In Practice

Thinking about conflict and young children (Part 2)

As we continue to work through and understand conflict with the young children we often forget to talk about what children are learning. In Part 1 of this piece I wrote about what it looked like during a particular afternoon with Joshua* and Antony*. Having been able to see more such interactions since, I can see even our youngest of babies showing an understanding of conflict or being able to emotionally respond to it without the support of adults.

After speaking with many people after Part 1 of the article, I understood that the general perception was that conflict meant fighting. Does it? Why is it that when someone speaks about conflict people automatically assume it means fighting?

I see children in conflict not only in the Nursery, but within my home and across our community. As adults were often deal with conflict because we believe conflict is inherently bad, and that it is our job to ‘sort it out’ for the children.

I have seen many occasions where two children are in conflict about a toy and automatically the educator steps in and says, “Who had it first? Well then you need to share”. Early childhood educators understand the importance of sharing, but do we understand the importance of the conflict that surrounds each child?

When two children within our space were both holding a broom, the children looked at the educator for support. The educator did what they thought was appropriate and supported the children through their conflict. The children then went their separate ways before both coming back to the same situation again. This time an educator did not step in. Yes, I was close by watching but as I highlighted previously, we need to always question how our intervention supports the children’s learning.

As I watched the two children involved in conflict, one child would run away with the broom before the other child would follow. As the two children were running through the yard, the child with the broom saw another one lying on the ground near the sandpit. He proceeded to pick it up and hand it to the child that he was in conflict with.

As the other child took the extra broom they both began sweeping the sand next to one another. As they were both responding to the situation they were able to engage in a conversation about the sand, and how people need to keep sand in the sandpit. This conversation is the essence of shared learning and exemplifies how conflict supports children’s learning in a multitude of ways.

This observation occurred over a period of time, however in this instance when the educator supported the children they were unable to resolve their conflict (i.e. their shared desire for the broom). However, when they were given time and space, they were able to respond to each other and their emotional needs.

Supporting children through conflict is not something that can be achieved overnight as each situation is different and required a considered approach. Being able to respond to conflict means understanding your own desires as well as the desires of those around you, which is again a learnt skill and one that comes with practice.

I have realised that even I have some conflict around this thinking, but through beginning the conversation we will be able to start understanding educators’ desires to “fix” things rather than sharing the importance that conflict holds for each child.

If we continue to understand our own emotions around conflict then maybe we can begin to develop an understanding of how we do (or do not) create a sense of helplessness for children. There continues to be a wide range of questions that have arisen for me through these stories, but I am able to see the importance they hold. Understanding why we as adults and educators believe conflict is “bad” is a life changing notion. Not only for ourselves, but also importantly for the children we educate.

Exploring the notion of conflict will take years, but developing an understanding for children is definitely worth the time.

Names of children have been changed. Part 1 of this piece can be found here.

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