When my wife and I began teaching 4th grade at P.S. 192 in West Harlem, we realized that something was missing from our behavior management systems. We had the table points, the color chart, the letters home and the positive incentives. We had the class meetings, the goal-setting, the teambuilding, even a student-developed charter of class rights and responsibilities.
Despite these elaborate systems, the kids still had conflicts all day long. Some of their conflicts, of course, happened in class--Raul snickered at Daisy's drawing of a pig, or Gustavo kept hogging his group's place value blocks.
Most of their skirmishes happened out of our classrooms and out of our sight, during lunch and recess. The boys' conflicts tended to be refreshingly straightforward--Juan punched Bobby in the stomach, so Bobby kicked him in the head. The girls' conflicts could be downright diabolical, an intricate web of alliances and betrayals.
Marina would run up to me after recess, her face flushed, lip quivering with a potent amalgam of sorrow and rage. "Katrina told me Guadalupe's cousin said her sister heard Josie tell Ana not to be my friend!" (All this delivered in a single breath.)
My responses always felt inadequate. Sometimes I'd feed the kids bland platitudes I'd never dare offer to a friend or sibling in similar throes of anger and despair.
"Maybe you can find someone else to be friends with today." "Just ignore her." "Well, ah, try to think about something else."
I deserved the withering looks of scorn that followed these feeble words.
The Toll and the Solution
The conflicts took their toll on the kids in class. Whether Marina slumped across her desk and buried her face in her hands, or just went about her work with the torpor that often follows an emotional outburst, the hours after lunch and recess didn't reveal many flashes of curiosity and insight.
My wife and I finally decided to devote as much planning time to the kids' conflicts as we did to their math lessons or reading block. We developed a simple process called a Peace Talk that has made our students' lives better ever since.
The steps, written and illustrated on a poster beside two chairs in the back of the room, were simple.
1. First student says, "When you ____, I felt ____. Next time I want you to ___."
2. Second student says the same two sentences.
3. The kids work out a solution.
4. They shake hands and, if so moved, say they're sorry.
We spent some time teaching the process, doing "fishbowls" where the class watched two kids talk through either a made-up conflict or an actual conflict they had already resolved earlier in the week. We did a unit on emotions through Read Alouds, so kids could identify the difference between, say, "irritated" and "furious."
We used the graphic of an escalator to talk about how you might start out irritated, when your brother grabs a toy you were playing with, but as the conflict escalates--you grab it back, then he pushes you, then you punch him in the nose--you can ramp up to "furious" fast.
The graphic worked well for mapping out the events in our Read Alouds: simple books about conflicts between friends or siblings, like When Sophie Gets Angry--Really, Really Angry and more complicated stories like The Butter Battle Book about conflicts between nations.
Still, I was amazed at how little the process required from us. All we had to do was interrupt Marina mid-monologue by asking, "Do you want to have a Peace Talk with Josie?" Then the two students would go work it out.
We didn't listen in. We didn't hover. We didn't coach.
The kids didn't even report back to us. They just went to the back of the room, out of earshot of the other students, worked out their problem, and returned to their seats.
As a result, the hours we devoted to conflict resolution in the first few months of school had a tremendous payoff throughout the year. The kids had more time to learn. We had more time to teach.
Teaching kids to resolve their own conflicts, one-on-one, keeps the process simple and private. It also confers a certain dignity on the two students involved. The implicit message is that adults trust them to figure out their own problems. Their teacher believes they have the heart, mind, and social skills to overcome their anger and make peace with their classmates.
The kids are often downright giddy when they finish a Peace Talk, bouncing on their toes and eager to tell me about the solution they figured out. Other times they're drained but calm. Either way, they're ready to work, listen, and learn when they rejoin the group. They sit a little straighter, secure in their knowledge that the conflict is resolved and they resolved it themselves.
We teach kids to become self-sufficient readers, writers, scientists, and mathematicians. We can help them become self-sufficient peacemakers, too.
The students come away with a skill set for resolving conflicts they're certain to have with future classmates, co-workers, and members of their family. They also come away with a simple but profound realization: peace is possible.
In Our Nature
Conflict may be a fundamental part of human nature. Survey the history of civilization or take a look at the nearest playground, and you see how hard it is for human beings to get along.
But it's in our nature, too, to resolve our conflicts. It's human nature to learn and work and build together. To consider another person's point of view. To say we're sorry when we realize we're wrong, and to forgive. To rebuild peace, no matter how many times we break it.
What better lesson could we impart to kids who will shape the world once we're gone?