Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Child Development Milestones for Constructive Conflict Resolution among Preschoolers
Three-year-old Sarah has just taken five-year-old Jack’s favorite toy and has run to her room to play with it alone. You’ve heard Sarah complain to you that she never gets to play with Jack’s remote control car, but she’s taken the toy without permission. You find Jack screaming and Sarah refusing to open her bedroom door for you or her brother. You understand Sarah’s feelings, but you also want to teach her respect for other people’s property. Here is a situation that demands teaching not only property rights, but also emotional understanding, perspective taking, empathy, and self-control. You will probably not choose to teach all of the skills at once, but instead of just focusing on property rights, you might want to consider teaching fundamental social and emotional skills, too.
In this post, we will focus on the developmental possibilities for preschool aged children (3-5 years old) to learn four identified social and emotional skills that undergird constructive conflict management. To better understand what and how to teach preschoolers, we continue investigating insights from Dr. Sandra V. Sandy's article entitled, “The Development of Conflict Resolution Skills: Preschool to Adulthood.”
Sandy, Sandra V. 2014. “The Development of Conflict Resolution Skills: Preschool to Adulthood.” In Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, edited by Coleman, Peter T., Morton Deutsch, and Eric C. Marcus, 430-463. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Social-Emotional Pillars for Effective Conflict Resolution
From Sandy’s article, we focus on just four essential social-emotional skills that serve as anchors for our children’s behavior in conflict situations. Parents can begin cultivating these essential skills in their children from a very young age. These four skills include:
Central Task for Social Learning Among Preschoolers: Emotional Maturation
Sandy identifies emotional maturation as the most important task of early childhood. Additionally, Sandy says that “although children appear to have some level of innate capacity for certain social-emotional responses, such as empathy and perspective taking, these are frequently hit-or-miss skills unless the child is effectively tutored by an adult. Since interpersonal understanding is influenced more by experience than by age, a three-year old can be at a higher development level than a six-year old.”
Parents and caregivers play a critical role in helping preschoolers develop these four essential skills. Before exploring developmental milestones related to each of these skills, we will briefly discuss keys to teaching preschoolers and present a few main reasons why children’s early learning years between 0-5 years old is so important in the grand scheme of social and emotional development.
Keys to Teaching Preschoolers Conflict Resolution Skills
Why Focus on Teaching Constructive Communication Skills During Early Childhood (0 to 5 years old)?
As parents, we often demand that our children understand and respect other people’s feelings (including our own), but first our children need to be able to appropriately express and understand their own feelings. To develop the more sophisticated traits of perspective taking and empathy, we must first help our children understand and express their own emotions in constructive ways. This is the basis of all further emotional understanding and maturity.
In terms of developing emotional understanding, Sandy identifies the following constraints in development:
Each of these points emphasize the need for specific, targeted teaching to our young children. We can help coach our children in the right direction while not expecting too much too soon from our young, developing people.
Perspective Taking and Empathy
In the past, child development theorists did not believe little children capable of empathy largely because they believed that children younger than six or seven are unable to see more than one side to a conflict. Theorists believed that without the ability to see beyond their own viewpoint, children could not take the perspective of another person or understand the feelings of another person.
Yet, more modern research has suggested that young children are not only capable of perspective taking and empathy, but develop these abilities alongside a development trajectory. Yet, this trajectory is significantly associated with parent tutoring and child experience. As suggested previously, a young child of 3 may have developed greater empathy than a 6-year old based on parent involvement and constructive experience with empathy. In short, nurture significantly influences a child in this area of emotional development.
In terms of parenting per our children’s development, we should consider the following about general perspective taking abilities:
Rather than accuse our children of selfishness or egocentrism, we can gently, but deliberately, nurture the idea of diverse perspectives and feelings. In the meantime, while preschoolers’ brains needs time to mature, young children are very capable of imitating empathetic behavior. See Siddiqui and Ross (2004), Smith and Ross (2007), Ross and Lazinski (2014) for research on the potential for young children to take the perspective of another and to empathize through imitation of constructive parent and sibling conflict behavior.
Naturally, with surging emotions and expanding autonomy, preschoolers are in the thick of learning how to regulate their thoughts, emotions, and behavior. To better understand developmental constraints or milestones surrounding self-control, Sandy directly quotes Maccoby (1980) who identified four forms of self-control or inhibition milestones in childhood:
Movement: Prior to age six or seven, children have difficulty in stopping an action already in progress. (Think calling a child to dinner during a favorite show on Netflix).
Emotions: Before age four, young children have little control over the intensity of their emotions. (Think throwing a tantrum over burnt toast in the same manner as when the dog just died yesterday).
Reflection: Before age six or so, children commonly fail to engage in the reflection necessary to perform well. (Think a negative sharing episode or a failed first bike ride).
Gratification: Children under 12 often have difficulty in refusing immediate gratification to wait for a better choice later. (Think gorging on Halloween candy all at once rather than eating just one piece a day).
As you can see, preschoolers are often not capable of self-regulating in the ways we desire for them. When we ask our preschooler to switch gears in the middle of a task, or stop crying over something small, we need to recognize that our children may not yet be developmentally capable of what we are asking of them. In patience, we can remind ourselves that our children may be trying the best they can so we need to take incremental steps to help them towards the overall goal of emotional maturity.
As parents, we can certainly do our part and carefully consider the fact that these skills are often more influenced by experience rather than age. In short, we can step up and tutor our children in these most fundamental conflict resolution skills of emotional understanding, perspective taking, empathy, and self-control to help our children develop up to their full potential.