giving them such a space, you are helping them learn how to calm themselves (rather than rely entirely on you), which is a building block to self-regulation. Obviously, this will be harder to do when you are out of the house. Be prepared to cut short or abandon an outing if need be.

  • Pay attention to the emotional climate you are creating with your tone of voice and body language. For instance, talking so you are at your child’s level, rather than standing above, encourages conversation.
  • Whether it’s a dedicated space like the talking bench or pillows on the floor, have a quiet place for you and children can go to talk when everyone is ready. To the extent possible, you’ll want to sit someplace where there are few distractions.

Name the Problem

  • As Iris and Denielle do with their class, identify for your children that they seem to be having disagreement. In a calm voice, state the problem without assigning blame. For example, I hear voices raised. Why don't we figure out what we can do about X? By identifying that there is a problem, you allow your child to focus on the issue, as well as take a step back from their immediate, raw upset.
  • We all need to feel heard and have our feelings acknowledged and validated. Help your children name their feelings. That sounds frustrating! Or I can see why you felt hurt. Acknowledging your children’s inner experiences will help them feel validated and more able to engage in a problem-solving discussion.

How to Talk About the Problem

  • When you first use this process to resolve conflicts, you may need to set family ground rules such as everyone will have a turn to share what is upsetting them and what they are hoping for and everyone will also take turns listening.
  • Your children are more likely to respond positively if they feel you are genuinely listening. So, aim to give your children your full attention. Avoid asking too many questions about what happened and who did what. Rather than lecture or assign blame, try to use short expressions, so that the oxygen of the conversation is spent on your children’s problem solving rather than on you.
  • If your child’s conflict with is with you, remember to model and make clear that you are naming your feelings or a behavior that is unacceptable or troubling t you. For instance, I don’t like being yelled at is focused on the behavior you found unacceptable or hurtful, not a defect with your child or his or her character.

How to Talk About Solutions

  • Ask each child for their ideas about a solution. Let each child give an answer for how to resolve the conflict. Even if your children aren’t yet reading, write down all suggestions as a way of showing them that their ideas are being heard and taken seriously. 
  • One thing Iris and Denielle are careful to avoid is telling the children how to resolve the conflict. They explain that children will feel ownership when they take the lead in generating solutions that seem fair to them and are given time to think and talk them through. 
  • Have everyone either agree to a solution or agree to table the conversation. Sometimes, children will be still too upset, tired or won’t have the attention to problem solve.  Or you may have demands on your time or be too exhausted for more than a minute conversation. You can also agree that you will discuss how to solve the problem the next day or a designated later time. Just make sure you return to the conversation as promised! 
  • When a decision is reached, briefly recap what the children agreed, which helps remind them how they have moved from conflict to resolution. Or, write down the agreed upon solution, so you can read it back if necessary and again to show respect for your children’s ideas.
  • Let your children try to put their solution into action before you intervene again. Stay nearby without dictating the play in case your children (and any guests) need help staying on track.
  • On occasion, notice and comment or use descriptive praise when your children have resolved a conflict on their own and implemented a resolution: I see you two worked hard to figure out how to take turns!

Final Thoughts

Helping your child build social-emotional, language and communication, and conflict resolution skills takes work, lots of practice, and let’s face it, it can be exhausting and overwhelming. But no parent gets it right 100% of the time, nor should you feel like you, your partner, or your children are aiming for perfection.

Try to remember a few tools and rules of thumb that will become more habitual the more you and your family use them. Expect you will have to support, model, and coach your child many times in this process as these are skills that take time and maturity to build. That said, developing conflict resolution skills will help your child flourish at home, on the playground, and beyond in the long run, and ultimately it will make your job as a parent easier and more enjoyable.

If you would like more ideas to help your children learn to manage their emotions and build healthy relationships, click on the link below:

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Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email admissions@lowellschool.org, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Parenting

Tara Sarathy

Written by Tara Sarathy

Tara is a Lowell parent and non-practicing lawyer who has worked in law school administration and in public service. She volunteers with the Parental Readiness and Empowerment Program of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and is a contributor to MomsRising's blog.