Preschool Children’s Conflict and Social Competence: A Comparative View

Bree Ann Dennis, Malinda J. Colwell*, and Eric Lindsey*

Texas Tech University


When asking if conflict is healthy or unhealthy, one must realize that conflict, according to theorists such as Piaget, Erikson, and Vygotsky, believed that conflict helps the child to develop many important life skills. Because conflict may be healthy, a guidance approach, rather than traditional discipline, may be more appropriate when dealing with children’s conflicts. This study examined the possible causes and resolutions of conflict, gender and age differences in conflict, and how instances of conflict association with preschool children’s social competence. Finding suggest that conflict is positively associated with teach rated social competence, showing that conflict may serve a healthy developmental function.


Conflict is a common occurrence for children. Many have asked “Is conflict healthy or unhealthy?” When looking at discipline, should conflict be seen as misbehavior or a learning experience? Piaget believed that conflict in children was healthy, and if worked through, would help children to overcome their egocentric thought patterns (Arsenio & Cooperman, 1996).  Erikson believed that life was full of conflict and in order to become a better person, one must resolve the conflict in each stage of life (Trawick-Smith, 2003). Vygotsky saw conflict as a learning experience. He believed that children, if in their zone of proximal development, would learn from the conflict and adult models to function better in social contexts.  Looking at the beliefs of all of these well known theorists, one gets the feeling that conflict is a positive, healthy part of a child’s life. However, many people still view conflict as a negative thing.

Dan Gartrell, author of A Guidance Approach to Discipline, is one of the leading authors on guidance, as opposed to traditional discipline. He believes that traditional discipline “criticizes children—often-publicly—for unacceptable behaviors, whereas guidance teaches children positive alternatives” (Gartrell, 1995, p. 27).  In the past, children who have caused conflict have been seen as “troublemakers” or as “naughty.” Gartrell believes that the roots of seeing misbehavior, or conflictive behaviors, as evil or naughty goes back to the Middle Ages when children were viewed as naturally “tending toward evil”(Gartrell, 1995, p. 28).  However, when taking Piaget, Erikson, and Vygotsky into consideration, conflict, or misbehavior, is simply part of being human.

Without conflict, children would not learn important life skills such as judging emotional interactions with others, learning personal boundaries, facing future problems, and learning important conflict resolution skills.  Many different child care facilities have recently turned to the guidance approach to discipline. They have taken an active role in teaching their students appropriate behavior taking on Locke’s philosophy that children come into the world as a blank slate and must be guided to behave in a certain way. Conflict is seen as normative behavior. However, they believe, in respect to conflict, that “it is the responsibility of adults to make available to children, during their effort to resolve children’s conflicts, culturally valued skills that children can use later without the adult’s assistance” (Goncu & Cannella, 1996, p. 60). In other words, teachers must give children conflict resolution skills so that they can effectively resolve their own conflicts later in life. Through learning these skills, children will learn autonomy or independent functioning (Goncu & Cannella, 1996). Instead of viewing conflict as negative, one must begin to see it as a part of human nature.

In order to understand the current study, one must first define conflict. Killen and Nucci define conflict as two children independently pursuing personal goals that happen to bring them into conflict (Arsenio & Cooperman, 1996). Goncu and Cannella (1996) define conflict as disagreements or oppositional interaction between individual children or groups of children. This study is guided by the latter definition. We furthered this definition and conceptualized conflict as disagreements or oppositional interaction between individual children or between children and teachers. We also operate under the assumption that misbehavior and conflictive behaviors are, many times, synonymous. The goal of this study was to examine the associations between children’s social competence and levels of conflict and to examine possible differences in peer-peer and teacher-peer conflict. Specifically, there are four hypotheses tested in this study.

Hypothesis 1: Males and females will have different types and causes of conflict, as well as different conflict resolutions.

This hypothesis comes from the assumption that there are gender differences based on socialization in conflict and resolution.

Hypothesis 2: Younger children will have more conflict than older children.

This hypothesis comes from the assumption that as children grow older, they are usually more socially competent and, based on the previous hypothesis, the more social competence they have, the less conflict, or misbehavior, they will experience.

Hypothesis 3: Children rated by teachers as having high levels of aggression will have more conflict.

This hypothesis comes from the assumption that aggressive children will have more conflict than non-aggressive children. It also shows the assumption that aggression and conflict (or misbehavior) are strongly associated. 

Hypothesis 4: Children rated as having high social competence will have lower levels of conflict.

This hypothesis comes from the assumption that conflict misbehaving is associated with lower social competence and social understanding.


Twenty-three children (16 boys; ages 2-6, M = 46 mo) from an on-campus preschool at a southwestern university participated in this study. The preschool is an NAEYC accredited program and uses the High Scope Curriculum, which is guidance based. The majority of children in the study were Caucasian.


The children were videotaped during their normal routines at preschool for five-minute intervals (M = 7.5). Each observed interval was coded for several dimensions: presence of conflict, cause of conflict (target child provokes/nothing happens, target child provokes/conflict, peer provokes/nothing happens, peer provokes/conflict, teacher provokes/ nothing happens, and teacher provokes/conflict), type of conflict (peer-peer, peer-teacher), topic of conflict (words, object, disobeying teacher, space, actions), and how the conflict was resolved (child forgets/no resolution, no intervention/no resolution, child intervention/no resolution, teacher intervention/no resolution, teacher resolves by demanding, teacher resolves by changing subject, teacher resolves by confronting issue/talking about conflict, and child-peer resolution). These coding categories were derived from observing four hours of videotaped interactions between children, their peers, and their teachers. The categories were designed to represent conflict in its entirety, to the best of our ability (i.e., from cause to resolution).

Teachers completed for each child the Dodge Checklist of Social Relationships (Coie & Dodge, 1988), which provides an index of children’s aggression and overall social competence. Teachers were asked to rate how true each statement was for each child on a scale from 1 (never true of this child) to 5 (almost always true of this child). Sample items include “this child is accepted by the peer group” and “this child disrupts the peer group by inappropriate or attention getting behavior.”


Amount of conflict varied across participants. Two children had no instances of conflict and one had 15 instances. In regard to Hypothesis 1, some differences were found between boys and girls in terms of type of conflict. Descriptively, the leading topic of conflict for girls was peer words and for boys, disobeying the teacher. An example of a peer words conflict is when a boy told another boy he was playing with Barbie Dolls. The child who was accused protested by saying “No I’m not!” This conflict began because of a peer’s words. An example of disobeying the teacher is when a child refused to clean up toys after the teacher requested that he pick them up. Girls had the most conflict over peer words, while boys had the most conflict over disobeying the teacher. There was not a significant difference, however, in the rate of conflict for boys and girls. The majority of conflicts were resolved by the teacher confronting the issue and discussing it with the children. The leading resolution by girls was child-peer resolution, whereas boys most often resolved conflict via teacher intervention. As with our findings for rate of conflict, there was not a significant difference between type of resolution between boys and girls (see Figures 1 and 2).


Figure 1. Causes of conflict for boys and girls (C = child; T = teacher; P = peer)



Figure 2. Conflict resolution for boys and girls (C = child; T = teacher; P = peer)


Associations were found between children’s conflict and their aggression and levels of social competence. Unexpectedly, no associations were found between child age and amount of conflict (see Table 1). Mixed results were found for Hypothesis 3. Bivariate correlations showed that more incidents of conflict are associated with lower teacher rated aggression (r = -.53, p < .01). Similarly, total peer conflict was associated with lower teacher rated aggression (r = -.48, p < .01). However, teacher-peer conflict was associated with higher teacher rated aggression (r = .58, p <.01). Results also were contrary to Hypothesis 4. Total peer conflict was associated with higher teacher rated overall peer competence (r = .49, p <.01).

Table 1.

Associations between age, teacher-rated social competence and aggression, and proportion of conflict



Social Competence


Proportion of Total






Proportion of Peer






Proportion of

Teacher Conflict




* = p = .05;** = p = .01


Findings from the current study suggest that preschool children’s conflict is associated with children’s social competence and peer conflict may serve a beneficial role in children’s aggression and social development. Children’s peer conflict was positively associated with their social competence. Children may have more interaction with peers because of their social competence and therefore, may experience more opportunities for conflict. These findings seem to support the beliefs of well-known theorists. For instance, according to Piaget, conflict helps children overcome their egocentrism (Arsenio & Cooperman, 1996). Therefore, one might gather that the more conflict a child experiences, the better they are at taking on another’s point of view.

Vygotsky’s views on conflict also were supported with this research. Because the program implemented with the children was guidance based, they experience teacher modeling on how to resolve conflict a majority of the time. Our findings also suggested that the conflict is mainly resolved by teacher intervention. Therefore, these findings support Vygotsky’s view that conflict provides for a learning experience for children when they have correct modeling or “scaffolding” from adults (Trawick-Smith, 2003, p. 54).

The guidance approach used in this setting also may have helped the teachers to view their students who had the most conflict in a more positive way. The students who had the most peer conflict were seen as having high social competence and lower levels of aggression, instead of as being “troublemakers” or “naughty.” This research supported Gartrell’s view of guidance as beneficial (Gartrell, 1995). Children seemed to be learning important conflict resolution skills, which could be the cause of their ratings as high in social competence and low in aggression. The children who experienced more peer conflict seemed to have learned how to interact with peers in a more positive way. Using the teacher as a mediator in child conflict seems to have beneficial outcomes. For instance, teachers model appropriate conflict resolution strategies, as well as teach children emotional understanding when it comes to other point of views.

A surprising finding was that age had no significant effect on how much conflict children experienced. This could be due to the small sample of younger children participating in this study. The gender differences in conflict also were interesting. Although they were not significant, boys seemed to have more conflicts over actions and girls seemed to have more conflict over words. These findings reinforce the gender roles that children enact. Boys tend to be more able to be aggressive in a playful way and are more involved with “doing” than with “saying.” Girls, on the other hand, tend to be more involved in the relationship with the other person and “saying” is an important part of that interaction with others. It also was interesting to find that boys tended to disobey the teacher more often than girls. Again, this reinforces gender roles of quieter, more elaborate, emotionally expressive, and timid girls, and independent, less compliant, and more demanding boys (Trawick-Smith, 2003, p. 313).

Because the sample was so small, future studies should incorporate more children from a broader range of facilities with varying programs. Institutions that implement guidance programs and institutions that implement more traditional discipline programs should be compared. Children seem to have higher social competence due to conflict in this guidance-based program. Based on these findings, guidance programs may be more beneficial for children’s social development than traditional discipline programs. Overall, these findings suggest that conflict may actually serve a positive developmental function in the development of children’s social competence.              




Arsenio, W., & Cooperman, S. (1996). Children’s conflict-related emotions: Implications for morality and autonomy. New Directions for Child Development, 73, 25-39.

Coie, J.D., & Dodge, K.A. (1988). Multiple sources of data on social behavior and social status in the school: A cross-age comparison. Child Development, 59, 815-829.

Gartrell, D. (July, 1995) Misbehavior or mistaken behavior? Young Children, 27-34.

Goncu, A. & Cannella, V. (1996). The role of teacher assistance in children’s construction of intersubjectivity during conflict resolution. New Directions for Child Development, 73, 57-69.

Trawick-Smith, J. (2003) Early Childhood Development: A Multicultural Perspective. 3rd Ed. New Jersey: Merrill Prentice Hall.




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