Most kids have inherently good negotiation skills. Pull out a chocolate bar and tell kids to divide it up for themselves, and you’ll find quick proof of that. When it comes to conflict resolution and self-regulation, however, many adults wonder whether children possess the emotional intelligence and executive functioning skills to navigate that territory. As a result, many grown-ups are quick to intervene and solve social problems for them. After all, emotions are tricky even for us to manage, so it’s tempting to guide our kids when we sense trouble. I know because I’ve done it.
I’ll share an example of how much better it can work when kids figure out how to resolve conflict for themselves, however. When I was in a play-based science class with a group of four- to six-year-olds last week, they made “squishy circuits,” where they connected two sets of wires, Play Dough, and mini-lightbulbs to the positive and negative ends of batteries in a particular sequence. If they connected everything correctly, the lightbulbs would light up.
If there’s any good exercise to measure kids’ self-regulation, it’s to hand them a set of “hot” wires and advise them to resist the temptation to touch them together.
Adults were there to help ensure the kids’ safety, of course. (Personally, I’m thankful for observing Teacher Tom in action at another school I visit weekly. He’s a world renowned teacher at a play-based preschool in Seattle. He’s helped me chill considerably about what I consider dangerous for kids, and he facilitates conflict resolution better than any teacher I’ve ever seen.)
Once the kids got the hang of basic circuitry, they could get as creative as they wanted with their Play Dough inventions. One five-year-old girl who I’ll call Catherine, who regularly displays high emotional intelligence and emotional self regulation, announced that she was going to use her Play Dough to make a kitty with a water bowl. Often demonstrating strong executive functioning skills, she’s a “stick to the plan” kind of kid. (Executive functioning includes things like self-control, planning, and the ability to remember instructions. If you’re looking for a deeper understanding of executive functioning and self-regulation, this article from Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child describes them well.) So, she set to work right away while most of the other kids rolled their materials around haphazardly, deciding what to make.
After about 10 minutes, the girl next to Catherine, another five-year-old I’ll call Mia, reached over and demolished Catherine’s kitty. I’ve observed that Mia sometimes lacks the executive function skills to self-regulate. Looking flabbergasted, Catherine called me over to help resolve the conflict, announcing matter-of-factly what Mia had done. It was obvious. Catherine’s blue Play Dough that Mia squashed was still in the center of Mia’s palm. Mia had been using green.
Before I could say a word, Mia announced loudly, “I didn’t do anything wrong!”
Designing the electric circuits suddenly became far less important than addressing the brain circuitry that drives self-regulation, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence.
I felt tempted to call Mia out on her transgression and show my frustration. My first impulse was to ask her what the heck she was thinking. (I’m still learning and have to catch myself, too.) However, I know an objective tone is more helpful for encouraging honest dialogue. So, I took a breath and stated neutrally to both of them, “It sounds like something happened here.” Mia has older siblings at home, and I know she’s no stranger to managing conflict situations. I can’t say with certainty, however, where she is on developing her executive functioning skills.
Solving the problem for these kids wouldn’t help either of them grow their emotional intelligence, nor would it strengthen self-regulation or conflict resolution skills.
Dealing with conflict is a hard life skill to learn, because frankly, negative emotions are hard. I’m an adult and I still don’t like conflict. We’re not “wired” to like it. However, the ability to recognize someone else’s point of view goes a long way toward developing emotional intelligence and self-regulation.
So, I continued.
Me, in a curious and non-accusatory tone: “Mia, I observe blue Play Dough in your hands. I’m feeling curious about that.”
Mia: “Well, I did squash her kitty, but she had just started working on it. She didn’t care.”
Catherine: “I didn’t just start working on it. I had been working on it the whole time! It was important to me.”
Me: “Hmmm. Catherine, I hear you saying that it was important to you.”
Being an active listener, including playing back what you’ve heard, is a key ingredient in helping kids resolve conflicts. It shows that you’re internalizing what they said, and essentially invites them to continue while feeling supported. Accusation is counterproductive; only when kids feel supported can they grow their emotional intelligence effectively.
And as is true with many things, when it comes to engaging in kids’ conflicts, less is more. Less adult talking is more beneficial to kids learning to solve problems on their own. When they feel capable of doing that, it reinforces growth in the self-regulation and executive functioning parts of their brains.
Adults rarely need to solve kids’ problems. Sometimes, we need to mediate conflict resolution. Most often, we need to trust them to try it on their own.
Catherine and Mia continued without prompting.
Catherine, addressing me: “I really didn’t feel so happy when she did that.”
Mia, to Catherine: “No, you were happy.”
Catherine: “No, I really didn’t feel so happy when you did that.”
Mia: “Oh.” Mia’s eyes went downcast then with apparent remorse, and perhaps with understanding the deeper connection between emotions and behavior.
At that point, they sat together silently, in what seemed to be somewhere between an impasse and emotional connection. I paused for long enough that I was sure each had finished saying her piece. When neither continued, I suggested next steps without solving anything for them, similar to creating a negotiated agreement in a boardroom.
Me: “I’m going to guess that nobody in the room likes getting their Play Dough squashed. I’m wondering if that’s true.”
Both girls, agreeing: “Yeah. No one should squash Play Dough.”
Me: “Okay, then. I think you’ve solved a problem. Since no one likes getting their stuff squashed, I wonder if we can agree not to squash anyone else’s stuff, either.” (I essentially played back the solution they’d reached, just broadening it slightly.)
Both girls, nodding vigorously: “Yeah. Let’s do that. No squashing people’s stuff!” I could almost see the self-regulation synapses connecting in Mia’s brain. Moreover, Catherine’s emotional intelligence was growing by having expressed her frustration in an appropriate way. She felt “heard” and could move on. Her emotions had no reason to escalate. Executive functioning in action.
All of us: Exhale. Resolution. Consensus.
Both girls seemed resolved in the matter. Their conflict was now water under the bridge. They moved forward happily with their projects.
I fully trust that their self-identified conflict resolution did far more for their executive functioning skills than any punishment or forced apology could have.
If I’ve learned anything about supporting executive function and conflict resolution, it’s kids’ far-reaching capacity to figure things out when we give them the space, and the trust, to try.
And the sooner we let them try, the better. Studies show that practice between the ages of three and five is particularly beneficial. This is also the age that their working memory develops in leaps and bounds, so that they’ll have specific experiences upon which to draw as they get older. Areas of the brain that develop during this timeframe are profound and substantially important for future interactions. Some would argue that the ability to self regulate and strong emotional intelligence skills matter far more than IQ alone.
Socially skilled kids can focus attention on managing conflict and growing their relationships with peers. It’s possible because they already have the emotional intelligence and self-regulation tools in place to do those things. Conversely, those with executive functioning issues need more practice. The adults in their lives will support them best by resisting the urge to dive in and rescue them when they see any type of conflict; but rather, by letting them attempt their own conflict resolution, even if they get it wrong. Practice makes perfect, right? Our presence is beneficial and sometimes necessary, but our words should be few.
Maybe emotions are tricky for adults to manage because some of us didn’t get enough practice when we were kids. I don’t know. What I do know anecdotally, however, is that emotionally intelligent kids usually grow up to be emotionally intelligent people (adult-sized, because, of course, kids are people, too). The ability to understand and manage emotions, resolve conflict, and display emotional intelligence is a lifelong gift to ourselves and those around us.
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