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Cooperation: Natural or Nurtured?

The bustling ant colony is a vivid picture of cooperation. As parents, we often expect that our children are probably born the same way – cooperative from birth, perhaps because they love us.  Research, however, suggests that cooperation may be more of a nurtured skill than a natural skill.  Cooperation is defined as a willingness to collaborate rather than a response to adult’s prompting to share with another child (Jewell, 1992).  Cooperative behavior leads to established friendships in early years, an important contributor to children’s social and communication development (Faulkner & Miell, 1993).

Children learn how to manage conflict and establish intimacy through two primary strategies early in life: aggression and cooperation (Jewell, 1992).  Cooperative problem-solving with peers is an important part of social development, and in school settings, also promotes cognitive development (Ramani & Brownell, 2014).  Aggression and cooperation both have strong roots in family interactions, parental expectations, and experienced values (Jewell, 1992).  Though some aggression at very young ages is normal, children can be taught cooperative problem-solving behaviors through parental modeling, encouragement and recognition of observed cooperative behaviors, and by acknowledging a child’s efforts toward cooperation even when it is not reciprocated by another child (Jewell, 1992).  Likewise, aggressive behaviors can be minimized through re-direction and collaborative problem-solving, as well as labeling and verbalizing feelings leading to the aggression (Jewell, 1992).

Parents can have a strong and positive impact on the development of cooperative behaviors in their children.  In addition to modeling, valuing, and encouraging cooperation at home, parents can allow their young children some unstructured social time with peers and encourage them to manage natural conflicts through cooperative problem-solving.  These experiences contribute tremendously to the social, communicative, and cognitive development of their children.

By Pamela L. Bruening, Ed.D.


Faulkner, Dorothy; Miell, Dorothy (1993).  Settling into School: The Importance of Early Friendships for the Development of Children’s Social Understanding and Communicative Competence.  International Journal of Early Years Education, v1 n1 p23-45 Spr 1993.  Retrieved on August 15, 2014 at http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ462983.

Jewell, Jan (1992).  Aggression and Cooperation: Helping Young Children Develop Constructive Strategies.  ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary & Early Childhood Education;  Champaign IL.   Retrieved on August 21 at ERIC DIGEST: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED351147.pdf.

Ramani, Geetha B.; Brownell, Celia A. (2014). Preschoolers’ cooperative problem solving: Integrating play and problem solving Journal of Early Childhood Research February 2014 12: 92108. Retrieved on 9/11/2014 at http://eric.ed.gov/?q=cooperation+in+young+children&id=EJ1019452 .

Written for Charity for Change


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