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Response: Ways to 'Navigate Conflicts & Restore Relationships' Between Students

(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

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?


In Part One, 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. 

Today, Signe Whitson, Donna Wilson, Marcus Conyers Janice Case, Kristin Pierce, and Ralf de la Mare share their suggestions. I also include comments from readers.

Response From Signe Whitson

Signe Whitson is the author 8 Keys to End Bullying8 Keys to End Bullying Activity Book for Kids & Tweens, and 8 Keys to End Bullying Activity Book Companion Guide for Parents & Educators:

To intervene or not to intervene; that is the very first question.  Oftentimes, teachers wonder if getting involved in a student-student conflict is helpful--or even appropriate.  Common misgivings I've heard include:

  • "Kids need to learn how to work things out on their own."
  • "It's not my job. Their parents need to get involved!"
  • "I'm here to teach Algebra, not to meddle in kids' problems."

While it goes without saying that most teachers today find their professional plates overflowing with academic responsibilities, it is also certain that disregarding kids' social and emotional needs leaves a gaping hole in their overall education and preparedness for life.  No child is born knowing how to effectively resolve conflicts and all young people can benefit from explicit instruction by caring adults on how to navigate peer problems.

Once teachers have accepted that social and emotional skill-building are truly on a par with academic lessons, the question becomes, what are the most important skills kids need in order to resolve conflicts effectively?

  1. The Knowledge that Conflict is OK

Too often, conflict is regarded as something to be avoided at all costs.  The truth is that conflict is a normal part of life.  Teaching kids how to disagree without arguing and to maintain their friendships even in the context of differing viewpoints is among life's most valuable lessons.

  1. Making Friends with Anger

18th century theologian Lyman Abbott wisely said, "Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry."  Like conflict, young people often learn the false equation that "Anger = Bad."  The reality is that "Anger = Perfectly OK When it is Expressed in Assertive Ways."  When teachers role model and help kids practice specific skills such as using I-Messages, finding win-win solutions, compromising, and negotiating, they make the experience of anger less overwhelming and more manageable

  1. The Ability to Empathize

Conflict, by its very nature, is polarizing.  The more a child digs in to their particular point of view, the less able they are to see from the perspective of others.  Teachers play a key role in encouraging kids to be flexible in their perceptions, thoughts, and conclusions about the world and to generalize this flexibility to being able to empathize with their peers' points of view during conflict situations.  What's more, when a teacher genuinely tunes in to a student's emotional reaction to a conflict, they demonstrate how powerful and comforting of a force empathy can be.

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Response From Donna Wilson & Marcus Conyers

Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers, founders of BrainSMART, are international education consultants and authors of over 20 books. To learn more, see Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains: Metacognitive Strategies, Activities, and Lesson Ideas (ASCD, 2016):

A vital skill students of all ages need to learn is how to understand and respect another person's point of view. We, and many of our teacher colleagues, have found that facilitating students' use of this strategy is helpful in dealing with conflict and even in preventing discussions from turning into conflicts.

If the daily news and depiction of modern culture in movies and TV programs are any indication, many people seem content to make quick judgments about others and exhibit little curiosity about different ways of seeing the world. Many adult role models for students, in both real life and fiction, seem to rely on the assumption that they are right and anyone who disagrees with them is wrong.

Students can be taught two valuable skills that will pay significant dividends throughout their lives in school, in the working world, and with friends and family--to identify, respect, and seek to understand points of view that differ from their own and to tailor their communications to their intended audience. To facilitate students' curiosity about how others see the world, teachers can use the following practical strategies:

  • Model listening actively to students, paraphrasing what they say to verify understanding.
  • Highlight examples of different points of view that are relevant in lessons and to students' lives.
  • Encourage all students to share their thoughts and viewpoints and to listen objectively to others' perspectives.  
  • Explicitly teach students the impact of point of view in literary, historical, and political writing. This lesson underscores the importance of understanding writers' perspectives in assessing their message, and these discussions can help make students more aware of their own points of view when they are writing or speaking.

With the guidance of a passionate, effective teacher, classroom conflict can be used to develop a necessary skill students can wield for academic, personal, and future professional success.

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Response From Janice Case

Janice Case is the author of From Power Struggles to Conflict Resolution: Transform Your School Culture Today (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). A former special education teacher and middle and high school principal, Ms. Case currently resides in CA where she coordinates the efforts of the National Institute for School Leadership:

A teacher's most effective response to conflict between students come far earlier than when the conflict occurs.  A teacher's deliberate focus on creating a culture in the classroom of mutual respect coupled with his/her consistent modeling of the notion of always ensuring that others' maintain their dignity despite agreements/disagreements are the keys to avoiding conflict all together.  The most effective teachers also take time at the start of the year and throughout as needed, teaching students how to mitigate conflicts. This teaching involves defining power struggles, offering examples, and coaching students through role playing on how to use key strategies in avoiding power struggles all together.  Why power struggles?  We focus on power struggles because almost all conflict that arises in classrooms has to do with some sort of power struggle. 

As an example, consider the two students who engage in a verbal disagreement seemingly about who gets what role on their newly assigned collaborative assignment.  When the teacher interjects with a simple, "Okay, you two, knock it off.  You can switch roles next time" and moves on, she is likely missing the underlying issue.  An alternative response that is indicative of a teacher who has created a mutually respectful classroom culture, would go something like this, "Okay, you two, I know you can't possibly be arguing over roles given the routine we have for rotating roles in collaborative assignments.  What's really going on?"  Notice that in this instance the teacher's interjection is in the form of a question--she is showing her desire to seek to understand versus taking the easy way out of simply telling them what to do (and likely resulting in a band aid on an argument that will rear its ugly head again later). 

Teachers are encouraged to teach students specific strategies to avoid power struggles.  Though there are many, a couple of these strategies include:

  1. Give the other person choice--yes, even student to student, the old "how about you do ____or ____?" works beautifully. No one likes feeling boxed in and choice goes a long way toward preventing the sense of loss of power that comes with being told what to do.

  2. Know when to walk away or bring in an adult for assistance. Sometimes you have to put your own pride aside and simply suggest that now isn't the time to discuss this issue because you can see the power struggle taking shape. In a class where students have been taught this, the language is simple: "I can see we're headed toward a power struggle and we both know no one wins those situations.  Maybe we should take five and talk about this later" (or alternatively, "maybe we should ask [adult teacher/administrator] to facilitate our conversation").  Now we're not forcing a you-win/I-win situation and the possibility that this will escalate into something bigger.

Much of the conflicts that arise in classrooms have nothing to do with academics--especially in this age of highly charged social structures for kids.  Deliberately providing students with tools to use to mitigate conflict and maintain the dignity of themselves and their peers will go a long way both in and out of the classroom toward providing an overall positive school culture.

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Response From Kristin Pierce

Kristin Pierce is in her (lucky number!) 13th year of teaching high school English and serves as the ELD department chair at her school.  She has lived and taught all over the United States and currently resides in Fallbrook, California with her Marine husband and two young children:

Conflict in the classroom is a double-edged sword: constructive conflict propels discussion and allows students to understand different points of view, yet destructive conflict can derail a lesson.  

Constructive Conflict

I believe the best way to cope with conflict in the classroom is to prevent it in the first place. First and foremost, place a high value on diversity of people, ideas, learning styles, and so forth. At my school, there have been some conflicts between Mexican and Guatemalan students. Last year I decided to purchase flags to decorate the walls of my classroom, so that when students walk into the room they see that I value all of our home countries. It is an invitation, but it also sets the expectation that all cultures are valued here.

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The second thing that teachers must do to prevent conflict in the classroom is teach collaboration.  Students must explicitly be taught the language of disagreement ("I see your point, but.." "Another way we could look at it is..." etc.).  How can students disagree with ideas and not people if they don't have the language to do so?

Destructive Conflict

So you've built a caring classroom community and conflict still erupts--sometimes it's a slow boil and sometimes it's an explosion. No matter what, isolation and confronting the conflict head on will help you respond effectively.  Sometimes isolation is necessary to remove one or more students from the immediate situation.  Perhaps just sending one of the students on a concocted errand around the school gives him the breather he needs.  Perhaps pulling one of the students into the hall and talking one-on-one will shed some light on the situation.

At some point, you must create an opportunity where the students involved in the conflict can communicate openly and safely.  Our school has been doing work with restorative circles in the past few years and they have been very powerful in creating a place for students to speak freely.  But if that is not in your repertoire, just get the students to sit down, face-to-face and talk about why the conflict started and how everyone involved (including you) feels about the conflict. Many times students cannot see beyond their own feelings, and once they understand how their actions and words impact someone else, it can change their outlook.

The bottom line is this: we are dealing with non-adults who often don't have the social-emotional awareness to cope with conflict in a healthy way.  We must teach them how to do this, just as we would coach them through a difficult lesson.

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Response From Ralf de la Mare

Ralf de la Mare is the Years 3 - 5 Coordinator at King's Christian College - Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. He is passionate about student centred educational reform, turning good teachers into great teachers and empowerment through voice and choice! Connect with him on Twitter at @mrdelamare:

Disagreement. Teasing. Intimidation. Bullying. Aggression. Violence.

Conflict comes in many forms, has countless causes and can have innumerable implications. While conflict of any level is often seen as negative, without experiencing it, and learning how to effectively respond, students will never become fully functioning members of their community. Therefore, modelling and teaching effective conflict resolution is integral to ongoing student success.

In many respects, how to best deal with conflict will depend on the 'level' of conflict - ranging from a difference of opinion right up to full blown violent fighting - as well as the context in which it occurs. Despite this, I have found that applying the S.T.O.P. principles detailed below, in conjunction with strong teacher/student relationships built on mutual trust and respect, allows me to do more than deal with conflict as it occurs, it acts to break the often ongoing cycle of conflict for particular students.

Separate students, and sometimes yourself, from the situation. When caught in aggressive or violent incidents, our bodies enter 'fight or flight' mode. This reduces our ability to think clearly and rationally, thus negatively impacting our ability to deal with the conflict effectively. This is also evident in more minor incidents, when students go into excuse making or blame shifting mode. So, separate the students involved to give them, and you, a chance to approach the situation in a more rational state.

Talk it out. I usually approach this individually at first, following up while the students are still separated. Take the time to listen to both (or all) sides of the conflict separately to ensure the parties involved feel heard and that their feelings matter. It also helps to get some clarity around the conflict from all parties involved, without re-escalating the situation, giving you the information you need to help to restore the relationship.

Objectivity is vital. While you may need to help clarify one student's feelings for the other, if you advocate for a particular student over another, your lack of objectivity may hamstring your efforts to restore their relationship. I try to use a number of strategies to remain objective including active listening, paraphrasing and applying a strengths based approach.

Purposeful follow up is the key to restoring relationships. Conflict resolution fails when you treat the surface behaviours, or 'symptoms', rather than dealing with the deeper cause. So, whether you require a meeting with parents/guardians, logical consequences, a behaviour contract or the like; ensure the purpose of your follow up is restoration, focused on the root cause of the conflict.

Overall, the complexity of relationships poses a great challenge to educators in and of itself. Due to this complexity, there will always be conflict of some level. In the long run, your ability to navigate conflict and restore relationships, and to build these skills in your students, will have lasting positive influence long after they have left your care.

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Responses From Readers

Thanks to Signe, Donna, Marcus, Janice, Kristin, and Ralf, and to readers, 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.

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