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Aggression and Cooperation: Helping Young Children Develop Constructive Strategies

By Jan Jewett

Over the past two decades, our understanding of children's social behavior and the importance of social skills in the development of overall competence have expanded dramatically. Let’s review what we can do to support young children as they develop strategies for dealing with complex interpersonal relationships among their peers.

Aggression and cooperation represent two critical features in the child's social domain. What do they have in common? Both emerge from the child's strong developmental push to initiate and maintain relationships with other children, beginning at a very early age. Peer relationships provide critical opportunities for children to learn to manage conflict and work towards establishing intimacy. Aggression and cooperation are two possible strategies for dealing with the normal conflicts of early peer interactions. Both have important roots in early family interactions, both are responsive to adult expectations and values, and both can be responsive to environmental factors.

Aggression And Cooperation: Definitions And Emerging Features

"Aggression" is defined here as any intentional behavior that results in physical or mental injury to any person, animal, or property. Aggressive actions can be accidental actions, in which there is no intentionality; instrumental actions, in which the child deliberately employs aggression in pursuit of a goal; or hostile actions, in which the child acts to cause harm to another person. Because peer interactions in their earliest forms emerge from play in which infants treat each other as they would treat a toy or interesting object--for example, one baby might reach over and grab the cheek of another baby.  Unintentional aggression is a common and natural form of behavior for infants and toddlers. These accidental behaviors can enable young children to achieve desired results (for example, grabbing a toy from another child) and, in a short period of time, can easily develop into instrumental forms of aggression.

Aggressive behavior is a deterrent to friendships and social success. Studies indicate that young children cite aggressive behavior as a significant reason for disliking others. Research indicates that aggressive behavior is influenced by environment; and it can be encouraged or discouraged by experiences in home and school. Aggression should not be confused with assertion--behavior through which a child maintains and defends his or her own rights and concerns. Assertive behavior reflects the child's developing competence and autonomous functioning and represents an important form of developmental progress. Assertiveness also affords the young child a healthy form of self-defense against becoming the victim of others.

Much evidence exists suggesting that children who exhibit instrumental and hostile forms of aggression as preschoolers have been exposed to:

  • Adults in their families who encourage, model or condone aggression by using discipline techniques that are punitive, rigid and authoritarian;
  • Caregivers who ignore or permit aggressive actions by the child and other children;
  • Violent toys or aggressive images from television, movies and books in the child's surroundings; 
  • Parents who model aggression in their own interpersonal interactions.

"Cooperation" is defined here as any activity that involves the willing interdependence of two or more children. It should be distinguished from compliance, which may represent obedience to rules or authority, rather than intentional cooperation. When children willingly collaborate in using materials, for example, their interactions are usually quite different than when they are told to "share." Cooperation, like aggression, has its roots in very early, even preverbal, social interactions.

Studies on the origins of pro-social behaviors, which include cooperation, suggest that family variables related to the development of pro-social behaviors include parental discipline techniques that are authoritative rather than authoritarian and that offer the childfree expression of affection and nurturance. These techniques involve the use of high expectations, competent communication, and inductive reasoning, in which parents engage children in explanations of the reasons for family rules and limits.

Children who demonstrate a number of cooperative strategies and can attend to the needs of others while also asserting and defending their own rights are more likely to be socially successful and to establish reciprocal, mutually satisfying friendships than are other children.

Techniques For Reducing Aggression And Fostering Cooperation

Because aggressive behavior emerges as a developmentally normal behavior during the second and third years of life, it is important not to assume that such behaviors represent a personality trait. When adults assume that children are being intentionally aggressive, the expectation for undesirable qualities can become established and can lead to a "recursive cycle" (Katz and McClellan, 1991) in which children come to fulfill the expectations set for them.

Aggressive toddlers or preschoolers can benefit from support and encouragement for replacing aggressive behaviors with more socially productive alternatives.

Important techniques you can use to reduce aggressive behavior include:

  • Helping young children label and verbalize their feelings and those of others.
  • Developing problem-solving approaches to conflicts.
  • Seeking and obtaining assistance when in difficulty.
  • Realizing the consequences of their aggressive actions for their victims.
  • Age-appropriate anger management techniques.
  • Discussion of the causes and consequences of interpersonal conflicts.

In sum, adult guidance that is consistent, supportive, nonpunitive, and includes the child in understanding the reactions of all participants and the reasons for limits, will help even very young children cope with and reduce aggressive behaviors.

How can parents and teachers recognize and foster more normal cooperative behaviors? They can:

  • Acknowledge children's efforts to initiate social interactions in appropriate ways.
  • Affirm helping behaviors.
  • Use positive discipline techniques and communicate their power.
  • Communicate positive regard and high expectations for all young children.
  • Support each child's struggle to resolve interpersonal conflicts. 

Of critical importance are classroom strategies that promote cooperative rather than competitive endeavors, foster dramatic play techniques and reflective strategies for thinking about and discussing social interactions, and enable children to get to know and trust each other and work towards truly interdependent activity.


Our emerging knowledge about the complex factors that enter into the development of social competence in the young child can be put to valuable use. Young children can benefit from the understanding support and guidance of the adults who help them develop constructive strategies for dealing with the challenges of early peer relationships.


Buzzelli, C., and File, N. "Building Trust in Friends." Young Children 44 (March, 1989): 70-75. EJ 386 010.

Crockenberg, S., and Litman, C. "Autonomy as Competence in 2-Year-Olds: Maternal Correlates of Child Defiance, Compliance, and Self-Assertion." Developmental Psychology 26 (November, 1990): 961-71. EJ 426 149.

Curry, N., and Johnson, C. Beyond Self-Esteem: Developing a Genuine Sense of Human Value. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1990. ED 326 316.

Denham, S., and others. "Emotional and Behavioral Predictors of Preschool Peer Ratings." Child Development 61 (August, 1990): 1145-52. ED 417 121.

Katz, L., and McClellan, D. The Teacher's Role in the Social Development of Young Children. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, 1991. ED 331 642. References identified with an ED (ERIC document) number are cited in the ERIC database. Documents are available in ERIC microfiche collections at more than 825 locations worldwide. Documents can also be ordered through EDRS: (800) 443-ERIC. References with an EJ (ERIC journal) number are available through the originating journal, interlibrary loan services, or article reproduction clearinghouses: UMI (800) 732-0616; or ISI (800) 523-1850.


Content provided with permission from ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary & Early Childhood Education, Champaign, IL.


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This content was last modified on: 09/08/2008

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