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Peer Conflicts in the Classroom
Author: Edyth J. Wheeler
If teachers and parents learn to understand children's earliest peer conflicts, they will be in a better position to help young children break the current cycle of widespread violence. Traditionally, many adults have viewed conflicts between children as undesirable and have tried to prevent them or to intervene. Recent theory and research, however, suggest that peer conflict contributes to children's development and represents an important form of social interaction (Rende & Killen, 1992; Ross & Conant, 1992). Early childhood educators are beginning to focus on helping children develop conflict resolution strategies independent of adult intervention (Ramsey, 1991). Parents too can focus on helping their children develop such strategies.
The Structure of Children's Peer Conflicts
The structural features--the "anatomy"--of a conflict are usually described as issues, strategies, and outcomes (Ross & Conant, 1992). Issues include control of the physical or social environment, such as control of objects or physical space. Killen and Turiel (1991) categorize children's conflict as involving issues of morality (such as physical harm and individual rights) and of social order (such as rules for activities).
Conflict strategies include physical and verbal tactics that can be both aggressive and nonaggressive. Researchers concur that children's conflicts infrequently include aggression (Killen & Turiel, 1991). Nonaggressive physical strategies include taking a toy or entering a play space. Verbal strategies range from simple opposition to complex reasoning and negotiation. Children may use teasing and superiority of size, age, physical ability, or knowledge (Wilson, 1988) to establish control, or they may seek adult intervention to resolve a conflict. Killen and Turiel (1991) found, however, that children were capable of resolving conflicts on their own, and that adult intervention usually led to an adult-generated resolution.
The outcomes of a conflict may be (1) an unresolved situation, as when children simply drop the issue; (2) an adult-imposed solution; (3) the submission of one child to another; or (4) a mutually agreed-on solution achieved through bargaining, compromising, or finding alternate activities (Wilson, 1988).
Researchers have explored the relationships among the issues, strategies, and outcomes of children's conflicts. ISSUES often determine strategies. For example, object conflicts tend to involve physical resistance, although as children grow older, they begin to use verbal protest more frequently (Ross & Conant, 1992). Research also indicates that children's resolution strategies are related to the outcomes of their conflicts. Conciliatory behaviors are associated with peaceful outcomes and with continued interaction following the conflict. Physical domination often leads to ending the interaction.
In a study of 69 children in three preschools, Killen and Turiel (1991) found that, during peer group activity, more conflicts were unresolved than resolved; and among conflicts that were resolved, few resolutions were adult generated. In free play settings, adults resolved conflicts more frequently than children, including at least 60 percent of conflicts that involved physical harm and social order.
The Role of Age and Gender in Conflict
Studies of young children's conflicts indicate that age makes a difference in conflict resolution. Younger children are more often involved in object issues and use more physical strategies, while older children disagree over social issues and use more verbal negotiation and reasoning (Ross & Conant, 1992). In a study by Laursen and Hartup (1989), younger children used more conciliatory strategies in nonaggressive conflicts, while older children relied upon insistence. This and other studies suggest the possibility of a developmental sequence.
The role of gender in children's conflicts is not as clear as the role of age. According to some researchers, boys engage in more conflicts than girls and differ in their issues and strategies. Other researchers, however, have found no differences between girls and boys in issues, amount of conflict, or use of aggression (Laursen & Hartup, 1989).
Contexts of Children's Conflicts
Children's conflicts during play are influenced by the play setting, the children's prior relationship, and the presence of adults. Conflicts between children playing in isolated pairs differ from those between two children in a group setting. In a preschool classroom, for example, children have the option of walking away and finding a new activity. In pair play, however, children must persist in resolution efforts to continue to play (Killen & Turiel, 1991). Disputes are more likely to occur in closed play areas with a single entrance, suggesting that poor accessibility to play space may contribute to conflicts.
A consistent finding in research is that children who were playing together before conflict were more likely to resolve their disputes and continue to play afterwards, and that they were more likely to disagree over play decisions than toy distribution (Rende & Killen, 1992), than children who were not playing together prior to a dispute. Laursen and Hartup (1989) found that children who engaged in cooperative play used less aggression in conflict than children who engaged in solitary or parallel play.
The presence of an adult changes the context of children's conflicts. Children take responsibility for their interactions and generate their own solutions more often when an adult is absent (Laursen & Hartup, 1989). Children's conflicts tend to be more aggressive when an adult is present (Killen & Turiel, 1991). When adults provide solutions, they sometimes make mistakes or are inconsistent or biased in the resolutions they impose. Such inconsistency and bias are especially true in parents' dealings with their own children's conflicts.
Implications for Teachers
A number of implications for teachers (and for parents) can be drawn from the research on children's conflicts.
Children's conflicts are complex social interactions, embracing a wide range of issues, strategies, and outcomes. These conflicts do not occur in a vacuum: the social and physical contexts are key elements. Studies have described much of what happens in children's conflicts and have identified aspects of children's conflicts that are interrelated. Researchers should continue to strive for an understanding of conflicts that will give children the means to create their own peaceful resolutions.
This digest is adapted from: Wheeler, Edyth J. (1994). Peer Conflicts in the Classroom: Drawing Implications from Research. Childhood Education 70(5, Annual Theme): 296-299. PS 522 190; adapted by permission of the author and the Association for Childhood Education International, 11501 Georgia Avenue, Suite 315, Wheaton, MD. Copyright 1994 by the ACEI.
For More Information
Hartup, W.W., D.C. French, B. Laursen, M.K. Johnston, and J.R. Ogawa. (1993). Conflict and Friendship Relations in Middle Childhood: Behavior in a Closed-Field Situation. Child Development 64(2, Apr):445-454. EJ 464 496.
Killen, M. and E. Turiel. (1991). Conflict Resolution in Preschool Social Interactions. Early Education and Development 2(3, Jul): 240-255. EJ 441 913.
Laursen, B. (1993). Conflict Management among Close Peers. New Directions for Child Development (60, Sum):39-54. EJ 467 589.
Laursen, B. and W.W. Hartup. (1989). The Dynamics of Preschool Children's Conflicts. Merrill Palmer Quarterly 35(3, Jul):281-297. EJ 391 018.
Ramsey, P.G. (1991). Making Friends in School: Promoting Peer Relationships in Early Childhood Education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Rende, R.D. and M. Killen. (1992). Social Interactional Antecedents to Conflict in Young Children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 7(4, Dec):551-563. EJ 458 106.
Ross, H.S. and C.L. Conant. (1992). The Social Structure of Early Conflict: Interaction, Relationships, and Alliances. In C. Shantz & W. Hartup (Eds.), Conflict in Child and Adolescent Development, 153-185. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Wilson, K.E. (1988). The Development of Conflicts and Conflict Resolution among Preschool Children. Master's thesis, Pacific Oaks College, Pasadena, CA. ED 304 211.
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