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Response: The Best Ways to Resolve Conflicts Between Students

(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

When two or more students are having a conflict, what are the most effective ways teachers can respond to the situation?


It's not unusual for students to have conflicts with their classmates.  What are the best ways teachers can create the conditional to stop them before they occur and respond once they have begun?

This series will explore possible actions educators can take.

Today, Vickie Gomez, Danny Woo, Kevin Parr, Jessica Torres, Rosalind Wiseman, and Dr. Bryan Harris contribute their ideas.  You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Danny, Kevin, and Jessica on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.  

 

Our school is very lucky because we have a very relational culture focused on restorative practices, and campus monitors who are experienced in conflict resolution.

For years, any time any of my students have had conflicts, I've texted Vickie Gomez, a campus monitor who is assigned to our "Small Learning Community." Except for the very few times those conflicts had escalated into physical fights before I had called her in, she has mediated every dispute and it's been resolved by the next class. I know that many other teachers in our school have had had similar experiences.

Last week, I asked Vickie to describe what she does:

I first talk with each student individually to find out what happened in class and to also find out what else has happened in that student's day. Often the problem has nothing to do with the other student—something else took place earlier and it just boiled over. I try to get each student to put themselves into the other student's position and how they might see things. I ask each student what ideas they have for resolving the problem.

I take in this information, especially their ideas on how to resolve the problem, and take the two of them on a "walk and talk" together. I explain that I have to kick things up to administration—and to their parents—if they can't resolve things. The vast majority of time, students work it out.


Students—and school staff—have an enormous amount of respect and affection for Vickie!

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Response From Danny Woo

Danny Woo is a middle school science teacher at San Jose Charter Academy in West Covina, Calif. He centers his class on the implications science has on social, economic, and environmental justice:

The way adults handle student conflicts can go a long way in setting the tone of your classroom learning environment. If educators wish to establish a culture that values a sense of community, conflicts between students will be approached with reconciliation as the goal. This is the hallmark of the restorative justice model and nonviolent communication (NVC) where community building is achieved by focusing on strengthening and repairing relationships. This approach is most effective when it is a shared value among school leadership and is embedded in school wide practice. That said, if your school leans toward a traditional approach to discipline, you can still exercise restorative practices within your own classroom.

Before responding to student conflicts, we need to keep in mind Maslow's Hierarchy of needs. Every student is looking for a sense of security, belonging, acknowledgment, and independence. And in the case of pre-teens and adolescents, these needs are heightened. In most cases, conflict arises when one of these needs are threatened.

My first steps in helping students resolve their conflict is to speak to both parties separately. This is a fact finding session to get a clearer picture of what each student involved is thinking. I ask the students for their point of view, establishing that I am reserving judgment. I make a point of being transparent and let each party know that I will be having this same conversation with the other student(s) but will not render an opinion. I make it clear that my goal is to eventually help them reconnect.

When I've had a chance to speak with all involved, we set up a time to meet together with me as the mediator. Prior to the meeting, I ask the students to think about what feelings are alive inside of them. Sometimes you will have to provide them with the language to describe their feelings. Next I ask them to think about what they need from the other party. This is the framework we use in our group session:

  1. What is your perspective of the situation? Describe and share your point of view.

  2. What are your feelings? What is alive inside of you? Name them.

  3. What do you need from the person(s) who you have conflict with?

In the group session I have each party share their perspective on the situation. No one is allowed to interrupt or interject while the other person is sharing. Each party will have a turn to share their perspective and what feelings they harbor. I encourage them to be as explicit as possible in identifying and describing how they feel.

The last phase of this process is for each party to express their requests in the spirit of healing and reconciliation. In my 17 years of teaching, I have yet to meet children who are not amenable to finding solutions to an issue, especially if there is a history of friendship between the two parties. In the majority of cases I have dealt with, I found that conflicts arise due to a deficit in language to identify and express their feelings and needs. Children need to be given a framework that honors their thoughts and authentic self, as well as provides the opportunity to hear one another.

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Response From Kevin Parr

Kevin Parr is a 4th grade teacher from Wenatchee, Wash., and an ASCD Emerging Leader:

Student Conflicts: Teachable Moments

Conflicts between students are a natural part of life inside a classroom or school and should be treated as such. In fact, helping students respond to and resolve conflicts with peers is an important part of their learning. Here are a few ways teachers can treat student-student conflicts as teachable moments:

Listen: At times, teachers try to quickly extinguish conflicts by resolving the problem for students rather than help students resolve conflicts themselves. In doing so, teachers deny students the opportunity to develop the skills and mindsets they will need to resolve interpersonal conflicts throughout their personal and professional lives. It may seem overly simplistic but a teacher's primary role in helping kids resolve conflicts is to listen. Listening not only empowers students to take ownership of the conflict, it also models the important skill for them.

Avoid jumping to conclusions: When listening to student's perspectives on a conflict it is easy for teachers to place blame on a particular student has been involved in similar conflicts before. Whereas reputations can exist for a reason a few things are wrong with this approach. First, if the goal is for students to learn to resolve their own conflicts, placing blame robs students of their ownership of the conflict. Second, it demonstrates to kids that their past mistakes will follow them forever even if their decisions and actions change. If our focus is on learning, every child deserves another chance.

Everyone has a role: Usually, there is more than one person at fault in student conflicts. Multiple kids generally have a role in creating the situation and/or making it worse. Rather than seeking to find a singular "guilty party" teachers should help all students see their role in the conflict and discover ways to act or react differently in the future.

You are not alone: It is important that teachers let students know that conflicts are normal and all people, including adults, have conflicts with others. Kids should also know that their current conflict will not be their last conflict so the skills they are learning and practicing will help them throughout their life. Furthermore, teachers can use personal stories to reinforce the notion that the skills students are building are life-long skills.

Understanding that student conflicts are natural can help teachers use them as teachable moments. Teachers should expect and embrace these conflicts as part of a child's learning.

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Response From Jessica Torres

Jessica Torres is a first year elementary assistant principal at Brook Avenue Elementary school in Waco, Texas. She formerly served as an instructional coach and a public Montessori elementary teacher. Torres is a current doctoral student in Tarleton State's Educational Leadership Program. She obtained her Masters in Educational Administration through Concordia University, and her Bachelor degree from Stephen F. Austin. Known widely as @owl_b_torresedu by her Twitter PLN, Mrs. Torres is a staunch supporter of public education, personalized professional development and connecting with others who are passionate about education and students:

Conflict—Is it a Bad Word?

Responding to disputes between students is a skill often overlooked during many teacher preparation programs. Many new teachers walk into the classroom with the belief that a well-managed classroom will alleviate any scuffles or disagreements among students—this could not be further from the truth. Even the best teacher will have students who experience conflict with one another. Conflict is not always negative. Conflict can bring about change, different perspectives and allow various types of growth. The methods we use to prepare our students to deal with conflict effectively ultimately can determine whether or not students are prepared to step into the world as productive, peaceful citizens. Experiencing conflict in the classroom should not be viewed as a disruption to be removed or halted, but instead as an opportunity to teach students missing skills.

Responding to the Conflict

When responding to conflict, it is important to ensure safety first. If students have a physical conflict, ensure that they are separated and provided their areas in which to calm down. In a nonbiased tone, ask each student to describe what happened during the incident either verbally or in writing, whichever the student is most comfortable using to communicate. There are many  behavior "think sheets" available online for students to complete during times of conflict. Once each student has shared their version of the incident discuss with them the effects their behavior had on the students around them, the teacher, and their learning.

Students often fail to realize that the conflict is not a contained event. Their actions impact more than just those involved directly. During this time coaching should come into play. Reminding students of the strategies that they can use when they feel themselves become angry, for example, breathing techniques, visiting a calm-down corner, or even reading a book with a character going through a similar situation. Supporting students as they feel emotions is critical to showing them appropriate ways to manage their feelings. Students must understand that everyone is allowed to feel angry or upset, the difference is in whether we react physically or inappropriately with words as opposed to rationally and calmly.

Restorative practices encourage the students to discuss with each other how they felt before, during and after the conflict. After acknowledging each other's feelings, ask both students what can be done to fix the situation. Students often surprise me during this stage with their compassion and willingness to forgive each other. If students can come to a reasonable solution allow them to shake hands and continue with their day without receiving a punitive consequence. Through this process, students will begin moving away from expecting results, but instead working towards peace and restoring relationships.   

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Response From Rosalind Wiseman

Rosalind Wiseman is a teacher and bestselling author of Queen Bees & Wannabees, the book that inspired the hit movie Mean Girls, Masterminds & Wingmen, as well as Owning Up: Empowering Adolescents to Confront Social Cruelty, Bullying, and Injustice, a new curriculum for middle and high school students. She is the founder of Cultures of Dignity and lives in Colorado with her husband and two children. Follow her on Twitter at @cultureodignity:

This situation is harder than it looks. Were these students friends in the past and now they aren't? Have they never gotten along? Is one child targeted for a specific reason like their ethnicity, race, disability, gender, socioeconomic class, or some other perceived inherent trait? If this dynamic exists then this situation should be defined as bullying instead of a conflict. 

So first, take a step back and just watch your students to see if you notice a pattern in the students' interaction. Are there consistent times of the day when the conflict seems to flare? Are other kids exacerbating the tension?

Once you've done the research, it's time to reach out to each student—and that also requires consideration. In most cases, it's more effective to meet with the students individually instead of meeting with the group where the dynamics within the relationship it can sabotage any hope for a positive outcome. So say something like, "Can we set up a time to talk? You're not in trouble. I just want to check in with you about something that may be important." Then meet with each student during a time of day and in a location that feels private and comfortable to the student.

Start the meeting by communicating the following: "Thanks for meeting with me, I want to talk about something that is important that has come to my attention." Then explain the situation as it has been shared with you and/or what you observed. Ask the student how accurate they think your information is and listen to their anwer. If the child is willing to tell you what's going on, give them the space to unload. If they are reluctant or deny it, respond with "I can probably understand why you may not want to tell me but I don't want to make assumptions. So can you tell me why you don't want to tell me? I think that's probably really important for me to know. "

For all students it's critical to communicate the following (in your own words): "It's common for people to get into conflicts but it's not ok if that conflict is making you or anyone else feel unsafe or that don't want to come to class (or the school). As your teacher, it's my responsibility to do whatever I need to do whatever support you and every student in my class. So I'm going to ask you a few questions and together we will figure out next steps."

Then ask the student to answer the following questions

-       Why do they think the conflict is happening?

-       Why is the conflict making them feel bad/angry/anxious?

-       If this conflict involves a group of people, ask the student how they think the group is influencing the conflict.

-       What do they want to change? Even if that change seems small or obvious, what would it be?

-       What do they want out of the relationship with the person they are now in a conflict with? Do they want to be completely separated from this person? If they were friends before, do they still want a friendship?

-       What is one action, no matter how small, that they can take to make the situation better—where they feel good about how they've handled it.

While the child is talking the you can write down what they're saying. After their done, read it back to them and ask them if you got it right or if they need to make any changes. The purpose is to help the student put their feelings to words and identify what they need. Remember in these situations, some students are trying to figure out how much you know so they can shut you down, others are relieved that an adult has brought it up. If the child is not feeling safe, then the teacher and student need to decide who in the school they can go to to tell and take additional steps.  All to say when you're having this talk, it's really important to pay attention to the student body language, their tone, and the nature of their responses.

At the end of the conversation it's time to reinforce your expectations; which should include some combination of "Every student in my class has the right to feel worthy and included. As your teacher, that looks like X to me. This situation is difficult and I really appreciate that you trusted me to tell me even a little of what's going on. You can always come back and tell me more things you're thinking or feeling. But for right now, you've done a lot. You've said what you don't like and what you want. You've identified one thing you can do that will make you proud. So let's check in tomorrow and see how you're feeling."

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Response From Dr. Bryan Harris

Dr. Bryan Harris serves as the Director of Professional Development for the Casa Grande Elementary School District in Arizona. He is the author of five books on topics ranging from classroom management to student engagement. For more information his trainings and workshops, he can be reached at www.bryan-harris.com:

I am convinced of this one very important truth: the world would be a much better place if we all accepted the fact that conflict is a natural and unavoidable part of life. The world would also be a better place if people took more naps and someone invented zero-calorie cheesecake (but that's a topic for another time). 

When helping students work through conflict, we first need to understand the nature of it; as educators, we must have a solid grasp of what conflict is, how it is likely to manifest itself in the classroom, and effective ways to build conflict resolutions skills in our students. In order to do that, we need to briefly dig into some definitions and truths about conflict.

If you have no conflict in your life, one of two things is true: you're dead or you're not paying attention to the people around you. Since you are reading this, let's start with the latter. Whenever you interact with the people around you—whether they be family members, co-workers, friends, or a stranger at the store there is the possibility (or the likelihood) that conflict will arise. If you look up dictionary definitions you'll find phrases like struggle for power, strong disagreement, and an opposition of forces. None of those are pleasant so it's no wonder people strive to avoid conflict. However, conflict is simply a by-product of being around other people. That is one of the first things I want students to understand—conflict simply is. It exists because I interact with other people. Its existence does not make me a bad person nor does it necessarily mean that I am doing something wrong (although my responses can often make the situation much, much worse). Too often we assign blame, place guilt upon ourselves, or ignore conflict when it arises. None of those are healthy responses.  

So, what exactly is conflict and where does it come from? When working with students, we want to provide straightforward, honest, and simple answers even though the concepts are deep and complicated. In terms of external conflict with other people, I want students to understand that conflict typically comes from one of three situations: blocked goals or expectations, opposing beliefs or points of view, or miscommunication. In the simplest terms, someone has something I want = conflict. Someone is in my way = conflict. Someone thinks or says something I don't like = conflict. Someone communicates in a way I don't understand or appreciate = bingo, conflict! 

Before we attempt to help mediate conflict among students, we first need to understand what we are dealing with. That, and we need to have a good handle on our own understanding of conflict. In summary, here are some big truths about conflict:

  • It is—As I mentioned before, conflict is just a natural part of the human existence. Its presence in my life merely means that I am interacting with other flawed, imperfect people. 

  • It is unavoidable, expect it—I should not be surprised, flabbergasted, or stunned when I find myself in conflict with someone. Nor should I be overly frustrated. As educators, we should not be surprised or upset when our students are in conflict with each other. The fact is that many of our students are not learning effective conflict resolution skills at home and there aren't a ton of excellent examples of conflict resolution models in the media, sports, entertainment, or politics. 

  • It can be a good thing—The right kind of conflict can serve as a catalyst for personal growth. Don't get me wrong, I don't love conflict but when it is handled correctly, I learn a lot about myself and the people around me.

  • Our goal is to empower others—As educators, we should always be seeking ways to build skills in our students. We certainly adopt that belief when it comes to core academic skills and "soft" skills such as perseverance, attention to detail, and patience. We need to adopt this belief about building conflict resolution skills as well. Quite simply, the ability to understand and learn from conflict is a life skill. If students don't learn it and create effective habits, life is going to be tough... regardless of their scores on achievement tests. 

To answer the question directly, "How do we respond when students are having conflict with each other?" consider the following principles:

  1. Don't take it personally—Someone once shared the following acronym with me: QTIP (Quite Taking It Personally). Other peoples' behavior typically says more about them then it does about me.  When students act in inappropriate ways, it is not usually about the teacher (unless, of course, it is about the teacher because there is a level of disrespect, disorganization, or outright cruel behavior. The good news is that most teachers are positive role models who love their students.) As educators, we need to remember that students need patient, loving guidance from an adult who doesn't take offense at every transgression.

  2. Don't catastrophize, exaggerate, or trivialize—When helping others work through their struggles, we need to remain tactful and neutral. Although we may think that their conflict is silly, we can make it worse if we go to extremes to show our disdain.

  3. Avoid pronouns—When we use terms like I, they, us, we, and them we automatically pit people and groups against each other. It is best to stick to the facts when describing a situation that needs to be addressed. Although students may use lots of pronouns as they describe their conflict, we can help lower the stress levels if we remain neutral in our language.

  4. Avoid sarcasm—Sarcasm will always make the situation worse.

  5. Respond rather than react—Remember that conflict is a natural result of people spending time together. Classrooms are unique places... lots of people crammed together in a confined space for long periods of time. That's practically a recipe for conflict. So, it's not a matter of if there will be problems, it's a matter of when and how often. As teachers and leaders, our job is to respond with a thoughtful plan.

  6. Embody respect—In some cases (perhaps in many cases) we are the best role models our students have. As a result, we must always embody respect, show empathy, and express appreciation for all our students. Quite simply, our students will not develop appropriate conflict resolution skills unless we model it for them. Think about the message we are sending to kids if get easily offended, outright mad, start yelling, or demean those around us. When helping others, we need to be aware of our own emotions, body language, and frustrations.

  7. Teach—Use role-plays, scenarios, current events, and other real-life situations to teach students the appropriate ways to handle conflict. Our students need and deserve to learn these skills. However, we cannot wait until "the heat of the moment" to try to talk kids through the process. Again, it's not a matter of if there will be conflict in your classroom, it's a matter of when. So get ahead of the curve and incorporate teaching opportunities throughout the school year.

The principles described above are reminders for us, the adults, as we direct and guide students. However, each of the principles can and should be taught to students. Of course, the age and maturity level of your students will dictate how you teach the principles but they should be made a priority.

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Thanks to Vickie, Danny, Kevin, Jessica, Rosalind, and Bryan for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

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Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder—you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first six years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don't include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q&A Posts

Classroom Management Advice

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Implementing The Common Core

Best Ways To Begin The School Year

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I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Two in a few days.

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