Teaching Conflict Management

Last year when we surveyed teachers on the topics they would like to look into as part of the Professional Development for the 2016-2017 school year, some of you chose to “write-in” a topic that you would like to learn more about.  One of the write-ins was:

“Problem solving social situations, especially with friends, recess, lunchtime, specials, etc.”

Learn Like a PirateWhile there are ways that we could probably take that idea and turn it into a PD Topic, I thought that I would give some tools that you might be able to use in the classroom the first time that you see a situation of conflict develop – my goal here is to provide you with a right now strategy.  I can’t claim this idea – the majority of this post is based on ideas from the book Learn Like a Pirate by Paul Salarz (@PaulSalarz).  Mr. Solarz is a fifth grade teacher in the Chicago area and runs a student-led classroom.  There are so many tips in the book to help guide students to collaborate, be empowered, and take leadership in their own learning.  I highly recommend it!!!  The following ideas come from the Teaching Strategies for Dealing with Conflict section on page 56.

In a classroom where you are integrating student voice and student choice and allowing opportunities for students to collaborate there will invariably be some type of disagreement.  We’ve all seen it happen – Tommy and Jeff partner up.  Everyone (including them) knows this is a bad idea.  One strategy would be to break them up before they even have a chance to start working.  However, in a collaborative community, everyone needs to learn how to work with everyone.  Not only will it help your classroom run more smoothly, it’s an important lifelong skill!

We all know what happens next…  If you allow them to work, before long there’s a disagreement.  Our reaction can make or break this situation.  Instead of saying that this is what you knew would happen, and separate them, what if you gave them the tools to find a solution on their own?  What an awesome opportunity to turn this situation into a teachable moment – not just for Tommy and Jeff, but for the whole class.  Here’s what you could do:

  1. Get the entire class’s attention – “Give me five!”, hands up, or whatever strategy you use in your classroom.
  2. With a sincere smile on your face, look at Tommy and Jeff and thank them for having a little bit of trouble because it gives you the opportunity to teach everyone how simple it can be to get through conflicts.
  3. Ask the boys to describe what happened, then teach the whole class the following strategies (you might even consider making an anchor chart for this skill to post in the room – or even better, have the students make the anchor chart!):

Lets settle thisRock-Paper-Scissors: Do you know how many arguments my friends and I have avoided with a simple game of rock-paper-scissors?  When your students can’t decide who gets what job, or what color the background should be on a poster, a single round of rock-paper-scissors can be just the perfect way to find a solution!

Compromise: Take a portion of each person’s idea and combine them together.  (“I want to watch the video clip first.” “But I think we need to plan our poster design.” “Why don’t we plan our poster design right after we watch the video!?”).  Hopefully they can find a solution that makes them both happy!

Choose Kind: Sometimes the best solution to conflict is just to do what the other person wants because it’s also a good idea!  As the quote from Dr. Wayne Dwyer goes: “When given a choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”  Winning an argument while also hurting a classmate does not help the class win.  This summer I began using the phrase Choose Kind with my children (7 and 4 years old). It’s amazing to see how often they have been choosing kind to solve their disagreements.

The earlier you can teach these strategies to your class, the sooner they can begin to implement them.  Once students understand the process, these steps can be used even when you aren’t there – the lunch room, hallways, recess, etc.  If you don’t run into a conflict after a few days, then you might want to role play a scenario.  The sooner these strategies are introduced, the better!

As with any other strategy, we have to be ready to reinforce the use.  You can’t just introduce it once and then assume they all know it and will be successful.  Every time you notice a conflict, make sure students know you are aware (proximity, a concerned smile, etc.), but don’t just jump in and solve the problem.  Give them a little time to see if they will come to a resolution on their own.  For this strategy to truly be effective, the students have to come to use it on their own.

After you witness students come to a resolution, let them know how proud you are of how they handled it, and see if they would be willing to share their experience with the class.  If they are, have them act it out so the whole class can learn from the situation.  If students don’t want to share, that’s ok too!  They may be shy or embarrassed by what happened.

If students can’t get past the conflict on their own, then you might have to gently remind them of the conflict-management strategies to help them move on (this is where that anchor chart could be really handy!).  It’s also ok if another student steps in to help with finding a solution.  What a sign of good collaboration!

Continue the conversation in the comments below.  Could these strategies work in your room?  What else have you done that’s been successful?  Conflict can be such a distraction and sticking point that we can all use some good new ideas!

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