Peace building and conflict resolution in preschool children.
Children learn early in life how to negotiate with one another. Although conflict resolution programs are finding acceptance in grade schools, most programs in early care and education have not yet integrated peace-building strategies into their preschool setting (Durlak & Wells, 1997; Henrich, Brown, & Aber, 1999; Weissberg & Bell, 1997). While a growing body of literature on social and emotional learning points to the advantage of early exposure, empirical assessments of conflict resolution during preschool education are lacking. Moreover, assessments of children who are most at risk for experiencing greater conflict-ridden and violent environments are necessary because these environments have been shown to produce more dysfunctional social skills (Durlak & Wells, 1997; Henrich et al., 1999). One recent study demonstrated that preschool children of middle-income families benefited from conflict resolution training (Stevahn, Johnson, Johnson, Oberle, & Wahl, 2000). Thus, a study documenting the effectiveness of teaching conflict resolution skills to preschoolers in low-income and conflict-ridden environments is needed.
Conflict naturally occurs in human interaction (Simmel, 1950) and, if managed properly, can be a very constructive avenue for needed change (Coser, 1964). Unfortunately, conflict often causes emotional upset and challenges the communication capacity of most adults (Katz, 1985). Adults and children need to have a set of strategies that will enable them to manage situations and achieve their goals while helping others to achieve their goals as well. Being skilled in social problem solving provides children with a sense of mastery that is needed to cope with stressful life events. Moreover, researchers have linked impaired problem-solving in preschool children with a lack of social skills that undermines peer competence (Rudolph & Heller, 1997). In addition, possessing skills for solving problems and resolving conflict reduces the risk of adjustment difficulties in children, even children from low-income and troubled families (Goodman, Gravitt, & Kaslow, 1995).
Historically, theories and research have suggested (Buckley, 2000; Nicholls, 1978; Selman, 1980, 1981) that preschoolers would not be able to take the perspective of another within a conflict in order to come to a mutually satisfying outcome. More recent empirical investigations have challenged this view (Johnson & Johnson, 1996; Stevahn et al., 2000), however, arguing that young children can learn the foundational skills for solving conflicts. Such instruction is particularly important for Head Start families, because these families are likely to experience more conflict. A better understanding of the risks and protective factors affecting Head Start children is essential, considering that young children growing up in poverty are exposed to dramatic increases in the frequency, intensity, and severity of community and family violence (Durlak & Wells, 1997; Metropolitan Area Child Study Research Group, 2002). Often, their impoverished neighborhoods are the scenes of violence and crime, leading to a recursive negative cycle of social interaction (Katz & McClellan, 1997). Head Start teachers are working with children from the poorest families in America, whose homes are located in unsafe and crime-ridden neighborhoods (Prothrow-Stith, Wilson, & Weissman, 1991; Raden, 1998; Zigler & Styfco, 1994). The importance of examining the effects of conflict resolution training for Head Start students and the teacher's role in benefiting students is essential, because learning to deal with conflict promotes more socially competent behaviors.
Exposure to Violence in Children
Researchers who have studied violence and its effects on children consistently have reported that the cycle of violence can become perpetual in areas affected by higher levels of community violence (Byrne, 1997; Emde, 1993; Garbarino, Dubrow, Kostelny, & Pardo, 1998). It is clear that in violent communities, children and their parents begin to accept, and expect, violence (Cairns, 1996). When they are continually exposed to aggression and violence, whether in the neighborhood, at school, in the home, or on television, children begin to model it (Huesmann, 1986; Prothrow-Stith et al., 1991). When a child feels victimized by his or her environment or feels that the environment instigates aggression, the child is likely to act out aggressively. Exposure to violence increases the risk that children will engage in future violence and other antisocial acts (Cairns, 1996).
Children are more vulnerable to the effects of violent environments when it occurs at an early age. Osofsky and her colleagues (Osofsky, Wewers, Hann, & Fick, 1993) studied distress symptoms that were associated with exposure to violence. They found that exposed children had greater difficulty concentrating in school, memory impairments, anxious attachments with their parents, aggressive play patterns, uncaring behaviors, and self-imposed limitations in their activities, due to fear of violence. These children demonstrated antisocial behaviors as early as the toddler and preschool years (Zahn-Waxler, Cole, Richardson, & Friedman, 1994). In order to break the cycle of violence, new ways of handling anger and resolving conflict must be introduced early. School age may be too late to introduce conflict resolution skills, especially for children who are exposed to violent environments.
Prosocial skills need to be taught to the very youngest children (Coles, 1997). One of the critical challenges of educators and communities must be to develop emotional and social competence in our children. The American Psychological Association (APA) has issued several reports that outline remedies to this dilemma; one of the most critical of these remedies is covered in this study--implementing early childhood interventions that are directed toward child care providers (among others) to build the critical foundation of attitudes, knowledge, and behavior to prevent violence (APA, 1993, 1997). Moreover, Eisenberg (1992) points out that past research clearly demonstrated that school-based intervention can enhance prosocial responding (Greenberg, Kusche, & Mihalic, 1998) and cooperation, and that preschoolers can learn interpersonal problem-solving skills (Shure, 1996; Spivack & Shure, 1974; Youngstrom et al., 2000). Research studies are now needed to identify the elements that are effective within the situational conditions and that are effective for at-risk students so that programs can be implemented expeditiously (Eisenberg, 1992; Zins, Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, 2004).
This project was designed to assess the impact of teacher training on conflict resolution, peace education, and child-directed problem-solving methods on the classroom interactions in Head Start centers. The teacher training and the subsequent impact on children's conflict resolution practices in the Head Start center were examined to determine whether training participating teachers to adjust their attitudes and behavior can affect the conflict resolution strategies used by the children they teach. This project examined whether conflict resolution skills can be effectively introduced to preschool children through a teacher training model that focuses on instructing teachers on how to resolve conflict and promote problem solving by young children. In other terms: Can intensive teacher training and curriculum changes affect the preschoolers the teachers are instructing? Specifically, the present study was designed to determine whether the children in the trained teachers' classrooms 1) exhibit more alternatives to conflict situations and 2) report more relevant and less forceful solutions (i.e., more prosocial solutions) to conflict situations, compared to children in classrooms of non-trained teachers.
Sixty-four children from 11 classrooms in Head Start centers participated. Thirty-seven children were randomly selected from students in the classrooms of six trained teachers and 27 were matched control children from the classrooms of five untrained teachers. Gender was equally distributed between groups. Parental consent was required for child participation. All children were from lower-income backgrounds and were homogeneous in academic skills. All children were between 3 to 5 years of age and were racially similar to the entire population of Head Start program children in this community.
Six teachers participated in the training and five participated in the control condition. One additional teacher volunteered for the control condition but did not obtain sufficient parental consent forms. Although children were assigned randomly to groups, the teachers volunteered for either the training or the control condition. While all teachers were offered the training, the self-selection for the training resulted in a quasi-experimental design. However, teachers who participated in the experimental and control groups were matched on age, education, race, and number of years teaching in a Head Start center (Table 1). All of the teachers were female.
Independent Variable. This study used pre-post measures for the teacher intervention, with experimental-control group design. For the children, only posttest measures were obtained, because earlier studies have demonstrated that children have little to no experience with conflict resolution training during the preschool period (Stevahn et al., 2000). The independent variable for this study was the absence or presence of the teacher training experience and the teacher-initiated conflict resolution curriculum (Shure, 1992) integrated into the classroom.
In the experimental condition, the teachers were exposed to a 40-hour course, were given instructional materials for teaching conflict resolution in their classrooms, and received college credit for their training. The teachers in the control group were given the instructional materials and the opportunity to be trained after the experiment was completed, but they did not participate in the college course. Due to the lack of random assignment of the teachers in the control condition, only children were assessed using quantitative methods. An experimental-control group design also was used for the children with only post-training assessments.
Dependent Variable. The primary dependent variable for this study was the children's responses on the Preschool Interpersonal Problem-Solving test (PIPS) (Shure, 1990). The PIPS is designed to measure the child's ability to solve real-life interpersonal problems, using a picture-story technique. The PIPS measures three dimensions pertinent to this study. The first measure assesses relevant solutions designed to determine the total number of solutions given by the child that are relevant to the problems presented. The second dimension assesses the relevancy ratio, which compares the total number of relevant solutions to the total number of solutions, both relevant and irrelevant. The third dimension assesses the force ratio, used only in the peer problems, which assessed the total number of forceful solutions compared to the total number of relevant solutions, both forceful and non-forceful.
The PIPS test was used, as it measures problem-solving gains and childhood social competence. The PIPS test was designed to accompany the I Can Problem Solve (ICPS) program, which constituted the conflict resolution curriculum used by the teachers in their classrooms to train children (Shure, 1990). The validity of the PIPS test as a discriminator of overt behaviors through the preschool and elementary school period has been confirmed by many research studies in both low and middle SES levels (Barglow, Contreras, Kavesh, & Vaughn, 1998; Shure, 1992; Turner & Boulter, 1981; Youngstrom et al., 2000). For this study, the PIPS test was found to have intercoder reliability of .96 to .97, similar to previous reliability scores reported by Shure (1990).
Experimental teachers were trained and exposed to a pre- and post-test interview about conflict resolution skills. Detailed accounts of the changes in qualitative verbal responses of the teachers are reported in detail in Vestal (2001); however, comparison of pre- and posttest ICPS dialogue versus non-ICPS dialogue was used as a dependent variable to validate the utility of the training for the teachers, as their dialogue would then be expected to influence the children's responses.
Teacher Training. In previous studies, kindergarten children have been trained by researchers on conflict resolution skills, resulting in a type of person-centered training (Stevahn et al., 2000). In order to parallel a more naturalistic environment, teachers were extensively trained and given instructional materials to present to their preschool classroom, resulting in an environment-centered training (Cook, Campbell, & Cook, 1979). Incorporating the program into the teacher training sessions and into the child's educational curriculum was expected to be a more effective method for retaining the program effects across time (Fullan & Stiegelbauer, 1991; Johnson, 1979).
The method used to train teachers was pilot tested with 50 Head Start staff members and 24 Head Start teachers. The method then was refined to establish the training method and curriculum employed in the present study. Details of the research method used in the current study are explained below, and details of the classroom curriculum can be found in Table 2.
Teachers were interviewed for both the pre- and posttest during their breaks at the Head Start Center in which they worked. Each interview took about 40 minutes and was tape-recorded for later analysis. To determine their pretest conflict resolution strategies, teachers were interviewed approximately one to two weeks before the training course began. Those in the experimental group then were exposed to a seven-week, 13-session college-level course. Topics presented included instruction and theories on conflict, peace education, conflict resolution, and emotional and social development (Table 2). Teachers participated in lectures, role plays, discussions, and presentations. The textbook selected, I Can Problem Solve (ICPS), developed by Shure (1992) for the curriculum, presents a problem-solving approach specifically designed for preschool children. Experimental teachers were instructed on the use of the ICPS curriculum and implemented the curriculum during a two-month period in their classrooms. The posttest interview was conducted between three and five weeks after the course ended.
The teachers' interviews were assessed from pre- to post-training for ICPS dialogue and non-ICPS dialogue. ICPS dialogue included statements asking about feelings, inquiring about the problem, asking about solutions, and asking about commitment and consequences. Non-ICPS dialogue included statements about teacher-directed interventions, prevention of conflict through rules, and alterations of the child's environment (see Table 3).
Assessments of Preschoolers' Conflict Patterns. The ICPS curriculum presented to the children is developmentally appropriate for preschool- and elementary schoolage children and is designed to teach a problem-solving vocabulary and problem-solving skills. Within 59 lessons, teachers instruct children in a problem-solving vocabulary; then, the children are exposed to alternative solutions, consequences, and solution-consequence pairs. The lessons are designed to help children recognize what a problem is, teach ways to generate many solutions, model how to think sequentially, and encourage actual consequential thinking. The final section gives children practice in linking a solution with possible consequences in a one-to-one situation.
The principal dependent variable for this study was the children's responses on the PIPS test (Shure, 1990). Before testing began, children's knowledge of conflict and conflict resolution strategies was absent, which mirrored the population for this community. Children in the experimental and control groups were tested individually one month after the teachers finished their classroom and curriculum instruction.
Children in the control group were tested in the same time period. They were tested at the Head Start center they attended during the school day by a researcher trained in using the PIPS test. At least seven picture-story pairs were given to each child. The testing stopped when children missed three consecutive responses. All children in this study had between seven to 10 stories presented. Summary scores were computed for the three dimensions, including relevant solutions, relevancy ratio, and force ratio for each child in the experimental and control groups (described above).
Quantitative analyses confirmed the usefulness of the teacher training for altering teacher perceptions and practices in relation to conflict and conflict resolution strategies. In this study, paired t tests were conducted to determine whether teachers who were exposed to the conflict resolution training changed in their dialogue about conflict from pre- to post-training sessions. Comparisons between solutions to conflict suggested before training versus solutions suggested after training showed that teachers used more ICPS dialogue after, t(5) = 3.42, p < .05, and decreased in their non-ICPS dialogue, t(5) = 2.6, p < .05 (Table 3). A paired t test on the difference score, comparing pre- to post-ICPS versus pre- to post-non-ICPS dialogue, also showed significance t(5) = 4.0, p < .05, suggesting that the use of ICPS dialogue increased from pretest to posttest for all teachers who participated in the training.
Analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to determine whether differences existed between the experimental and control group children in their problem-solving strategies on the PIPS test. Results showed that children whose teachers were trained and exposed them to the conflict resolution curriculum had a higher number of relevant solutions, suggesting they were able to think of more ways to solve the interpersonal conflicts than did the children whose teachers were not trained and who were not exposed to the conflict resolution curriculum, F(1,62) = 4.08,p < .05.
A multivariate ANOVA compared the experimental and control groups on both the relevancy ratio and the force ratio. Results yielded a significant interaction effect, Wilks' [lanbda] =.82, F(1,62) = 13.20, p < .05, with the [[eta].sup.2] = .17, suggesting that children in the conflict resolution intervention demonstrated lower force ratio scores and higher relevancy ratio scores than children in the control group (Figure 1).
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Subsequent univariate ANOVAs on the children's responses to the PIPS test were conducted. The analyses showed significant groups differences for both relevancy ratio, F(1,62) = 5.12,p < .05, and force ratio scores, F(1,62) = 8.42, p < .05, suggesting that preschool-age children can be taught to think of more relevant solutions to conflict and alternatives to force when confronted with an interpersonal conflict.
This investigation focused on teaching preschool children about resolving conflicts, endeavoring to determine whether preschool children who are already exposed to violence in their environment have the capacity to learn and use conflict resolution strategies. While not directly instructing the preschoolers, it was expected that environment-based changes, via the teacher instruction and the curriculum, would positively affect the preschoolers' conflict resolution skills. During recent years, there has been a rise in the use and evaluation of violence prevention models in schools (Leff, Power, Manz, Costigan, & Nabors, 2001; Wood, 1999). However, empirical studies of conflict resolution in preschool are still lacking. Establishing research-based evidence of the significance of conflict resolution programs in early education has been elusive, perhaps due, in part, to a lack of assessments appropriate for the preschool populations or due to the theory that children lack the intellectual capacities for problem-solving behavior (Selman, 1980, 1981). This study did demonstrate significant gains in preschoolers' ability to resolve interpersonal problems when children were exposed to a conflict resolution curriculum by a teacher trained in socio-emotional skills, conflict resolution skills, and peace education. Specifically, the children were able to report more solutions to a conflict situation, report more relevant compared to irrelevant solutions and, most important, convey fewer forceful (and therefore more prosocial) solutions to conflict situations. This study supports other theories and evidence that young children can learn to resolve their conflicts (Barglow et al., 1998; Shure, 1992; Turner & Boulter, 1981; Youngstrom et al., 2000).
Although preschoolers may lack the higher level of cognitive processing ability necessary to take the perspective of another, and thereby come to a mutually satisfying resolution to conflict, early learning theories (Bandura, 1977; Vygotsky, 1987) have suggested that children can (and strive to) model behaviors of more competent peers and adults. Within this study, the teachers modeled emotionally competent behaviors to children in the experimental group, and these children used these strategies to resolve conflicts when interviewed by another adult. These results suggest that an environmental change and a curriculum designed to teach adaptive problem-solving principles can effectively teach Head Start children to use and adopt conflict resolution strategies into their understanding of social interactions. Therefore, although young children may be limited by their cognitive maturation, theorists and practitioners should recognize that understanding of conflict and its resolution can occur at different levels of processing. Preschool children are capable of evaluating the consequences of their choices if taught foundational skills (Buckley, 2000). Understanding conflict resolution as a socially competent behavior, with the building blocks based on knowledge of emotions and diversity, may help young children model and adopt good strategies for dealing with conflict in their environment. Ultimately, healthy, socially competent development requires knowledge of negotiation and conflict resolution abilities.
The results of this study also indicate that trained children were better able to come up with non-forceful solutions to a peer conflict than were the children who were not in the trained group. It is essential that children learn prosocial methods for resolving conflict and dealing with hostile emotions as early in life as possible (Brenner & Salovey, 1997; Eisenberg, 1992; Eisenberg, Fabes, & Losoya, 1997; Prothrow-Stith et al., 1991). Researchers recognize the need to diminish the models of aggression in a child's environment and to break the cycle of violence that leads children to model the aggressive approaches they may observe early in life (Byrne, 1997; Emde, 1993; Garbarino et al., 1998; Huesmann, 1986). A key finding was that trained children were able to expand upon problem-solving strategies that significantly reduced the ratio of forceful solutions to interpersonal problems. Conflict resolution training at an early age can help them expand the realm of prosocial responses to choose from when confronted with interpersonal conflicts (Spivack & Shure, 1974). The ICPS curriculum used in this study contains a set of skills consistent with identified components of peace education models (Bey & Turner, 1996; Bodine & Crawford, 1997; Lantieri & Patti, 1996; Rosandic, 2000). This study confirms the suitability of an interpersonal cognitive problem-solving model like ICPS for teaching conflict resolution to Head Start and other preschool children between the ages of 3 and 6 (Shure, 1992, 1996).
As further evidence of the importance for conflict resolution training, the untrained children in the present study and those before training in the Stevahn et al. (2000) study used more negative types of negotiation skills (e.g., forcing, withdrawing) as the major strategies for managing conflict. These negative strategies lead to more conflict and violence. Moreover, a more comprehensive study of violence (Metropolitan Area Child Study Research Group, 2002) demonstrated that violent behaviors are evident in kindergartners, that they tend to persist and intensify, and that the violent behaviors are resistant to change by early school age. Therefore, violence prevention and intervention should begin as soon as possible.
The choice of a Head Start program as the research site for this study afforded many benefits and opportunities that had not been examined previously. First, teachers (and the Head Start staff who participated in the pilot study) were motivated to learn methods for resolving conflicts that could be taught to the children. Even the control group agreed to participate in the study (instead of taking the college course, they were merely given the ICPS materials after the completion of the study). Second, and on a related note, the participating Head Start centers are located in areas where children and families are most at risk for experiencing conflict-ridden and violent environments. Studies within these environments are necessary because teachers, children, and families are at greater risk for exposure to violent and aggressive behaviors in their daily encounters (Raden, 1998; Zigler & Styfco, 1994). Moreover, prior research has established that violent and aggressive environments generate more dysfunctional social skills (Durlak & Wells, 1997; Henrich et al., 1999). Combining the factors of an at-risk environment with the positive motivation of the teachers to adopt a conflict resolution program in the classroom offered an important opportunity to propose and test the theory that teachers should experience a transformation in their own attitudes and beliefs about conflict in order to effectively teach the skills of conflict resolution to children.
An important premise in peace education is that self-transformation must occur for lasting empowerment and change to take hold (Freire, 1993; Lederach, 1997; Woolpert, Slayton, & Schwerin, 1998). Building upon the precept of self-transformation, findings demonstrated that teacher transformation in their knowledge, attitudes, and behavior can effect changes in the classroom environment and their teaching methods. The presumed transformation is based specifically on teachers' associations to conflict resolution, violence prevention, and peace education. This effect was demonstrated at least in part by the change in teacher dialogue; that is, after training, teachers used more dialogue that promoted healthy conflict resolution strategies than before the training. Moreover, the researchers attempted to improve teachers' efficiency by imparting the idea that curriculum changes will affect the future abilities of the children in the trained teachers' classrooms. This effect promoted changes in the environment and teaching methods, resulting in a total-student body approach to experiencing conflict resolution strategies.
Despite the strong evidence that preschoolers were able to demonstrate conflict resolution abilities learned from the classroom, this study was unable to assess the children's interactive behaviors within their classrooms or their home environments. Examining these preschoolers' naturalistic responses to conflict after the training would have provided additional evidence of their internalization of the prosocial negotiation strategies; however, recent research has demonstrated that preschoolers learn and subsequently internalize the negotiation strategies when exposed to conflict resolution training (Stevahn et al., 2000).
The two key findings in this study of Head Start teachers and 4- to 5-year-old children are that: 1) preschool children from at-risk neighborhoods can be taught to think of more ways (particularly, more prosocial ways) to resolve interpersonal conflicts than their untrained peers; and 2) when taught by motivated teachers who have undergone transformative training in conflict resolution strategies, preschoolers can acquire significant problem-solving skills. A future study should assess whether these changes in curriculum and childhood cognitive strategies have a lasting effect on children's interactive behaviors across time.
Table 1 Demographic Characteristics for Teachers and Children in Experimental and Control Groups Measures Experimental Control Teachers Age (years) 38.00 (12.00) 43.6 (7.54) Range of scores 21-54 25-51 Education (years) 12.83 (0.75) 13.20 (1.09) Range of scores 12-14 12-15 Number of Years Teaching 8.73 (10.41) 13.40 (8.47) Range of scores 2-25 3-22 Race (%) Black 66.7% 80.0% Hispanic 16.7% 00.0% Caucasian 16.7% 20.0% Children Age (years) 4.94 (0.58) 4.86 (0.54) Gender (% female) 53.6% 46.4% Race (%) Black 73.0% 74.1% Hispanic 21.6% 11.1% Caucasian 5.4% 14.8% Note: Scores represent mean values, and standard deviations are in parentheses. Table 2 Topics Presented in Teacher Training Course Topic Issues Presented Conflict Understand conflict as a natural phenomenon, explore personal reaction to conflict situations, and expand knowledge related to conflict and violence. Conflict Resolution Assess personal style of conflict management, learn about various methods and techniques for resolving conflicts for interaction with adults and children. Diversity Discuss the importance of culture, perception, experience, and personal bias in understanding the viewpoint of others. Emotional & Review developmental trajectory of emotional Social Development responses in infants and young children. Relate development of social and emotional responses to the pre-school-age child and review activities to teach emotions with preschoolers. Violence Prevention Present and discuss research on episodes of school violence during the last few years. Explore why school violence is occurring at alarming rates and investigate programs for reducing it over the short, medium, and long terms. Bullying & Examine the research on bullies and bullying Victimization behaviors. Discuss the current trends toward recognizing and reducing this behavior as a school-wide effort. Present the role of the victim. Explain the research indicating that victims are often re-victimized and discuss possible causes and cures for this trend. Table 3 Teacher Assessments Measure Pre Post ICPS Dialogue 2.33 (2.66) 8.17 (3.81) ** Non-ICPS Dialogue 11.17 (3.06) 4.50 (4.04) * ICPS dialogue Non-ICPS dialogue Difference Score (a) 5.83 -6.67 (6.43) ** Note: Scores represent mean values and standard deviations are in parentheses. (a) Difference scores represents the change from pre- to post-training; higher scores indicate more ICPS dialogue compared to non-ICPS dialogue during post-training compared to pre training. Number of respondents in each group = 6. * p <.05, ** p <.01.
We wish to thank the teachers and children who participated in this project, as well as the Director of Children's Services for Palm Beach County, Carmen Nicholas, Ph.D. We also would like to thank Scan Byrne, Ph.D., and Marcia Sweedler, Ph.D., and the Conflict Analysis and Resolution Department at Nova Southeastern University for their many contributions to the study. The study was supported by a grant from the Administration for Children and Families, DHHS.
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Mountain State University
Nancy Aaron Jones
Florida Atlantic University
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|Author:||Jones, Nancy Aaron|
|Publication:||Journal of Research in Childhood Education|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
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