Is there tolerance of conflict in ECEC institutions?

ECEC institutions have a tendency to resolve conflicts quickly and smoothly. However, points of contention should be allowed to flourish a little longer. They can be used to teach the children about democracy, according to one researcher.



Minor conflicts between children are myriad in ECEC situations. Yet they may be experienced as disruptive by the adults, who then do their best to sort the conflicts out. Although, according to Swedish researcher Eva Marianne Johansson, conflicts are important for children.

‘Conflicts force children to express their subjective feelings and opinions. That may help develop their democratic skills.’

Johansson’s study is based on data from a variety of Swedish ECEC institutions.

Conflicts are part of everyday life

Johansson spent a lot of time on the floors of ECEC institutions in an attempt to capture everyday life on a camcorder. Her primary focus has been on interactions among the youngest children.

‘Conflicts are there constantly, waxing and waning’, she observes.

The most common conflict is about who is entitled to play with the toys.

When the right to play with a toy is violated

She tells a story about two-year-old Bjørn who is sitting quietly, enthralled in playing with a plastic racetrack. Then Anna comes over and sits down beside him. Anna says nothing, but abruptly stands up and pulls on Bjørn’s sleeve, as though she were trying to get him away from the racetrack. That irritates Bjørn and he bites Anna’s hand. She starts to cry, attracting the attention of an adult.

‘Did he really bite you?’ asks the adult. Whereupon Bjørn almost proudly points to the hand of the tearful Anna and says: ‘There!’

It is easy for the adult, who sees only crying Anna’s red hand, to tell Bjørn that it was wrong of him to bite her. Obviously, it was wrong, according to Johansson.

Yet it is also possible to view this conflict rather differently. In understanding why Bjørn bit Anna, one of the ECEC institutions’ core values comes to the fore: the right to ‘things’. Bjørn expresses his right to play with the racetrack until he is no longer interested.

When Bjørn’s rights are violated, it is important that his side of the story be told and heard. Since he does not have much language, his protest is expressed physically rather than verbally.

Conflicts offer many opportunities

Johansson is of the opinion that it would be an advantage if staff could spend more time discussing the values inherent in conflicts between the children.

‘We don’t want a lot of additional noise in ECEC facilities, but it may be good to look at conflicts from a different perspective. The first step need not necessarily be to agree. Conflicts may also offer opportunities.’

She tells another story from her research.

Some children are sitting in the sandbox, playing together. Emma has made a lovely sand pie on the ledge of the sandbox. Malin comes over and destroys it. The other children get upset and give Emma their collective support. They have a loud discussion about whether Malin is simply a dummy, or is dumb in her head. They agree that she is simply a dummy.

Malin protests by standing up and shouting ‘No!’ when they call her a dummy. Eventually, the other children resume playing, then Malin sits down and digs in the sand, her back to the others.

Many values are expressed through conflict

‘This conflict can teach the children several values. They learn about unity and how to support each other. They learn about the importance of exclusion and integration’, according to Johansson.

In some cases, like when Malin ruined Emma’s sand pie, it is possible to engage in alliance-building among the other children. It gives them an opportunity to express solidarity and demonstrates how they can support each other.

The dividing line between supporting each other and excluding others can be razor thin. In this case, Malin got to express her opinion, even though the others did not agree with her. She was partially, but not completely, excluded from playing with the others.

The adults must provide support

‘For a conflict to help children learn about democracy, they must respect each other. The conflict must also allow antagonisms, not merely confrontations’, in Johansson’s opinion.

‘Power is always part of any conflict. It can sometimes be difficult to strike a balance between supporting one person and oppressing someone else. The adults must therefore help the children to use conflicts constructively.

There are always children who need help to express what they mean, even with friends. The ECEC staff has an important job to do in this context, that is, teaching children to muster the courage they need to stand up to other children,’ explains the researcher.

‘We don’t want a lot of additional noise in ECEC facilities, but it may be good to look at conflicts from a different perspective.’

Power struggles

In a kindergarten, there is also a daily struggle between adults and children about who should be allowed to make decisions. Power and authority limit the right to be heard. Creating alliances against power can also result in power.

Johansson gives a third example that illustrates this.

During circle time, the researcher follows two educators and a group of children. The rule is that the children are to sit on benches during these shared circle time activities. Today, however, Sofie is determined to sit on a blanket on the floor. ‘Please sit on the bench’, orders one of the teachers sternly. Sofie does not move. Sonny joins Sofie on the blanket and says ‘I sit’.

‘OK, but the teddy bear won’t be here until you sit on the bench’, says the teacher. Sonny and Sofie do not move. ‘I’m waiting for you to sit on the bench’, she repeats. Sonny eventually sits on the bench. Then Robin moves over and sits on the blanket with Sofie. The teacher then resolutely lifts Robin up to the bench. Finally, she also lifts Sofie up to the bench and brings out the teddy bear. Group time can commence.

‘What can the children learn about democracy from this type of situation? asks Johansson.

Did the children learn that there was no point in protesting, since the adults have all the power to decide anyway? Or did they learn that they also have a possibility to express resistance by standing together against the adults?