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Early Childhood | July 2010

Conflicts and problem-solving: How to help preschoolers help themselves

Softly smiling young Asian girl and pigtailed blonde girl sitting close on a colorful alphabet mat

Giving preschoolers the tools to work through their own issues will enhance independence and social success

Conflicts and problems are normal in early childhood classrooms—but what's the best way to solve them? Maybe you shouldn't. When children disagree or grapple with difficult feelings, the teacher's first instinct is often to suggest a solution so that order can be restored and classroom learning can continue. However, the "quick fix" might not help children in the long run. Problem-solving is an essential skill that becomes more and more important as children grow older and the challenges of life grow more complex.

Giving preschoolers the tools to think problems through (at their level) and suggest possible solutions will lead to greater social success and enhanced independent thinking. Rather than stepping in, teachers can use constructive strategies when children have problems and suggest ways the children themselves can effectively resolve those issues.

Help children talk the problem through

Teachers can help students begin to solve a problem with minimal adult intervention. The authors of Addressing Challenging Behaviors in Early Childhood Settings: A Teacher's Guide, and the companion DVD, Challenging Behaviors in Young Children: Techniques and Solutions, recommend this step-by-step strategy for problem-solving that engages all children in the classroom:

  • Call to children's attention the fact that you have noticed there is a problem

  • Encourage them to calm down before speaking about the problem

  • Ask children to speak directly to each other or to you in order to identify the problem; paraphrase their words to ensure understanding

  • Ask all children what might be done to solve the problem; welcome and accept all solutions

  • Help children generate several possible solutions to the problem

  • Back away once the children have agreed upon a solution they will try, and allow them to put it into practice themselves

  • Check back with them to find out whether the solution worked, and acknowledge that they were successful in coming up with a strategy

In many cases, the most challenging part of the process may be restoring calm, especially among children who feel they have been injured or wronged through the actions of another. Watch this DVD clip of a teacher helping a child talk about a problem, and ultimately encouraging the child to begin the process of problem-solving herself.

Reduce children's stress and tension

Generating their own solutions to problems is a means for children to gain independence, empowerment and self-confidence as they grow older. But even at a very young age, children may become worried or stressed, which can hamper their problem-solving skills—especially if they lack the ability to verbalize why they are upset. This is a great opportunity for you to do two things: first, to teach children that emotions and feelings are normal, and second, to help children put those feelings into words.

Circle time is an ideal way to open the lines of communication and reduce stress among very young children. Encourage children to share experiences from home as well as from the classroom, and then discuss how those situations made them feel. Help children put a name on their feelings; for example, they may know basic terms such as sad and happy, but they might be less familiar with more complex emotions such as embarrassed or frustrated. Encouraging children to talk about their feelings doesn't just build their vocabulary, but also increases self-awareness, relieves tension, and helps them understand other people's feelings. All of these are key to working through difficult emotions and solving their own interpersonal problems.

This free download from Little Kids, Big Worries: Stress-Busting Tips for Early Childhood Classrooms gives you five more strategies for reducing children's stress and helping them resolve conflict.

Make it part of the lesson plan

It's essential that children understand that "people problems" will crop up from time to time, and that those problems can bring about strong feelings. An effective social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum can help children learn to deal with these not-so-good feelings and solve their own people-problems effectively.

SEL curricula are developed for the specific purpose of helping children hone their social and emotional resiliency and competence. Curricula like these are easy to fit into your existing routine and provide an ideal framework in which to incorporate lessons on problem-solving. Short, child-friendly activities show children the correlation between actions and feelings, and the way behaviors will influence those around the child as well as the child himself. As a bonus, a good SEL curriculum can also help you promote children's literacy, language development, listening skills, memory skills, and self-expression skills.

An example of an SEL program is Strong Start-PreK: A Social & Emotional Learning Curriculum, designed specifically to address the needs of preschool children (ages 3-5). It helps students grasp basic concepts such as fairness, teaches them about self-control and acceptable behavior, and gives them strategies for managing their anger and solving disagreements.

For example, one Strong Start lesson teaches children the Stop, Count, In, Out strategy. If one child wants to play with Legos, while the other wants to paint or play ball, it is possible that one or both could become upset. However, instead of getting angry or crying about the situation (or trying to involve an adult to arbitrate), the children are encouraged to stop, take deep breaths in and out, and count to 10. This allows them both to calm down so they can think rationally about the problem and help devise a constructive solution. The solution may be a compromise (such as doing first one activity, then the other), or it may be a decision on one child's part to remove herself from the situation and do something different for the time being in order to become calm and happy again.

After each social-emotional lesson or activity, you can strengthen the home-school connection by sending home a bulletin to parents discussing the concepts the children learned. You may want to suggest a list of books that can be read out loud to children or give parents tips and guidelines on how to help children put the lessons into practice at home. As one example, see the complete Strong Start lesson plan on Solving People Problems.


Disagreements and arguments, while never pleasant, are an everyday part of life in an early childhood classroom. Keeping these tips and guidelines in mind, teachers can turn conflicts into learning opportunities that children will benefit from for years to come.

This article features downloads from the following resources:

Addressing Challenging Behaviors in Early Childhood Settings: A Teacher's Guide

Challenging Behaviors in Young Children: Techniques and Solutions (DVD)

Little Kids, Big Worries: Stress-Busting Tips for Early Childhood Classrooms

Strong Start—Pre-K: A Social and Emotional Learning Curriculum

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