Conflict resolution

Hello lovely readers. With the school year in full swing, I’ve been spending a lot of hours with five-to-seven year olds in child care and student teaching. And sometimes (often) kids get frustrated. A parent asked me to write out some of my strategies for conflict resolution when siblings fight, so here’s a few things I try to keep in mind when tensions escalate. I’d welcome feedback! Thanks 🙂
1) Stay calm. This may seem obvious and also easier said than done, but kids really tend to take their cues from the people around them. If I get really anxious about something, they’re likely to get more anxious too. So if the kids are upset about something that seems like it isn’t actually a big deal, I just honor and acknowledge their feelings and then try to model calm and reasoned problem-solving. Of course if there is a serious problem, I communicate that to them, but as calmly as possible, and tell them what needs to happen or again model effective problem-solving.
2) Acknowledge their feelings and de-escalate. We take deep breaths and I remind them that we need to use words to communicate in order to solve a problem. Sometimes I use some modified techniques from Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. Though I try not to become too scripted, as that can seem disingenuous and thus be counterproductive. I ask “what are you feeling right now?” and “What do you need?” and work with them to try and find a way that we can all get what we need without anyone getting hurt (physically or emotionally).
3) Share my own experiences. I think it’s important for kids to realize everyone (adults too) gets frustrated and angry, that it’s not bad to feel emotions, and that there are constructive ways of expressing those emotions without hurting anyone.  Last month, I had a conversation with some kids about punching vs. other ways of expressing anger without hurting anyone – e.g. I told them sometimes when I get upset, I throw a pillow or go in the backyard away from people to have a good scream. They laughed at the idea of my throwing pillows, which also helped de-escalate the tension.
4) Collaborate to find a solution. I give kids autonomy and try to always give them choices or ask them what they think we should do if it’s a situation with any flexibility, and I thank them for their helpful ideas. Then in the few circumstances in which there really can’t be any compromise, I feel comfortable putting my foot down, and they’re more likely to listen.  I also encourage them to ask each other for what they need instead of having me give orders (e.g. “Did you ask Maria if you could have a turn next?” instead of “Maria, let Joshua on the swing now.”)
5) Always give reasons when I ask or tell them to do something (and I try to make a clear distinction there!) or when I say no. Most of the things I’m not willing to compromise on have to do with staying safe/healthy. I am lucky that most of the kids I work with are very responsible about not crossing the street without an adult, not touching the hot stove, etc., so I don’t have to say a flat “no” very often.
6) Problem-solve instead of punish. Once a child I was watching punched another child in the middle of a mall. I first quickly made sure they were all right and then told the child firmly “It is never okay to punch” and “we have to discuss this now,” but also told them “I’m not angry. I’m not angry, but we have to talk because I can tell something is very wrong.” We re-located to the closest quiet space (happened to be a couch in a bookstore) and continued “I know you wouldn’t have wanted to hurt [name], so you wouldn’t have done that unless something was really upsetting you. Please tell us what happened.” I assume the best of intentions. First the child clammed up and refused to speak at all, but when he realized I wasn’t punishing him, he was able to tell us why he was upset with the other child, and we discussed ideas of how to solve the problem without hurting each other. He eventually apologized but not before he was ready (as an apology is pretty meaningless if it’s not genuine).
7) Specific positive reinforcement. I try to point out things I’m really happy about to encourage repeating, instead of saying “no” all the time. “Thank you for telling us before you stopped your bike in front of me.” “Thank you for biking carefully and stopping before each street.” “That was so kind of you to offer to help your brother.” “That was so kind of you to offer to share with your sister.” Etc., etc. I also avoid just saying, “you were really good today” or similar because that doesn’t really give them any new information, and also can inadvertently imply that sometimes a child is “bad.”
Hope this offers some food for thought! I am always questioning and refining conflict resolution with a goal of honoring kids’ experiences and empowering them to stand up for themselves with peers and thoughtfully, effectively resolve conflicts – suggestions always welcome. Thanks again!
Post-script: To end, have a smile – This is the first photo I saw when I searched for “kids fighting” online … This looks like goat kids playing to me, actually! They hit their strong foreheads and horns together for fun. =)
kids fighting