Can early years’ practitioners facilitate social development during conflicts between young children?

Full reference
Watson, N.. (2018). Can early years’ practitioners facilitate social development during conflicts between young children? NZ International Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 21(1), 17–34. Retrieved from

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Original Research Paper
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Can early years’ practitioners facilitate social development during conflicts between young children?

Nicola Watson
University of Worcester, UK



This small-scale case study concerned the role of early years’ practitioners in managing conflict events between peers aged three to five in an early childhood setting in England. The setting is located in an area with a higher than average socio-economic status. The cohort which comprised the subject of the study reflected diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. All children were culturally European and one child was bilingual. The study aimed to identify pedagogy which optimised children’s agency, thereby potentially, supporting the development of skills in the social domain. Accordingly, the focus of the study was on conflict management rather than its resolution. The pedagogical approach at the setting was informed by a social constructivist perspective and strategies drawn from alternative dispute resolution (ADR) practices typical of adult mediation services. The practitioner researcher’s professional background included both early years’ practice and ADR with adults. A principle of mediation is that the parties in conflict own and manage the process themselves whilst a mediator facilitates by optimising communication and managing power imbalances rather than directing or imposing judgment. Findings indicated that where practitioners used mediation strategies, (including non-intervention), children rehearsed social skills. In the majority of conflict events children were able to manage their conflicts without adult support. In every conflict event where adult support was given, children rehearsed social skills.

Key words: Social competence, conflict management, mediation strategies, cessation strategies, optimal intervention.



Being socially competent affords wide ranging benefits and the importance of social and emotional development is accepted as having a fundamental impact on all areas of learning (Barlow & Chorpita, 1998; Denham, Bassett & Zinsser, 2012; Evans & Price, 2012; Weare & Gray, 2003).  In their longitudinal study on developing children’s emotional and social competence and wellbeing, Weare and Gray, (2003, p.34) reported, “Emotional and social competences have been shown to be more influential than cognitive abilities for personal, career and scholastic success”. Promoting experiences which support social development is a key responsibility of early year’s practitioners. Children with poor social skills are likely to experience rejection by their peers, which may limit their access to social learning opportunities: “Children may lack appropriate skills simply because they do not have the opportunities to learn and practise them” (Katz & McClellan, 1997 p.9).  Matthews, (1996, p.94) reported that “children who are rejected by their peers exhibit more aggressive behavior (sic), try to exert control during an interaction and are more disagreeable”. Consequently, such children may be frequently involved in conflicts, reinforcing negative patterns of interaction and alienation from peers (Katz & McClellan, 1997; McCay & Keyes, 2001).

There is evidence that young children are capable of using conflict management skills (Silver & Harkins, 2007). Weare & Gray (2003, p. 52) confirm that, “Children benefit from learning emotional and social competence from a very young age and need to be taught in the kinds of environments that promote emotional and social competence from the start”. Therefore, there is a need for research into how such environments might be constructed. The literature on conflict management as opposed to conflict resolution is sparse, giving further impetus to add to a little-studied but worthy area for research. Conflict management and conflict resolution strategies can be distinguished by their aims. Whereas resolution strategies may involve aims external to the protagonists, such as the restoration or establishment of order or compliance, (Silver & Harkins, 2007), management strategies aim to support children in managing the challenges inherent in conflicts at their own social and emotional developmental levels.


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