Handling classroom conflicts is a part of most teachers’ lives. Even seemingly small disputes can negatively impact the classroom environment and interfere with long-term relationships. This is why managing student conflict peaceably is such an important part of our work as educators.
If we want to establish a classroom culture that values community, conflicts between students should be approached with true reconciliation as the goal. We can turn these situations into teachable moments by helping students understand their actions, the actions of others, and find solutions together.
Focus on Peacemaking from the Beginning
According to the authors of Better Than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management, schools that are truly focused on conflict resolution proactively teach students the skills they need to work collaboratively and solve problems collectively. They do not wait for conflicts to arise to begin the work of peacemaking.
Beginning in the first week of school, teach students about the way their actions impact the community; ways to express emotions in healthy ways; and how to use problem-solving skills to find resolutions.
Here are some simple ways to focus on peacemaking:
- Directly teach students the skills they need to work in partners or groups, including the importance of communicating needs, setting goals, and what to do if something goes wrong
- Encourage students to role-play situations that require empathy, communication, and problem-solving
- Help students see how their actions impact others, both positively and negatively, by including these observations in everyday conversation. Phrases such as, I feel confused when you…, I feel happy when we..., or we work best together when…, help students make this connection.
- Teach students your process for resolving classroom conflicts before issues come up. This way, students are prepared to take an active role in resolving their own problems.
- Remember that conflicts often arise from a combination of fear, anxiety, or frustration. Help students learn to recognize emotional triggers and manage them in healthy ways, such as with mindful activities, movement, or reflection.
Have a Plan in Place to Solve Problems Together
When conflicts do arise, provide students with the opportunity to resolve their issues together, with your help, through a peace-making process. Create a teachable moment by helping students acknowledge the situation, propose resolutions, and find closure. Remember, this is most effective when students are taught this process before they need it in class.
Here is a simple plan to help students overcome conflict, including some great suggestions from school psychologist and writer, Laura Driscoll:
1. Give students a chance to cool off and reflect on their feelings. Even if disputes occur in the middle of class, when you may not be able to discuss the situation with the students, you can provide students with a quiet space to calm down and focus on some reflection questions to prepare for a later discussion.
2. At an appropriate time, bring the students together, and with your help, ask them to share their feelings about the situation. This is often the most difficult step, especially for students who are not used to resolving conflict in this way.
Students should share their perspectives on the situation, using I-statements to discuss their feelings and actions. Laura Driscoll suggests: “To encourage, and guarantee, that students are truly listening and trying to understand the other student’s perspective, they should paraphrase what the other student said. Give students sentence starters such as, “I think I heard you say…” to help them. Students should also think about and share ways they could have acted differently to change what happened, and how their actions impacted others in the room.
3. Once students have shared their perspectives, it’s time to choose a solution. Depending on your students’ maturity and comfort-levels, you can either provide them with options, or you can work together to choose from their own proposed resolutions. Both students should feel comfortable with the solution, even if some compromise is required.
Driscoll also encourages students to end with the step: “affirm, thank, or forgive.” Students can affirm each other by simply stating they agree with the resolution: I will stick to our plan to avoid this in the future. Students can also choose to thank each other for working through the issue. Lastly, while it’s not suggested to force students to apologize or grant forgiveness, some students may choose to do this. Follow-up with parents and administrators as needed, and remember to check back with students in a few days to make sure they are still feeling confident in the resolution.
The goal in creating a clear conflict-resolution process is not just to end disputes, but to empower students to learn from their mistakes, solve their own problems, and contribute positively to the classroom community. With time and dedication, we can help students achieve these goals.