Part 1. What is social emotional competencence?
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Part 2. Positive social and emotional climates
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Part 3. Learning about and managing emotions
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Part 4. Social competence
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Part 5. Developing self-regulation and executive function
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Part 6. Neurodivergence and social-emotional competence
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Part 7. Challenging behaviour and social-emotional skills
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Part 8. Conclusion
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Social skills and conflict

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Teaching children effective social skills often happens through teachers’ subtle but highly intentional actions, and may also include direct teaching. As you read this summary of teaching practices for supporting and scaffolding social skill development, think about which of these strategies you already use and which you might like to begin to incorporate into practice. 

Scaffolding social skills in early childhood

Children develop skills for playing alongside others, for playing collaboratively, and for forming special friendships during their early childhood years, all of which are supported by the child’s emerging social skills and underpinned by skills in language, empathy, and self-regulation. Interactions with peers offer plenty of opportunities to learn, practise, and refine social skills, yet some children may require support to develop social skills or build social confidence, and benefit from specific teaching of social behaviours. Intentional teaching and intervention are particularly important for children who do not engage with peers independently, who are shy, withdrawn or inhibited, and for children with limited communication skills.

Learning social skills can be supported when teachers:

  • Structure routines and activities to provide plentiful opportunities for social interaction and collaborative play. For example, focus activities in a limited number of areas, provide equipment and materials that require cooperation and sharing, (wagons, seesaws, or simply large pieces of paper for painting) or introduce new and interesting materials and equipment to areas. Use teacher-guided play to give children particular roles in play that put them in contact with other children. Research shows that environments that are carefully arranged to promote peer interactions result in a significant increase in positive peer interactions and children’s prosocial behaviours.
  • Model specific social skills such as how to get someone’s attention or have a conversation, or how to invite another to play with you, as well as general social skills such as sharing, turn-taking and helping others. Children who observe adults modelling values such as generosity, empathy and tolerance for frustration are more likely to develop these qualities.
  • Explicitly teach social skills. For example, teach children how it is important to wait for a good moment to catch someone’s attention, and to initiate interactions by smiling, making eye-contact, playing alongside, and passing resources to one another. Rehearse social skills in whole group times by role playing ways to get each other’s attention, compliment each other, or ask to play, and use puppets for exploring social problem-solving scenarios. Children whose parents explicitly coach them in social skills are found to have higher levels of social competence and acceptance by peers.
  • Offer positive acknowledgement and praise when children demonstrate social skills, and help children to develop identities of themselves as helpful, caring and kind people. Attribute children with positive social abilities, for example, ‘I know you can tell him how you feel’ or ‘I know you will be able to share’.
  • Support children’s language abilities, such as the ability to express views and preferences, listen to and comprehend other children’s ideas, and negotiate, which are found to be related to superior play skills and a range of social competencies. Similarly, supporting children’s emotional regulation skills can help children with issues such as managing frustration and showing flexibility which underpin successful interactions with peers.

Friendships and collaborative play can be supported when teachers:

  • Foster children’s social interactions by drawing attention to and showing interest in what another child is playing, commenting on other children’s strengths to their peers, and facilitating interactions. With infants, describe what other children are doing, wearing, or holding, which can help children to attend to each other. With older children, point out common interests or suggest that children talk with each other. Help children to understand the value of good relationships with peers.
  • Encourage children to use social skills as they play, for example, ‘you could ask Sarah for a paintbrush’, as providing children with cues, prompts and encouragement for social behaviours is found to lead to increased social behaviours. However, when scaffolding of social skills is highly directive (such as telling children what to do to play with each other, or directing children into teacher-chosen groups), research finds reduced sociability and increased peer avoidance in infants and toddlers over time. It is important, then, to focus on child-centred strategies such as following children’s leads, talking about other children’s feelings and behaviours, or helping onlookers to join groups of peers.
  • Look for the subtle cues that a child is interested in another’s play, and coach shy or withdrawn children about how to show their interest in playing with other children and to enter play. Infants demonstrate interest in others when they modify their actions to match those of other children, and can be supported to initiate and sustain interactions with peers. Look for ways to bridge children’s play and encourage interaction, such as by giving children social tasks such as ‘can you ask Priya for some blocks?’
  • Help children understand the social behaviour of others by engaging in discussion about the intentions and feelings of others.  Help them to interpret being approached, touched or spoken to by other children in positive ways, and prime children with ideas about how they might respond.
  • Encourage empathy, kindness, and tuākana-tēina relationships. Suggest that children teach, lead, and help each other, or suggest a child should go to a peer for help, advice, or support. Give children responsibilities that require social interactions such as handing out cups at snack time.
  • Support the complexity of play, as complex and challenging play encourages children to develop more sophisticated social and emotional skills and extends their social repertoire. Play, particularly sociodramatic play, involves children in reflecting before acting, being aware of the emotions and perspectives of others, and cooperation, negotiation, and compromise. Appreciate all kinds of social play, including exuberant play with others, as important for children’s social development and for the development of children’s peer culture.

To read this research review on The Education Hub website, click here.

Workbook

Spend some time reflecting on your strengths, challenges, and preferences in regard to social interactions.

Then try to relate this to your teaching practices.

Watch

In this video, Heidi Panchartek from The Rumpus Room in Auckland discusses the importance of supporting children when they engage in and experience conflict, and encourages teachers to explore ways for children to experience conflicts as opportunities for growth and learning.

Learn more about Heidi here

Heidi Panchartek has been working in the early childhood sector for the last nineteen years and has been blessed to work for ten of those years at The Rumpus Room, where she is Centre Mentor. Creating a place where children feel comfortable to be themselves, are treated with kindness and respect, and feel safe to freely explore alongside people that really know them is really important to her and underpins her teaching and learning philosophy. She believes that, when they have an anchor relationship built on a foundation of trust and security, children feel safe to express and self-regulate their emotions, and know they have support to guide them through these valuable learning moments when working alongside others.  

Transcript

Social skills and learning about conflict

Often, as adults, we expect that children should be able to share, should be able to take turns, but they’ve sometimes only been on this world for two or three years, you know, they’re still finding their place, and there’s even adults out there who are still learning to share and take turns. So, it’s something that children – these opportunities of being able to work through conflict allow them to learn how to negotiate, and take turns, and work alongside others.

What kinds of things might children experience conflict about?

Conflict can happen many times throughout the day, and over a variety of different things.  I often like to think about people, places, and things. People could be around those special relationships they have with primary care givers, where they’re having to share their special one-on-one time with a caregiver, with another child. When you’re in a group shared setting, there’s often a group of children, and the primary caregiver works alongside a small group of children. So, if their primary caregiver is busy with another child, then sometimes that can create feelings of conflict. Or even on a couch, if there’s a child sitting there, and another child comes along and thinks, actually, I’d quite like to sit where they’re sitting, that could create a moment of conflict, as well. Really common is also around toys, objects, resources, equipment, where a child is playing with it, it looks amazing from the other side of the room, and they want to come close and explore it as well, and then you’ve got two children kind of to-ing and fro-ing over an object, and that can often create a sense of – create conflict between two children, or a group of children.

How do you view peer conflicts?

Sometimes they can be an unsettling time. They can create internal conflict, because we’re unsure how best to handle the situation. Sometimes, I think the best thing to do is to think about your prior knowledge of the children as well, think about the relationships you have with the families, the conversations you’ve had with the families, if they’ve shared something at drop-off time, to say that they’ve had an unsettled night. That might create more opportunities for them to be more sensitive or have stronger emotions that day. So, I think thinking about all that prior knowledge, and realising that it’s not always black and white. There’s not always a perfect solution of how to support a child through conflict, but it’s about knowing the child, thinking about creating that calm space for children, and realising that it’s normal, as well. Conflict is a normal part of learning for everyone.

What opportunities for learning do peer conflicts offer children?

In those kind of moments when you’ve got say, a child who’s – they’re both holding onto a teapot, and they’re both wanting it at the same time – sometimes, feelings can come up about having judgement about who had it first, you know, this child had it first, so this child – I guess, you’re wanting to advocate for that child. But when you don’t have the judgement, and you’re instead kind of sitting back and observing, that’s that moment when the children are figuring it out for themselves. When you come in with judgement and say ‘so and so had it first’, you’re taking away the opportunity for the children to negotiate, to kind of work through it and realise that’s part of that social learning. 

When you think about when they go off to school; there’s not going to be adults there to step in and solve problems all the time. I think it’s about seeing children as capable, if you allow – if you set that kind of foundation up for them, and they also learn that they’re trusted, as well, which is a big thing. When you feel trusted, then you thrive. As adults, I believe our role is not to fix, or to decide that this is a solution it should be, because then we’re losing that whole learning moment, and teaching moment for children. It’s about stepping back, being there to support, and kind of guide them through it – being an anchor for children, without taking over the whole situation and fixing it, because they’re losing the whole learning around why being in conflict is important. It’s also setting them up for when you’re adults, as well. You’re not going to go through your whole life without conflict, but it’s about learning about how you work alongside, that kind of give and take relationship, problem-solving. Yeah, I think it all starts when children are given that opportunity to engage in those relationships.

How do you promote a safe physical and emotional space for children when peer conflicts occur?

I think a big thing is looking at your environment, and creating a yes environment, as well, so looking to see, if you glance around, is everything saying, no? Is there only one or two objects that the children are interested in – say, two cars, when you’ve got a group environment of 12 children. Looking at even the equipment that you have – are there spaces for children to sit alongside each other, or is there just one space that could cause the children to all want to be in that same space, which can cause conflict. 

And thinking about, for a lot of infant and toddler environments, the main foundation is around relationships, so thinking about the relationships you have – how do you take the time to get to know children, and build those relationship so that you know when there’s children who might be a bit more sensitive, or going through big emotions, where conflict may happen a lot more frequently.  

So, it’s about placing ourselves around to support the children, as well – being down at the children’s level. If you see two children who are in the midst of both wanting the same object, moving closer so that you’re there to support, but not take over. Sometimes just the words you use in those situations like, ‘I’m here if you need me’, can have a bigger impact that stepping in and saying, ‘Sophie – you had it first’. So, it’s about thinking about where we place ourselves, thinking about the environment, about the relationships we have.

How do you support children to resolve peer conflicts?

As adults, often we’ve got this internal battle of whether we step in or step out to support.  I think that again goes back to knowing the children. If you think, if you rush over to a group of children, and you’re saying in a big loud voice, ‘stop’. Are we showing that we trust them? Although, that sometimes is needed, if a child is about to bite. Sometimes, you do need to, in those situations, go with what’s happening, but it’s just thinking about how these opportunities can be to step back, and allow them that time and space to work through it, rather than working through it for them.   

So, I was able to see and feel a really beautiful moment between two children that I always think of when I think about conflict. I was sitting outside in the sandpit area, and there were two children who had a teapot – a stainless steel teapot, and they were both wanting it. There was to-ing and fro-ing. There was a lot of verbal explanations from the children. They were really telling everyone around them that they really wanted this teapot. I was thinking about what prior knowledge I had been given of the children, and I had realised that one of them was teething, and had had a really bad sleep the night before, so it made me more conscious that this conflict could turn quite physical quite quickly. So, I was thinking internally about how best to support the children through this. So, I went to move forward, and I also noticed that there was a child standing slightly to the right, and I could see that she was looking around as if she was looking for an object to come and bring over to the child, to support them through this. So, you could see that it was having an impact on all of the room – all of the children. They were all watching and waiting and seeing what to do.  While I was watching this child, I realised that the room had gone quiet. One of the children had let go of the teapot, had bent down to pick up something else, and the other child who had the teapot had a kind of look on their face like they weren’t sure what had just happened. Then, they stopped and they picked up the teapot, and they handed it over to the other child. 

So, it was just this real powerful moment for me, because I didn’t need to step in. I was there, I was an anchor, I was ready to say that I was there to support if needed, but I wasn’t needed. The children were able to work through it themselves. It also showed the empathy of another child who realised that there were two children who were in the midst of really wanting something, and they were looking at ways to show empathy and support as well.  After the child had handed over the teapot, they both started laughing. The moment had gone. The frustration was gone. The emotions were gone, and it was just about this real power that they had worked it out for themselves. They didn’t need an adult. They didn’t need someone to step in and make a judgment for them of who should have had it. It was working it out for themselves.  

Delve deeper

Heidi provides some key messages for us about the importance of enabling children to experience and work through conflict situations, which will entail some reflection on our part in relation to conflict resolution processes in our settings. When supporting young children with conflict situations, it is helpful to remember that conflict is natural and inevitable in a social setting, and that finding ways to manage conflict is a lifelong and highly sophisticated skill. We can’t expect children to be skilled at it without practice. Managing conflict is a key part of social and emotional competence and children do need opportunities to learn about how to handle conflict. This means that, rather than seeking to minimise conflict by quickly resolving issues for children, we should be ensuring that conflict situations provide meaningful opportunities for children to practise social and emotional skills.

As Heidi says, there is no one way to approach a conflict situation between children, but it is good to start by preparing yourself and adjusting your own mindset so that you can best support the children. It is important to let go of any judgement that you might have formed about who is in the right or who deserves a particular outcome as a result of the conflict. These judgements will lead us to want to advocate for particular children and to impose particular solutions. The teacher’s role in this moment is not to fix or find the solution for children, but to step back, support, and guide children to resolve the conflict for themselves wherever possible. Instead, the teacher can act as an anchor for children, providing a sense of safety for children at a time when it is likely that emotions are running high. 

In order to support children with handling conflict, teachers might think about prior knowledge they have about children, or have gained from conversations with families, which might explain why children are particularly fractious or finding it hard to manage emotion (such as a poor sleep, or teething issues). It really helps if teachers know children and their families well, so spending time on building relationships and putting positive foundations in place for learning social and emotional competence (as we discussed in Part 2 of this course), is crucial. 

We then want to think about how we can support children by creating a calm space in which they can attempt to resolve their conflict. This is done mainly through the teacher’s positioning. For example, you might get close to children, down to their level, and offer support if children need it, perhaps simply by saying ‘I’m here if you need me’. Another point Heidi makes about providing a positive environment for children is ensuring that there are enough resources and large enough spaces for children to use, and for teachers to be positive and supportive about children’s choices (what Heidi calls a ‘yes’ environment). 

By supporting children to manage and negotiate social conflicts for themselves, we not only build an important skill for social and emotional competence, but we also show children that we trust them to figure out how to negotiate and solve social problems. We position children as competent and capable communicators and learners. This works to reinforce the positive social and emotional climate we learned about in Part 2 with positive tones, clear expectations, and a high regard for children’s competencies and capabilities. 

Workbook
Read

The next reading summarises some of the key information about how to handle conflict situations that arise between children. Have a read and then look at the exercise below.

How to handle conflict between children

Conflicts are a natural part of any social context. Conflict occurs when children disagree, oppose, or retaliate against each other, which may lead to challenging and emotionally charged interactions. Conflicts should not be associated with aggression, however, nor perceived as negative. This means they do not need to be quickly resolved, but can be used as a context for learning a range of social and emotional skills, such as empathy, communication, negotiation, emotional regulation, and thinking. While conflict should not be avoided, or quickly stopped by adults imposing solutions, too much conflict can be stressful for everyone in an early childhood setting and so preventative measures, such as clearly understood routines and behavioural expectations, are important. Children can be overwhelmed by strong emotions during conflict situations and may find it difficult to remember and use strategies such as problem-solving until they are supported to regulate their emotions.

Support children to learn from conflict by:

  • Being alert to situations that may lead to conflict, such as over-crowding in an area, a lack of resources, or simply children’s preferences for special items or for space around them as they play.
  • Taking a moment to think, observe, and get calm before responding, to help you in professional decision-making. Be guided by your knowledge of and relationships with children and focus on facilitating children’s emotional regulation, communication and perspective-taking and promoting children’s maximum participation in the process.
  • Intentionally deciding whether to intervene in conflicts, or give children the opportunity for independent practice. Research suggests children under three are capable of independent conflict resolution, using strategies such as withdrawing or retreating, giving up without a fight, or using non-verbal strategies such as smiling or offering toys, especially if they are engaged in joint play before the conflict. Research with older children shows that children can resolve conflicts themselves using strategies such as reasoning, apologising, or suggesting cooperative ideas for play. Observe children’s progress, so that you can support children if necessary.
  • Facilitating learning opportunities for children within conflict resolution, rather than directing children, restating rules, distracting children from the conflict, or other strategies intended to restore harmony for the sake of classroom management, as these remove children’s involvement from the process. Avoid focusing on ideas of fairness or justice, which will lead you to direct the conflict resolution process and choose solutions for children rather than listening to children’s ideas for resolution. Open-ended communication is found to be more successful in helping children learn conflict resolution skills than directing children in how to resolve conflict.
  • Questioning to seek clarification about what is going on and each child’s perspective. Questioning encourages children to communicate with each other, and also gives children a message that the responsibility for resolving the conflict belongs to them.  Make sure every child is given a chance to express their perspective and feelings, and acknowledge and validate those feelings. Explaining other children’s viewpoints to children supports children in the development of cognitive flexibility or the ability to take different perspectives. Skilled questioning can cue children to develop successful solutions.
  • Comforting, encouraging, and affirming children, which is found to increase children’s participation in problem-solving and sharing of perspectives with peers. Showing children warmth during periods of intense emotion can help children to regulate those emotions and become receptive to learning problem-solving strategies. Negative emotions, such as anger or anxiety, in particular are linked to decreased capacities for problem-solving by disrupting cognitive processes such as working memory and cognitive flexibility.
  • Restating the problem clearly back to children with statements like ‘Oh I see, there’s only one truck’, to encourage children’s involvement in solving their own conflict problem.
  • Offering children a range of possible things to say (‘please can I have a turn?’ or ‘I am playing with this now’ or ‘that annoys me!’) to help children learn social skills and appropriate language. Pay attention to non-verbal communication, especially for children with emerging language skills, as toddlers and young children may use formulaic phrases (like ‘stop it – I don’t like it’) without deep understanding.
  • Remaining child-centred. For example, in the case of children excluding a peer from their play, teachers should be open to helping the excluded child to accept the lack of opportunity to join the group and find something alternative to do, rather than insisting on inclusion. Positively affirm each child’s idea for resolution, whilst also seeking to find a solution that is agreeable to all through negotiation and compromise.

Click here to read the referenced version of this research review.

Workbook