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April 8, 1997

Peer Problem Solving in Early Childhood

by John Weinacker

How often have you been in the situation of trying to solve a conflict between your child and another child (who may also be yours) and wondered what to do? You may ask yourself the question of whether you should intervene and stop the argument or whether you should simply let the children work it out on their own, hoping that this will enable them to develop the skills to solve their problems by themselves. When the dispute does not work out the way you had hoped almost invariably you end up wishing you had handled the situation another way.

A possible answer to how these situations should be handled may lie in taking a dual or combination approach. When the threat of physical violence is pending then, obviously, it is time to step in. What can be done at this point, though, is a different matter. Rather than stopping the dispute and siding with one child or the other, let me recommend listening to both sides. Better yet, let the children listen to each other. With some time to calm their emotions and with some appropriate guidance the children can learn to resolve their own conflicts.

With this in mind, let's look at steps that can be taken to help young children learn to solve their own problems through communication. The first thing to do is to approach the situation swiftly, yet calmly, addressing the children at eye level. Often times a good way to begin dealing with the conflict is by having each child hold one of your hands. In this way, the children can focus on the conversation. At the same time, this also limits the potential for further physical violence. And, it can also provide the concept that everyone is associated, in some way, with each other and there does not have to always be a winner and a loser.

Next, recognize each child's feelings, thoughts, and actions. This can be done verbally by a simple phrase such as "I see you are very upset." Then have the children explain to each other in their own words what happened. You may question, "What happened when you were...[playing with Tommy?]" Then, as the guide, you may want to restate the problem in clear, direct words. For example, "So, Joey, you feel that you should have the bucket since you had it first. And, Tommy, you feel you should get the bucket because Joey wasn't using it when you picked it up."

After restating the problem and allowing the children time to express their feelings, ask if the children have a solution. This can be done by simply asking, "Do you have a solution?" For younger children you may want to offer solutions and let them tell you if this is acceptable or not. It is amazing how quickly, once the problem is clearly stated and emotions have had a chance to settle, that a solution will come.

When the children have come up with a solution, ask them if they are still friends. You might even want to ask if they would like a hug, but don't feel you have to force it if it is not forthcoming. It may not be wanted then.

Finally, it may be prudent to keep an eye on the situation to make sure that everything does, indeed, work out the way it was discussed and planned. Awareness and anticipation can go a long way in preventing future conflicts.

And last, remember that this process will take time. Peer problem solving, as with any system, takes time to get used to, to develop, and to implement. In the end, though, you should find it will result in children who are better negotiators and, therefore, able to develop more socially desirable skills. And guess what else? You'll probably find they fight less and get along better. In the end, you may even find that you have more time for other tasks or to simply enjoy your children.

John Weinacker has a Masters degree in Early Childhood Education and a Masters in Business Administration. He is the owner and administrator of the Weinacker's Montessori Schools in West Mobile, Tillman's Corner, and Bay Minette, Alabama. He is also the current President of the Gulf Coast Child Development Association.

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