Positive Relationships: Behaviour - In the moment

Dealing with conflict is an important life skill, so practitioners must weigh up when to step in and provide a solution – and when to let the children sort it out for themselves, explains Nicola Watson

By the age of three, most children are keen to play and engage socially with other children, and early years settings provide rich and challenging environments for their fledgling skills. The Early Learning Goals for Personal, Social and Emotional Development in the EYFS (2017) involve children knowing how to play co-operatively, take turns and be sensitive to the feelings of others. These skills help them to form positive relationships.

Satisfying relationships with others are essential for the development of self-esteem and self-confidence, but as every practitioner knows, some children struggle to meet the challenges that social interaction involves.


Evidence suggests that most practitioners regard conflicts between children as something to be avoided, and indeed there are occasions where adults must intervene to prevent harm or distress to children. However, to develop their skills, children need the opportunity to practise them.

Practitioners who routinely step in to minimise or avoid conflicts between children run the risk of overlooking opportunities for social learning. These opportunities are even more important for children with poor social skills. Such children are likely to experience conflict frequently and run the risk of cycles of conflict reinforcing their anti-social behaviours. They are also more likely to suffer rejection by other children, leading to further isolation and negative experiences.

There is a strong link between good social skills and emotional well-being. Early years practitioners recognise that supporting the emotional well-being of children is crucial. Its importance extends beyond the early years phase and has consequences that are life-long: ‘Emotional and social competences have been shown to be more influential than cognitive abilities for personal, career and scholastic success’ (Weare K and Gray G, 2003). It is vital that practitioners are able to support children in developing their social skills.

Conflicts are a fact of life and everyone encounters conflict from time to time. Settings represent busy, complex social environments with inevitable clashes of interests between children. Instead of always attempting to stop or avoid conflicts, practitioners can look for ‘teachable moments’ whereby they offer on-the-spot support for children facing challenging social situations.

This involves practitioners spotting when and whether to intervene, offering support to children only where it is necessary so that where their skills allow, they can manage conflicts themselves. This provides children with real-life, hands-on experiences from which to learn.


A small-scale action research project in an early years setting in Oxfordshire explored ways in which practitioners could offer support to children in managing their own conflicts rather than directing or imposing solutions.

Over a week, all conflicts at the setting between children aged three to five were recorded, and practitioners’ responses were analysed in terms of whether they imposed solutions or supported children in managing conflicts themselves. Where the latter happened, opportunities for social skills development were identified.

Take a calm and neutral approach

Being equally respectful to all children involved in conflict and avoiding blaming and labelling behaviour encourages children’s co-operation and participation in problem-solving. For example, a neutral approach may include asking, ‘Do you need some help?’ This signals to children that they are liked and valued by the adults who work with them and makes it more likely that they will seek help when they need it, without fear of being judged or punished. It also models to other children that everyone is worthy of respect.

Acknowledge children’s feelings

Recognising and articulating the way that children feel helps them to become aware of and label their own feelings. This is an important precursor to recognising the feelings of others. Acknowledging the emotions behind negative actions does not excuse the actions but helps children to understand themselves and others.

For example, ‘You look angry. Do you feel angry?’ or, ‘I can see you are feeling very sad. Is that right?’ invites children to think about how they are feeling. If they are upset, they may need to wait until they feel calmer before going further. Again, this is something that the practitioner and children can explore together.

Invite children to speak with one another

Bearing in mind that the conflict experience belongs to the children helps practitioners to focus on supporting children’s skills rather than taking control and imposing a solution. Where they are able to speak for themselves, children can be encouraged to do so directly with one another.

For example, if Zoe complains that Zita has taken a toy from her, a practitioner might respond by saying, ‘Have you spoken to Zita about it? Let’s go and find her and you can tell her about it.’ Instead of asking Zita, ‘How would you feel if someone took your toy?’, a practitioner might say, ‘Zoe, could you tell Zita how you felt when she took your toy?’ Direct communication between children can be very powerful and effective.

Sometimes, children will need an adult to advocate for them. However, it is important that the practitioner checks that their understanding reflects that of the child.

Make time to listen

Conflicts can feel like an unwelcome distraction, taking time away from other more attractive and positive activities. However, it is worth giving time and attention to supporting children’s efforts in socially challenging situations. Very few conflicts endure for long and a few minutes of time and attention can reap satisfying rewards for the adults and children involved.

Simple ground rules can be established at the outset, such as, ‘We will listen to you, Sam, and then we will listen to you, George, and then you can think what you can do next.’ Everyone appreciates being listened to, and listening helps to reduce frustrations and adds to children’s feelings of being valued. It is important, though, to make sure all voices are heard, providing support if necessary.

Clarify issues

Clarifying involves summarising and checking for each party’s understanding. For example, ‘I think that you are saying to George that you have been waiting for a long time to go on the computer. Is that right?’ This helps children to focus on what the issues are. Exploring issues with children and actively listening closely to what they say, with words or by their body language, can reveal insights that help practitioners meet children’s needs.

Ask open questions and invite problem-solving

Sometimes, the solution to a conflict seems obvious to adults, but imposing a quick solution may deprive children from coming up with their own. Enabling children to make their own choices and explore options independently and in collaboration with others can help them develop confidence in their own abilities, a key component of self-esteem and emotional development. So, instead of saying, ‘Take it in turns on the computer. You can have five minutes each’, a practitioner could say, ‘You have both said that you want to go on the computer and there isn’t enough space. What do you think we should do about it?’

Affirm pro-social behaviour

Rather than a focus on minimising negativity, pointing out pro-social behaviour from wherever it comes reinforces positive feelings in children. Any expression of compromise, concern, acknowledgement of another’s position or even just listening can signal to children what you want them to do rather than what you don’t.


We know that children aren’t born equipped with social skills. They have to develop them and so they need careful and targeted support from practitioners who understand their needs. Even the best practitioners cannot wave a magic wand and achieve perfect harmony in their settings, but they can help children to learn and develop from real-life experiences.

Recognising opportunities for ‘teachable moments’ during conflicts with children takes practice and involves observing children closely to enable sensitive responses, finely attuned to their individual needs. The rewards can be transformative, not only for children who struggle socially, but for all children who attend the setting.

Children’s efforts in managing conflicts can be celebrated with parents and strategies shared with them, so that rather than a focus on the negative, small steps towards developing social skills can be reinforced and rewarded with praise by the adults who children value most.

Recognising and supporting children’s efforts in challenging situations helps to develop relationships based upon trust and mutual respect. This fosters a positive environment where children can feel safe and valued, and where, by adults modelling pro-social behaviour, children can begin to use the language of co-operation and develop collaborative and respectful dispositions.


Nicola Watson is a senior lecturer in early childhood at the University of Worcester

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