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Conflict Resolution for Preschoolers

When Sandra V. Sandy and Kathleen M. Cochran describe their work at the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR) at Teachers College, they get a variety of interesting reactions.

Sandy and Cochran are co-creators of the Peaceful Kids, Safe Kids program, a conflict resolution program for preschoolers. Sandy is ICCCR's director of research and Cochran is director of training for the program.

"Some people are openly skeptical," they explain in an article in the spring issue of The Fourth R, the journal of the National Institute for Dispute Resolution. (The article was co-written with Ronnie Grosbard, senior training associate.) "Some glaze over, their faces going carefully neutral before they change the subject. Others express awe, as if we've told them that we know how to reverse global warming."

The Peaceful Kids, Safe Kids program began three years ago, supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the A.L. Mailman Foundation. The purpose of the program was to design a conflict resolution curriculum appropriate for children aged 2½ to 5 and to look at the impact of involving parents in the process.

"The idea was to bring conflict resolution not only to the classroom, but also to the family," says Sandy who is also director of the Peaceful Kids program. "When kids get reinforcement in both school and home, the benefits are greater than when it's only taking place in school."

Program evaluations found that in child care centers where parents were involved in the Peaceful Kids program through meetings and take-home activities, children showed greater gains in social skills.

The colleagues note: "It is important first to emphasize that ‘conflict resolution' does not mean Utopia in the classroom. Conflict resolution training will not turn preschool children into master negotiators or mediators. They will not stop struggling over toys, turns and friends, nor will they be able to resolve all their conflicts without adult help."

They say that in time, however, the classroom will look and feel different. Children talk more openly about their own feelings and acknowledge the feelings of others. They learn a vocabulary of concepts, such as sharing and cooperating. They learn to "stop and think" about the consequences of their actions.

The core of the Peaceful Kids, Safe Kids program is a series of mini-training sessions, where the instructor leads the children through a song, game or other cooperative activity for about a half hour.

For one exercise, children practice rolling a ball to others in a circle. The children must remember to say the name of the child to whom they wish to roll the ball before they roll it. "Young children often don't realize that if you want someone to attend to you, you need to get their attention by saying their name," says Cochran. "It's such a simple thing, yet it's the beginning of being able to understand another person's point of view."

Sandy notes the value of making connections through literature with stories like Stella Luna by Janell Cannon, and Six Crows by Leon Lionni. "Children love to hear these stories over and over," Sandy says. "And the underlying messages, about respect, caring and talking out problems are very powerful."

Children also love a variety of puppet shows in which characters face problems or dilemmas, such as one puppet taking another's toy or knocking down a block building, or two characters trying to play together when they can't agree on who will be the mommy and who will be the baby. Sometimes, children themselves use the puppets to act out scenarios.

Such dramatics come naturally to preschoolers. Studies show that regardless of cultural background, children between the ages of 18-months and 6-years old "spontaneously engage in pretend play." Cochran notes: "Acting out roles, situations and behaviors is how young children make sense of the world. That's why stories, puppet plays and role playing are great ways to help them learn positive responses to conflict."

A major goal of the program is to move children away from the "fight or flight" approach to handling conflicts. The colleagues point out in their article: "Children-and most adults as well-tend to see only two choices in a conflict situation: fight for what you want, or give up and give in. We try to help them see that there are many options and that they are capable of generating diverse alternatives. We model and teach assertive responses so children can stand up for themselves while respecting the other person."

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation recently awarded the ICCCR another three-year grant to train early childhood educators in several urban centers in the principles and strategies of the program. As a result, the Peaceful Kids, Safe Kids program will soon be on the road.

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