ERIC Identifier: ED372874
Publication Date: 1994-09-00
Author: Wheeler, Edyth J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
Peer Conflicts in the Classroom. ERIC Digest.
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
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
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
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
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
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
IMPLICATIONS FOR TEACHERS
A number of implications for
teachers (and for parents) can be drawn from the research on children's
Teachers need to be aware of children's intentions. Is this conflict one that
the children are truly trying to resolve, or is it verbal play? Teachers should
help children make clear their own understanding of the conflict.
Children's ability to resolve conflicts increases as their verbal competence and
ability to take other perspectives grow. If the children involved in a dispute
are verbal and empathetic, teachers should let them try to work things out
Teachers' decisions to intervene should be made after they observe the issues of
children's conflicts. Possession issues and name-calling generate less
discussion than issues about facts or play decisions.
Children who explain their actions to each other are likely to create their own
solutions. In conflicts characterized by physical strategies and simple verbal
oppositions, teachers should help children find more words to use.
Teachers should note whether the children were playing together before the
conflict. Prior interaction and friendship motivate children to resolve disputes
on their own.
Teachers can reduce the frustration of constant conflict by making play spaces
accessible and providing ample materials for sharing.
Children often rely on adults, who are frequently happy to supply a "fair"
solution. Teachers should give children time to develop their own resolutions
and allow them the choice of negotiating, changing the activity, dropping the
issue, or creating new rules.
Many conflicts do not involve aggression, and children are frequently able to
resolve their disputes. Teachers should provide appropriate guidance, yet allow
children to manage their own conflicts and resolutions.
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.