Resolving Differences

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If children haven’t been taught healthy ways to work through their conflicts, they may develop unhealthy habits such as aggression or passivity for resolving differences, and minor disputes can grow quickly out of proportion. While having an adult step in and mediate is sometimes needed, parents and teachers should guide children to resolve differences on their own using conflict resolution strategies. The current circumstances of stay-at-home orders and distance learning—when siblings may be in close quarters and children may be adapting to changes in their routines—provide an opportunity to reinforce these social-emotional skills, and teaching students to employ positive conflict resolution strategies may make for a more peaceful household during this time of self-isolation

Resolving Differences

Causes of and Responses to Conflict

It’s important to understand the causes of a conflict because children’s behavior is often a manifestation of something deeper, such as a reaction stemming from an unmet need or differing beliefs or worldviews. Some common causes of conflict are:

  • Limited resources. Conflicts can arise when people feel resources are scarce or unfairly distributed. In a school setting, this could be not sharing markers of a certain color or the lack of attention from a friend. At home, it could be sharing a computer screen with a sibling or vying for attention from busy parents.
  • Differing values. Differences in social, cultural, or personal beliefs can cause disputes over “right” or “wrong.”
  • Lack of satisfaction/unmet needs. When people feel their psychological needs such as belonging, power, freedom, and fun are unmet, their lack of satisfaction can lead to conflict.
  • Preferences about what to do. When people have different ideas, wants, or needs about what to do or the way to do things, they may fall into conflict.
  • Difficulty playing well with others. Disputes may arise in groups due to a lack of co-operation or difficulty compromising or taking turns. (Crawford & Bodine, 1996)

Understanding the root cause of a conflict is critical for maintaining a compassionate perspective and arriving at an appropriate solution. For example, during these current times, children are dealing with big emotions and changes. They may be unable to articulate them, and instead they might act out or be more inclined to fighting with others. Under-standing that their behavior is likely a psychological reaction to their lack of satisfaction or an unmet need allows you to handle the situation with empathy rather than just frustration.

People typically respond to conflict in one of three ways: a soft response, a hard response, or a principled response (Crawford & Bodine, 1996). A soft response refers to ignoring or denying a conflict’s existence to keep the peace. A hard response refers to aggression or force in an attempt to “win” the conflict.
The most productive response for solving conflicts tends to be the principled response, which is resolution through mediation. A principled response usually involves some-one acting as a problem-solver who practices active listening, perspective-taking, and empathy to resolve differences constructively.

Understanding the root cause of a conflict is critical for maintaining a compassionate perspective and arriving at an appropriate solution.

Children will often revert to a soft or a hard response, but they can be guided toward a principled response using the following strategies:

  • Give children time to cool off. Acknowledge that it’s healthy and okay to take a breath and wait a moment before resolving a conflict. For younger students, teachers can intervene and guide the child in taking a moment. As students get older, though, they should be able to recognize when they need to take a step back before a conflict escalates.
  • Coach students on how to communicate their perspective. Help them to use “I statements” such as “I feel sad when . . .” and to stick to their version of facts without slip-ping into personal attacks or sarcastic remarks. Ask them to imagine how the other person may be feeling to build empathy and to help understand another’s perspective.
  • Let both parties say their piece. Give the student involved a chance to say what happened in their words without being interrupted or disputed. Then have the other party paraphrase what was said to ensure that they were actively listening and understand why the other student may be upset.
  • Work together to find a resolution. Guide students toward a compromise or a genuine mutual apology, depending on the situation. Ask all parties to speak honestly about whether they feel the conflict has been resolved, and ensure they are heard without judgment (Crowe, 2009).
  • Be sure they know an adult is available. As students practice these skills, they will get better at resolving their own conflicts. How- ever, it is important that they know they can seek mediation if the conflict feels too big for them to handle on their own (Crawford & Bodine, 1996).

These strategies will help children develop the ability to listen to others, learn to respect another’s side of the story, practice empathy and understanding for someone else’s experience of the events, and work together to arrive at a resolution—all of which are key characteristics to a constructive, principled response to conflict (Crawford & Bodine, 1996).

Teaching positive conflict resolution strategies helps create a more peaceful environment. Students who learn to resolve their conflicts through negotiation and mediation enjoy decreased aggression and fewer antisocial behaviors, and display increased problem- solving skills and enhanced self-esteem (Heydenberk & Heydenberk, 2000). Conflict resolution may come more naturally for some than others, but educators, parents, and caregivers can get involved and help students develop constructive tactics to solve problems in the classroom, among friends, and later in their relationships and careers.


  • Crawford, D. & Bodine, R. (1996). Conflict resolution education: A guide to implementing programs in schools, youth-serving organizations, and community and juvenile justice settings. Department of Justice.
  • Crowe, C. (2009). Coaching children in handling everyday conflicts. Center for Responsive Schools. https://www.
  • Heydenberk, W. & Heydenberk, R. (2000). Conflict resolution programs: Reduce aggression and enhance learning. National Education Association.