Learning to get along well with others and to achieve shared goals in a cooperative way are important life skills. In this part we learn about how to support children in developing prosocial behaviours, or social skills, in the context of the early childhood centre, which of course offers ample opportunity for social interaction. As with learning emotion knowledge and skills, in this part we will see that children benefit from intentional support and even direct teaching with regards to developing social skills.
Our aims are:
- To appreciate the ways in which teachers can scaffold the development of effective social skills in young children
- To inquire into, reflect upon, and develop teaching practices for supporting children through conflict situations
This will involve:
- Reading about how to scaffold social skills in early childhood settings
- Reflecting on your own preferences and competencies for social interactions
- Watching an interview in which Heidi Panchartek explains how teachers might support children to learn how to negotiate conflict
- Reflecting on your own responses and feelings in relation to conflict between children
- Reading about how to handle conflict between children
- Putting your learning into practice by observing a peer conflict
There are also some further resources to explore on social conflicts and on serve and return interactions for building social skills, and you might like to debate issues of social justice in relation to supporting children through conflict with others on our online forum.
Revisit your learning so far
Why is children’s emotion knowledge important in supporting their social and emotional competence?
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.
Spend some time reflecting on your strengths, challenges, and preferences in regard to social interactions. For example, are you introverted or extroverted? Are you more comfortable in smaller or larger groups? What kinds of social interactions do you enjoy most? Which aspects of social interactions do you find difficult? Does the context in which the interaction takes place make a difference? You may like to think about whether there is a cultural dimension to your preferences.
Then try to relate this to your teaching practices. Which social situations and interactions do you find more challenging to support among the children you work with? Is there a relationship here to your own preferred style for social interaction and emotional expression?
Watch a video
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.
About Heidi Panchartek
Heidi 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.
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.
What are your beliefs about intervening in conflict situations, and under what circumstances? What kinds of feelings do difficult situations (such as hurting/biting, conflict, unkind words, bullying) raise for you? How can this awareness help you to manage these situations? Might there be issues of bias and discrimination in children’s interactions that require some adult intervention for social justice?
The next reading summarises some of the key information about how to handle conflict situations that arise between children.
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.
Relate your learning to practice
At this stage of our inquiry, you are going to inquire into social conflicts at your early childhood setting. To do this, set yourself up with an event-sampling observation sheet – this simply means being prepared with some ideas of what you want to observe and what you want to record about a conflict situation. For example, you might decide you want to record:
- the time and location of the conflict (especially if you think conflicts are more common at a certain time or in a particular place)
- children’s names
- the problem around which the conflict arose
- children’s strategies or attempts to solve the problem (here you might record dialogue and actions)
- teachers’ actions and responses
Event sampling means that, with this preparation in place, you engage in observation whenever a conflict event occurs. Collect as many conflict observations as you can in a week. Remember that a conflict situation may not necessarily involve loud words and physical aggression, and children may already be using strategies to mitigate potential conflicts.
Next, analyse the data you have collected. What are common causes of conflict to arise in your setting? What strategies are children using to attempt to resolve conflict? Are these strategies successful? What skills might need to be taught, and how might you plan to teach and reinforce this skill? If other teachers were present, you might consider teachers’ responses to the conflict event, and the impact of these responses.
In this part of the course, we learned that:
- In early childhood settings, children have plentiful opportunities for social interactions, but may require support and specific teaching of social behaviours and skills in order to develop effective social competence.
- Intentional teaching and guidance will be particularly important for children who are shy, withdrawn, or do not engage with peers independently, or those with limited communication skills.
- Teaching strategies for supporting social skill development include structuring activities and routines to include opportunities for social interactions and friendship development, modelling, teaching, and affirming and reinforcing social skills.
- Conflicts are a natural part of any social context, and can be used as a context for learning a range of social and emotional skills, such as empathy, communication, negotiation, emotional regulation and thinking.
What kinds of social situations or conflict situations do you think it is important to step in on? Share your thoughts and experiences with fellow course participants on the online forum.
Learn about a simple way to teach and reinforce the social skill of reciprocal conversation, through the practice of serve and return.