On Peer Conflict

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Recently, the subject of peer conflict arose as part of an ongoing discussion at Villa di Maria. The distinction between conflict and bullying is an essential one to note: while bullying involves a willful, conscious desire to hurt, frighten, or threaten another child, peer conflict is a common, everyday occurrence that includes the normal developmental processes of learning to disagree, to give and take, to learn how to be a friend, and to cooperate with others. 

As children develop their sense of personal space, self-control, and sense of self in relation to others, normal peer conflict occurs, and should occur. This is, after all, the way children learn how to navigate and respond to such conflict: by experiencing it, discussing it, and practicing how to resolve it. The magic of this process is most apparent when it occurs in the presence of well-trained guides and assistants who can mediate and help children navigate the conflict, which is also known as “peacekeeping.” Anna Schwind, lower elementary directress, explained it like this: “Just as children have math problems to solve, they will have social problems to solve. They are equally important parts of learning, and we are here to help them.”

Megan Eilers, lower elementary guide in the checkerboard classroom, expands: “This process involves helping the children identify their frustrations, bringing the children together to discuss conflict and listen to each other as they express their feelings. We help them arrive at a solution or compromise. With practice and repetition in a safe and supervised environment, the children learn how to independently work through and resolve conflicts on their own.”

Peacekeeping procedures ultimately have the goal of work at its core. As with other Montessori practices, guides assist children in arriving at inner discipline through concentrated work, work that includes developing the skills necessary to control their own actions, to develop self-discipline, and to arrive at healthy inner limits. All of these ends require work in the form of guided practice, just as with any lesson they may receive in the classroom!

*It should be noted that the above picture looks like something it is not. The child on the left was not hurting the child on the right; rather, the photograph caught this moment of surprise. It is important to note that all the children surrounding him (and the boy who looks like he is coming to the rescue behind) were very sensitive to the situation, making sure no one was being injured. It was a snap second in time that does not tell the whole story, and the subsequent photographs show just how fleeting possible conflict can be, in addition to how quickly children of this age can resolve potential conflict on their own. When they are not able to resolve a situation, they are encouraged to report to an adult. We ask that you, as parents, also encourage your children to report conflict that is difficult to resolve to a guide or assistant the moment it occurs to aid with peer mediation. 

While conflict certainly occurs in the primary classroom, it is generally quite easy to resolve and move on from and very often involves simple diversion, which is appropriate for this age group. In the lower and upper elementary classrooms, however, normal peer conflict is a bit more complicated. This is because of the differences in planes of development. Children in the lower elementary are entering a developmental plane that includes a strong desire to collaborate and cooperate with their peers. As a result, much of the work they do in the classroom and outside of the classroom involves small groups working together, as seen in these photos. This naturally leads to normal conflict. It is important that we (adults, whether we are parents, staff, or community members) view this conflict as an opportunity for growth rather than a hassle or disruption.

Some adults, for whom the elementary years may have been difficult socially, may remember social conflict as something that happened behind the backs of teachers, or even as incidents that were brushed aside by adults in order to finish a lecture to an entire classroom full of students sitting in rows of desks. However, in the Montessori classroom, the social piece is built into the curriculum. It is addressed during classroom meetings, it is dealt with moment-to-moment as the conflicts occur. Megan Eilers, lower elementary directress, explains, “Conflict is not just an afterthought; we stop what we are doing many times a day to address a conflict immediately. It’s just part of what we do in the Montessori classroom.”

“Do we believe and constantly insist that cooperation among the peoples of the world is necessary in order to bring about peace? If so, what is needed first of all is collaboration with children…. All our efforts will come to nothing until we remedy the great injustice done the child, and remedy it by cooperating with him. If we are among the men of good will who yearn for peace, we must lay the foundation for peace ourselves, by working for the social world of the child.” (International Montessori Congress, 1937)