School disruptions and violence can be minimized by teaching young people how to manage differences. The authors outline five strategies that can aid youth in resolving conflict: training in active listening, behavior examination, tolerance, problem-solving, and creative negotiating.
Two senior volleyball players arrived in the office because they had been fighting. When the girls were questioned regarding their dispute, Gracie stated that she felt as if Tia had not tried her best at the previous day’s volleyball competition. Gracie felt that if Tia had been more observant, the opposing team wouldn’t have scored as many points. Tia responded by saying that it was not Gracie’s place to tell her how to play volleyball. Tia said that if Gracie had attended the daily aftemoon practices, she would have known the proper playing strategies. Both girls were frustrated because they had lost the game to a team they should have beaten easily.
Similarly, in the office of an elementary assistant principal, two fourth-grade boys were defending their positions regarding a lunchroom confrontation. George told the assistant principal, “Andre called me stupid when I accidentally hit him in the arm with my tray as I sat down at the table." Andre’s response was that George had deliberately hit him in the arm, causing Andre’s milk to spill over the food on his tray. Because the spilled milk spoiled Andre’s meal, he reacted by calling George stupid. George responded with, “Who are you calling stupid?" When Andre replied, “You, dummy;” a fight ensued. In both cases, the conflict between the two parties resulted in a violent confrontation.
Conflicts occur between students on any given school day. Many of these conflicts arise because the individuals involved subscribe to different value systems regarding such subjects as religion, personal beliefs, social diversity, principles, or actions. Each individual regards his or her values as more acceptable than those held by the other. Students see these values as bad or good, right or wrong, correct or incorrect. Opposing views, needs, drives, or demands are a natural part of daily life. The conflict itself is neither positive nor negative; it is the individual’s response to the situation that determines the nature of the conflict.
Responses to Conflict
When a conflict arises between two individuals, their response to the situation could be gentle, tough, or solution-seeking. In the first two responses, the combatants align themselves with a given position regarding the situation and attempt either to avoid confrontation or prove that they are correct in their views.
Gentle response. The gentle response occurs between two students who are friends and wish to remain amicable for the sake of future associations. They will try to avoid, ignore, or deny the confrontation and prefer to yield their position or withdraw from the conflict. When both parties cede their positions for the sake of harmony, neither side is satisfied and lose-lose status results. If one of the students accepts the other’s position on a given difference, he has placed himself in a lose-win situation. His needs have not been satisfied, and he may see himself as a martyr.
Tough response. The stronger stance is that of the tough reaction. Here the student will verbally threaten or raise her voice to illustrate her point or position against a challenger. If these two actions do not elicit the desired response, the student will physically push or hit her antagonist to gain an advantage in the argument. This stance is observed more in the school environment because students are not emotionally mature and have a tendency to overreact. The stronger willed student will quickly defeat the weaker opponent and, as in the gentle reaction, a win-lose situation occurs. Both parties will often harm themselves in an effort to vindicate their positions against their perceived enemy.
Solution-seeking response. The preferred response is a solution-seeking response, in which both parties attempt to seek an amicable solution to their disagreement or differences through negotiation and consensus decision. These mature individuals arrive at a solution that satisfies the need of each person and preserves their future relationship. This response is one that must be taught.
Gracie, Tia, George, and Andre selected the tough response. The girls did not seek an amicable solution to their team’s loss, but were intent upon placing the blame on each other. Similarly, the two fourth graders did not consider that both might have been responsible for the accident. Andre might have had his chair extended into the lunchroom aisle, causing George to hit him accidentally George might have been looking across the lunchroom, not noticing that he was about to walk into Andre’s arm. The solution-seeking response would involve taking these factors into consideration through conflict resolution to produce a win-win situation.
Conflict Resolution Curriculum
Conflict resolution is being introduced into the curricula of many school districts (Adeyeme, 2000; Jeweler & Barnes-Robinson, 1999; Sweeney & Carruthers, 1996). The objective of conflict resolution is to empower students to reach solutions to their problems in a nonviolent manner. In many secondary schools, the counseling staff prepares and presents the concepts for conflict resolution training, which can be easily incorporated within the regular lesson plan ofmost courses. For example, in music class, a teacher may discuss the concept of harmony and discord and compare them to the problem-solving processes of conflict resolution. Biology classes could discuss symbiosis and relate the relationship to the opposing views of a conflict being resolved successfully through negotiation. Physical education instructors could compare and contrast competitive and cooperative sporting events, which promote or impede a peaceful environment.
For conflict resolution lessons to be successful, students must first understand the basic theory regarding conflict and then consider possible options for its resolution. The following should be included in a basic presentation of conflict theory:
Conflict origins. When two or more persons interact, there is the potential for conflict because of differing opinions. In the school environment, conflicts between students usually occur because of three major issues:
Resources – students want the same item, but there is only one.
Needs – students have different desires, but only one can be met.
Goals – students have different opinions or ideas and only one may be utilized.
Productive and nonproductive conflict. Students should be aware that not all conflict is negative. When differing opinions produce a better result, conflict can be productive.
Categories of arguments. Students should be introduced to the three principal categories of arguments:
Primary arguments. These arguments involve values or predetermined decisions and are usually unresolvable.
Secondary arguments. These arguments do not have value statements and could be resolved.
Ad hominem arguments. These arguments include a personal attack on one of the parties, thus removing any hope of resolution. (When Andre called George stupid, the conflict escalated into one of nonresolution.)
Normalcy of anger. Anger is a normal emotion and should be expressed; however, it may be either constructive or destructive. Students must acquire techniques for using anger positively. Had Andre not called George stupid, the outcome of their conflict could have been much different.
Conflict Resolution Strategies
Students can use a number of conflict resolution techniques to produce a win-win solution, including active listening, behavior examination, tolerance, effective problem-solving, and creative negotiating. Once these strategies are taught, students can implement them in real-life activities. When students practice the techniques while engaged in relevant situations, they can evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies and suggest alternative strategies for successful resolution.
Active listening. Everyone can benefit from practicing active listening. With the hectic pace of each day, listeners often allow distractions to interfere with their ability to listen actively. As educators, we have the tendency to believe that we know what the student is going to tell us before he or she completes a thought. This judgmental perception can impede successful resolution to any given dilemma. As Lord Chesterfield has said, “Many a man would rather you heard his story than granted his request." An active listener recognizes that a statement has several meanings and will seek to translate the statement into the correct context in a nonjudgmental way. This is a valuable skill for all to acquire because it can defuse many potential crises. The listening mirror and reflecting on conversation exercises are useful tools for active listeners.
Listening mirror. Elementary students can learn active listening by constructing a listening mirror. Using this strategy, the teacher will hold up a hand mirror and ask the students what they see when they look into the mirror. Most will indicate that they see themselves in the mirror. The teacher should then tell them that they see their reflection in the mirror, which is their image returning to them through the glass. Tell the students that they will learn another type of reflection that is not seen with a mirror – reflecting their partner’s words. Give the students a sheet of paper that has a picture of a hand mirror printed on it. Tell them that they are going to construct their own listening mirror. After they decorate their mirrors and have them laminated, give them washable pens to use on the mirror. As they practice listening to their partner, the students will write on the mirror the words they hear. This gives them an opportunity to really listen to the other person and record what is being said. Tell the students that when a dispute occurs, each student will be given an opportunity to listen to the other student and record what is really being said on the listening mirror. Perhaps if Andre and George had recorded each other’s feelings and perceptions on the listening mirror, the fight might not have occurred.
Reflecting on conversation. Students should recognize that every listening interaction is a challenge and that they must learn to change their listening perceptions to truly hear what is being said and considered important. Teachers or youth workers may aid older students in developing these skills with conversation reflecting. For this exercise, students divide into groups of three. Designate one of the students to be the facilitator and recorder while the other two assume the roles of talker or listener. When the facilitator gives the signal, the talker begins to speak to the listener on any subject. The listener must close his eyes while listening to the talker. The listener should be observant of changes in the speaker’s voice inflection or tone, which might indicate important interest being displayed by the talker. After 3 to 5 minutes of talking, allow the listener to reflect on the conversation from his or her perspective. Allow the students to reverse the talking and listening roles and repeat the exercise.
Behavior examination. Students should be taught to express their feelings without aggression, but they should also understand that anger is a natural feeling that all people experience. It is the way that anger is handled that results in positive or negative behavior. Elementary-age students can be taught to examine their angry behavior with the following exercise:
Angry shakes. Bring a blender to class and make a shake using vanilla ice cream, strawberry-flavored drink, and milk. Put some vanilla ice cream in the blender and tell the students that it represents a conflicting situation. For example, it might be some student who is angry because his or her younger sibling borrowed a CD without permission. Tell them that if they react to the situation by yelling at their brother or sister, it is like adding strawberry drink to the ice cream. Pour some of the strawberry drink into the blender and mix it with the ice cream. Ask the students what color the shake is (red). When they express their feelings about a situation by yelling or hitting their sibling, they have expressed their anger inappropriately and changed the situation (like the color of the shake) into one of violence. Pour the shake into a glass and rinse out the blender. Again, place vanilla ice cream in the blender and add milk or a clear drink. Tell the students that if they react calmly to the situation and explain to the younger sibling how they feel when their possessions are taken without permission, the situation will remain calm (like the color of the shake) and the younger brother or sister will understand the importance of not borrowing without permission. Allow the students to give examples of their own feelings towards others and how they behave. Let the students sample the different shakes. Andre’s reaction was obviously a strawberry one and he needs to learn to express his anger in a more constructive manner.
Instead of making a shake, high school students could role-play different situations involving conflict and the class could critique how the expressed feelings were handled.
Tolerance. Students must be trained to be tolerant of others whom they perceive to be different. A timely example that could interest students of all ages can be found in the Harry Potter series. Students can read or listen to the story regarding how Harry’s relatives are not tolerant of his being a wizard. Real-life parallels could be drawn to include students in school who dress, talk, or think differently from the norm and how others treat them. Peter, Paul and Mary recorded a song titled “I’m in Love With a Big Blue Frog," which discusses ethnic intolerance. Playing the song for secondary students would give them an opportunity to react to ethnic intolerance, and parallels could be drawn to the Holocaust and slavery.
Problem solving and successful decision-making. Students must actively seek solutions and make positive decisions in difficult situations instead of just giving up or becoming aggressive. One classic method of teaching this strategy is to invent or read a story about a conflicting situation and, as the story reaches the point of conflict, stop and have the students brainstorm solutions. Students should be encouraged to provide solutions that will allow both parties to “save face."
Creative negotiating. Students should practice negotiation exercises to develop creative methods of achieving collaborative harmony. Students of all ages could be asked by their instructors if they have ever communicated with their parents regarding a longer time to watch television, to remain outside playing with friends, or to stay out on a date. Point out that they were negotiating with their parents for this permission. Ask them what strategies were the most successful with their parents and which ones did not work. Divide the class into groups of four to six students for practice negotiating age-appropriate conflict scenarios. Then further divide their members into two subgroups to discuss opposing sides of an issue.
A teacher could present students with a real-life situation that could be resolved through negotiation. Have the students negotiate a settlement and report back to the group. For example, younger students might discuss sharing a television with their siblings and negotiating television viewing time slots for favorite programs that might occur at the same hour. Secondary students might discuss changes in the school cafeteria with the administration.
What would Tia and Gracie or George and Andre have done differently if given the tools to reach a positive solution to their conflict? Educators can help prevent disagreements and arguments from escalating into senseless violence by teaching youth conflict resolution strategies. In addition to significantly reducing the number of academic disruptions and disciplinary referrals, these strategies can also be applied beyond the school setting to improve relationships in families and the community.
Adeyeme, M. B. (2000). Teaching conflict resolution to social studies students in Botswana. The Social Studies, 91, 38–41.
Jeweler, S., & Barnes-Robinson, L. (1999). Curriculum from a conflict-resolution perspective. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 35, 112–116.
Sweeney, B., & Carrutbers, W L. (1996). Conflict resolution: History, philosophy, theory, and educational applications. School Counselor 43, 326–344.