Resolving Conflicts in Early Childhood Education: Sweat the Small Stuff

By Chris Amirault, Ph.D., and Christine Snyder, M.A., coauthors of Finding Your Way Through Conflict: A Guide for Early Childhood Educators

The old adage “don’t sweat the small stuff” advises that we shouldn’t invest a lot of time or energy in matters that seem insignificant—a good tactic when you spill a glass of milk at dinner or miss your turn when you’re driving. In those moments, it certainly makes sense to give yourself some grace and move on!

But when it comes to conflict in the workplace, we actually recommend that you DO invest time and energy into small situations. And here’s why.

Resolving Conflicts in Early Childhood Education: Sweat the Small Stuff

Small stuff, when ignored, can return like a boomerang.

Have you noticed that, when you think to yourself, “Just let it go,” “it” won’t let go of you? And even when “it” does let go of you, that’s a temporary situation: out of the blue it can reappear in a flash! Your colleague not refilling the soap dispenser; the classroom next to you hoarding the washable markers; another classroom leaving the playground a mess after they’ve used it: these might seem like little things that can be shrugged off, but the fact that they bothered you in the first place is important to recognize. Those moments can tell you a lot about your temperament, helping you see your inclination to engage in or to avoid different sorts of conflicts.

So when we shrug off these moments only to have them return in one form or another, our brains may be adding them up to make a case against the other person involved in your conflict. Maybe next time it’s the baby wipes not being refilled or someone hoarding all the floor puzzles. As these tiny little things keep creeping back up unaddressed, we start to develop an “always” mindset, where one or two behaviors accumulate to form a core component of someone else’s identity: “They always leave things out”; “they always take more than their share.” And that means the stuff is no longer small.

Small stuff very quickly becomes big stuff.

Do you remember as a kid when you wanted to go outside but your parents said you had to clean your room first? So you quickly shoved all your stuff under the bed or in the closet, out of sight, out of mind! Until…stuff would no longer fit under the bed or in the closet and it all just came spilling out. Whether you wanted to or not, you had to deal with it.

Conflict is like that. We may think we can just tuck away the small stuff, but it piles up. Over time, that pile can become overwhelming, making it hard to sort all of the components out and determine where to start. What’s more, if we’re honest with ourselves, in reflection we probably will face the guilt of knowing that we contributed to the mess by not dealing with it in the first place. Addressing small conflicts as they pop up can be more manageable, more focused, less time consuming, and less emotionally exhausting.

Small stuff is very rarely small stuff.

Our measuring stick is often way, way off in conflict! We try to tell ourselves that it’s not a big deal when someone comes back from break a few minutes late or returns a set of materials with a few parts missing. But if we let ourselves process for a moment why this feels even a tad frustrating, we often find that our feelings run deeper than we first think. The “small” part is the tip of the iceberg, what we can see. But there’s a whole lot underneath the surface that we can’t ignore.

In particular, the seemingly small stuff can actually be really big stuff when it rubs against our core values or identity. These kinds of “small” moments can bring up feelings of disrespect, invisibility, or disregard, and those feelings are never small, making the moments that triggered them truly huge! So it’s crucial to address small stuff quickly, directly, and intentionally while recognizing and holding gently the deep stuff that lies underneath. Feelings of disrespect and mistrust can quickly be repaired when all situations are treated as being important to the work and to maintaining a healthy professional relationship.

Small stuff builds relationships.

Let’s be honest: when you make a tiny misstep and find out that someone is frustrated with you, more often than not your response is, “Why didn’t they say something? I could’ve done something differently!” For the most part, we all mean well and want to do right by each other. We can do that best when someone gently points out that we’ve hurt or inconvenienced them rather than waiting until we’ve done it several times over the course of a year.

When small stuff is left to fester over time, it drives a wedge between people and damages the relationship that’s essential to resolving the conflict. Addressing small issues reduces tension, and those conversations give all parties the ability to maintain a shared trust that we are all here to do good things for children and we genuinely respect one another.

Small stuff practice builds our skills for navigating the big stuff.

Finally, small stuff reminds us that, no matter how hard we try and how much we practice, there’s no way to avoid conflict altogether. What we can do is develop our ability to be IN the conflict, and the best way to build that muscle is to practice with the small stuff. The risks are lower; the issues less expansive. Developing our ability to be in conflict in the small moments allows us to show up to the big moments with a tool kit and a basis of trust in our relationships that will get us through the tough stuff a little easier.

We encourage you to continue the practice of carefully giving energy to life’s little mishaps. Shrug it off when someone in line at the grocery store gets in the “10 or fewer” line with 11 items! But DO seize the moment to develop your skills being IN conflict when there is a tiny misunderstanding or miscommunication in your workplace. It may be uncomfortable but when the really hard stuff pops up, you’ll be glad you have the practice and foundation of conflict resolution skills to lean on.

Chris AmiraultChris Amirault, Ph.D., is the school director of Tulsa Educare MacArthur in Oklahoma, and for more than three decades has dedicated himself to high-quality education, teaching courses and facilitating workshops on early childhood education, conflict, assessment and instruction, ethics and professionalism, challenging behavior, family engagement, antibias education, and equity. Prior to his arrival in Tulsa, he lived in Mexico, working as a consultant focusing on organizational culture, change management, and QRIS system design in Oregon, Rhode Island, and California.

For thirteen years prior to that, he served as executive director of the Brown/Fox Point Early Childhood Education Center affiliated with Brown University in Rhode Island. During that time, he also taught early childhood education and development courses for area colleges and universities and served as a mentor and coach for providers throughout the community.

Author Christine SnyderChristine M. Snyder, M.A., has worked in early childhood education since 1999 as a teacher, center director, author, and trainer/coach. She holds a master’s degree in early childhood education and a bachelor’s degree in child development. She is currently director of the University of Michigan Health System Children’s Center and assistant professor in the college of education at Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan.

Previously, she was an early childhood specialist at the HighScope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where she focused on developing professional learning for teachers and curriculum for preschoolers and infants/toddlers. She facilitates training throughout the United States, internationally, and online, and has published several books, articles, training DVDs, and other classroom resources for teachers. She lives in Michigan.

Finding Your Way Through ConflictChris and Christine are coauthors of Finding Your Way Through Conflict: Strategies for Early Childhood Educators.


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