In Practice

Thinking about conflict and young children (Part 1)

In July I was fortunate enough to attend a two-week intensive training on the Principles of the RIE Approach, a philosophy of early education pioneered by Magda Gerber. During my RIE training we talked a lot about conflict resolution and the importance of children being able to engage in conflict to build their confidence and their sense of self-awareness. As an educator I understand the importance of children working through conflict, however I have never really had the opportunity to observe conflict like I did during the training?

As we watched videos, I was able to see what conflict can look like when children who are able to support their own conflict management, are able to focus more on the learning relationships rather than working through the conflict on a regular basis. There are many ideas around conflict, however some large question came up for me: At what point do we step in and support the children? And can that in some aspects create a sense of helplessness?

Returning to my classroom, I was quickly given an opportunity to think about conflict in action. During an afternoon a couple of weeks ago, I was able to observe Joshua* and Antony* both wanting the play with one toy, which was causing a small conflict.

As I sat close to Antony and Joshua, I saw Antony looking at Joshua who had a toy in his hand and then looking back at me. As I sat observing Antony looking at Joshua’s toy, I noticed him looking at me again and again, then back at Joshua. Did Antony need support because he wanted the toy? When Joshua dropped the toy Antony was quick to pick it up, once Joshua noticed that Antony had the toy, they continued to take the toy from one another over and over again.

Yes both children wanted the toy, but if I had stepped in how would either child learn to respond to their own needs and the needs of their peers?

Both Joshua and Antony are more than capable of understanding each other’s need for the toy but, every time the toy changed hands the other child would look at me for reassurance. When children have a strong sense of wellbeing they are able to engage within the more challenging aspects of their learning, which is conflict resolution, and understanding not only their needs and emotions but also that of their peers.

At one point during the conflict Antony came towards me and stood near me as support when Joshua wanted a turn of the toy. When I looked back at Antony I was able to see the young child, who has a strong sense of self, become overwhelmed by the situation.

As the conflict continued for a few minutes I was able to tell that both children were becoming overwhelmed because it had gone on for some time and each child was able to see the other child’s need for the toy. When one child kicked the other I stepped in and said “I will not let you kick your peer”. This child then sat still before looking at their peer and giving them a cuddle and saying sorry. This was not promoted but that child was able to recognise the emotions of the other.

The conflict continued a short time later, and I again decided I needed to step in. As I did I said ‘”I can see that you both would like the toy, but because you are both hurting each other, Lauren is going to put it away”.

As I put the toy away both children looked at each and at me and I thought maybe we do step in too much. Both children then went outside and were playing together in the sandpit. Yes. they were throwing the sand but the conflict had no effect on their relationship as peers. They were still able to engage with each other in a respectful and reciprocal way.

When young children are working through the many aspects of their world conflict is another learnt skill. There is a point at which educators need to step in but, what happens if we continue over step that? Do we create children who have conflict resolution skills only when adults are available?

I believe we need to think more deeply about conflict and see what children get out of each moment, rather than trying to fix it. As educators we work hard to ensure children are able to develop a strong sense of being, belonging and becoming, because we know how crucial it is. But do you recognise the importance that conflict plays?

This is something that we will be continuing to work through with the community of children, families and educators at our Centre.

Names of children have been changed. Part 2 of this piece will be available Wednesday 22 August.

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