Saturday, September 12, 2009

Conflict Resolution in Schools

If you understood everything I said, 
you’d be me.    
                                                  – Miles Davis
The practical methods that I will employ as a teacher include conflict resolution techniques, Councils and class meetings, I-Statements practice, developing a feelings’ board and finally, creating a peace corner. In addition, I will integrate the practice of stretching (to calm the body) and meditation (to calm and focus the mind). The goal of all of these methods will be empower the children to become independent problem-solvers and to help develop their self-awareness and communication skills.

As a teacher, I make an assumption that all people want to be happy and that all of us have an intrinsic ability to find happiness, assuming the right influences and environment. If all have a divine-like perfection that exists within us why then do so many of us fail to find happiness? One component to finding happiness may be that there are some specific techniques or skills that need be developed in order to reveal the qualities that help us find happiness. Since we are social beings it makes sense that getting along with others is one characteristic that happy people seem to master over time. This quality of playing nicely with others is a skill that takes time, good teachers and practice to develop. Helping students develop and perfect this skill is one motivation I have as a teacher and I plan to implement the use of I-messages, talk-it-out strategies, a Peace corner, and short writes about issues of social justice, equality and self-awareness to meet this intention.

Attitude plays another critical role for people when developing happiness and learning to work as a team member. One tool I will use to help others develop a great attitude is to help them understand that how they “listen” will have a great impact on what others have to offer them. Elbert Hubbard once said: “We awaken in others the same attitude of mind we hold toward them”. What he meant by that is that people respond to what others expect of them. There is data that shows clearly that the perception a teacher has for his students produced results that mirror that expectation. For example, if a teacher is told that a group of students has learning challenges the teacher will treat them like they do and the results are will be lower than average measurements. The opposite result will manifest if a different teacher is told that the same group of students has exceptional skills. Somehow, in obvious and subtle ways, we humans affect each other based on the judgments we have for each other.

As teachers, I believe we have a responsibility to help students clarify what judgments they have and how those judgments affect their personal interactions and helps to shape the world around them. Consequently, helping students develop a powerful way to interact with others will be another intention within my teaching. One measurable way to help students with this is to have them become aware of what they are thinking or feeling. As students develop clarity about their feelings, teachers are able to engage them in conversations via Council meetings that help examine the cause and affect of certain behaviors. For example, in a conversation about the affects of bullying, we can come to understand that the people who are the victims are not enjoying it, the people who are the bystanders are not enjoying it and even the people who are doing it fail to develop a long term beneficial reaction from it, especially when they can see the harmful results of their action.

A third tool that is available to teachers is helping students articulate their intentions. Involving students in developing class rules or agreements help to empower the students. This exercise can teach them that they are capable of defining a safe and equitable environment. It also holds them to a different level of accountability when upholding these agreements, since they are the people who have created them. Another example of empowering students and helping them understand their intentions is to facilitate common ground during a Talk-it-Out session. This method of resolving conflict has the participants first agree on some shared intentions or common ground the two party’s share. For example, if two kids on a playground want the same ball, when both parties can acknowledge their predefined goal of sharing, they then have the option to resolve the conflict. In this case, one resolution they my brainstorm and both agree to might be “When I am done you can use it” or “Let me play with it for ten minutes and then you can play with it after that.”

As we help our students listen for others in ways that help illuminate the shared values of their classmate and encourage them to identify their own needs, we are able to provide for them a framework to create the optimal classroom (and the happiest of students). However, powerful listening and self-awareness alone is not enough to produce all qualities we should expect from our students and our classrooms. We must offer our students a platform through wish to communicate via class meetings, regular input when developing class rules and the use of Councils. We must also give them skills so that they may develop into independent solvers of conflicts.

One exercise that can help understand feelings is to have students brainstorm what feelings are. Starting with a feeling like “happy” students can expand the definition to further understand the complex components within the feeling of happy. While the teacher writes on a board, students can call out words that describe what it means to be happy. Words like “content”, “joyful”, “silly” are all words that can help students understand that happy can mean a variety of different feelings. These words can help to identify, understand and provide reference during the practice of using I-statements in the future.

Another great technique that I will offer my students is the use and practice of I-statements. Informal and impromptu practice of the use of I-statements using random situations (perhaps created by the kids or pulled out of a 'conflict hat') will help to solidify the process of use using I-statements during calmer times. As conflicts arise and the intensity of the situation increases, students are then able to utilize the tool of social justice by using their I-statements to resolve a conflict.

I will also incorporate the Talk-it-Out method to resolve conflict. Good instruction of this method plays an important role in the results students will have with them, as will practice and the environment in which to practice. As important as these elements are in producing good results, I think it critical to emphasize that the awareness (and motivation) the students bring to these exercises plays a significant role in determining the results of the experience. Other environmental factors can also influence the quality of interaction between students. If the child cannot sit because he hasn’t had proper opportunity for exercise or if she hasn’t had proper nutrition during the day, neither student will be able to properly asses their own feelings or work with others to resolve conflict. Similarly, if students have little understanding of their own needs or emotional state, than how can we expect them to control them? Offering children time to reflect when needed by extending to them access to a peace corner, the use of written reflections in a shared or private journal, giving them simple secular mediation skills and time to simply be will result in a child who is much more self-aware and available to work well with others.

How can we know if these methods are being effective? Ask the older teachers! You can also ask the kids: “What have been the affects of these practices? Do they think they are better able to achieve academic success after developing these skills and practicing these methods? We can develop formal testing techniques and spend millions of dollars but a simpler way is simply asking the parents, the kids, and the teachers: “Is this helpful?” Our world is so filled with access to information and technology that can measure mind-boggling amounts of data that sometimes I believe we forget that we have an amazing computer and the access to transformative wisdom right between our own two ears. As educators we use every appropriate means to understand what is effective in our classrooms. Proper training, constant personal and professional growth and a desire to benefit the kids should be a requirement for all teachers. Additionally, teachers should never loose sight of the wisdom and understanding that already exist within each of their students.

I think that the biggest challenge all teachers face is how to incorporate all the beneficial ideas, knowledge, wisdom, methods and techniques that we think all children should have into the time we have with our students. The demands are vast and the time is limited for teachers, therefore, we must make concessions and practice flexibility. In addition to the physical constraints, there are the emotional demands of constantly being the focus of attention and the burden that can come with being responsible for the emotional, intellectual and physical well being of your students. As a result of these demands, teacher must employ a strategy to remaining calm, centered and available to their students. One proven method that is available for education to meet these demands is the tool of meditation. Given the amazing expectations placed on teachers, combined by the job requirements, teachers must employ some method of self-reflection, relaxation, and a mechanism to enhance and develop one’s focus and mental acuity.

If educators are interested in providing a solution to the many demands placed on them through meditations, as well as provide the practice to their students it will behoove them to take into account our society’s general understanding of what meditation is, and its negative associations with religion. As we engage others or as we develop programs that encourage change in our schools, I would encourage those wishing to affect change to concentrate on scientific data and concrete evidence that illustrate the positive affects of meditation, especially as it relates to academic achievement in schools. Using different language such as “deep and daily reflection” or “relaxation and stress-reducing techniques” can help others understand their relationship with meditation in a different way, which will help to facilitate change in our schools, and our students.

The personal growth I have made in the last two months incorporate many of the techniques I have discussed here. Knowing that there are teachers and administrators out there practicing these techniques and methods gives me both the courage to practice them, as well as the confidence knowing that these methods are effective. I realize that the acceptance (and perhaps the understanding behind them) is not the norm in every school. However, reading about people who have incorporated them in the curriculum and to learn of their success gives me the inspiration to do what they have done - offer people the opportunity to learn skills that will help them develop their happiness and ability to work with others


  1. Brilliant, Sean. I so enjoyed reading this...I appreciate your eloquence, wisdom, and sincere wish to innovate, explore, and support a more enlightened educational process. Thank you.

  2. Well said Sean. How lucky your students are going to be to have you as their teacher. I know you practice what you preach.
    Your Dad

  3. Sean,
    This is wonderful. I think your students will be blessed to have you and you have them. One book you might want to read (the cornerstone of a lot of my work) is Clear Leadership by Gervase Bushe. He goes over so many of the principles you discuss, and how to separate one's observations from thoughts (judgments, theories), from feelings, from intentions(wants). He discusses how to have a learning conversation (a way to learn about ourselves in an unhealthy pattern) and to deeply lean into the thoughts, feelings, intentions of others to learn, not to change.
    Kati Friedman