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Understanding and Supporting Peer Conflict

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WHAT IS PEER CONFLICT?

Peer conflict refers to mutual disagreement or hostility between peers or peer groups. It is characterized as conflict between people of equal or similar power (friends); it occurs occasionally; it is unplanned; and it does not involve violence or result in serious harm. Perpetrators of peer conflict do not seek power or attention. However, peer conflict can escalate into violence.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF PEER CONFLICT IN CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS DEVELOPMENT?

Peer relations during middle childhood and adolescence are an important part of children’s social and emotional development. Children and adolescents pick up essential social and communication skills from their peers as they move into late adolescence and early adulthood.

Peer conflict is not necessarily a bad thing; disagreement and conflict are a natural part of life, and children and adolescents need to develop skills to resolve disagreements. However, peer conflict can cause significant emotional and physical harm and can lead to aggressive behaviours when children and adolescents lack the social skills necessary to cope with their frustrations. Therefore, it is important for parents and educators to be able to identify peer conflict and aggressive behaviours, and to promote positive peer conflict resolution techniques for children and adolescents.

Traditionally, many adults have viewed conflicts between children as undesirable and have tried to prevent them or to intervene. Recent theory and research, however, suggest that peer conflict contributes to children's development. Educators are beginning to focus on helping children develop conflict resolution strategies by providing specific social skills that they can put in place instead of resolve conflicts through adult intervention (Ramsey, 1991). Parents too can focus on helping their children develop such skills and strategies.

We must keep in mind that peer conflict contributes to children's development and represents an important form of social interaction. It is through conflicts that children and young people develop the necessary social and emotional skills to face future difficulties in adult life.

HOW THE PRESENCE OF AN ADULT IMPACTS PEER CONFLICT?

The presence of an adult changes the context of children's conflicts. Children take responsibility for their interactions and generate their own solutions more often when an adult is absent (Laursen & Hartup, 1989). Children's conflicts tend to be more aggressive when an adult is present (Killen & Turiel, 1991). When adults provide solutions, they sometimes make mistakes or are inconsistent or biased in the resolutions they impose. Such inconsistency and bias are especially true in parents' dealings with their own children's conflicts.

HOW CAN PARENTS AND EDUCATORS ADDRESS PEER CONFLICT?

Some relevant implications for adults can be drawn from research on peer conflict.

1. Adults need to be aware of children's intentions. Is this conflict one that the children are truly trying to resolve, or is it verbal play? Adults should help children make clear their own understanding of the conflict.

2. Children's ability to resolve conflicts increases as their verbal competence and ability to take other perspectives grow. If the children involved in a dispute are verbal and empathetic, adults should let them try to work things out themselves.

3. Adults' decisions to intervene should be made after they observe the issues of children's conflicts. Possession issues and name-calling generate less discussion than issues about facts or play decisions.

4. Children who explain their actions to each other are likely to create their own solutions. In conflicts characterized by physical strategies and simple verbal oppositions, adults should help children find more words to use.

5. Adults should note whether the children were playing together before the conflict. Prior interaction and friendship motivate children to resolve disputes on their own.

6. Adults can reduce the frustration of constant conflict by making play spaces accessible and providing ample materials for sharing.

7. Children often rely on adults, who are frequently happy to supply a "fair" solution. Adults should give children time to develop their own resolutions and allow them the choice of negotiating, changing the activity, dropping the issue, or creating new rules.

8. Many conflicts do not involve aggression, and children are frequently able to resolve their disputes. Adults should provide appropriate guidance, yet allow children to manage their own conflicts and resolutions.

 

Sources:

- Wheeler, Edyth J.: Peer Conflicts in the Classroom. ERIC Digest. 1994

- Kathleen Sidorowicz, B.A. and Elizabeth C. Hair, Ph.D.: ASSESSING PEER CONFLICT AND AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIORS: A GUIDE FOR OUT-OF-SCHOOL TIME PROGRAM PRACTITIONERS. Child Trends, October 2009.

 

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