Regardless of where a school is in the world or what age group is being taught, arguments between children are, and always will be, a feature of every classroom. Rather than being something for teachers to fear, however, these disputes represent an opportunity to teach young people how to deal with and resolve confrontations. Yet, when it comes to coping with these situations, mistakes are common.
The first mistake is to ignore the problem. This can lead to students believing that teachers will not act to protect them from their peers' aggression or bullying, a fact highlighted in Dan Olweus' book Bullying at School: what we know and what we can do.
The second misstep comes from believing that someone must be right and someone must be wrong, and that the task of the teacher is to act as judge. In reality, with both protagonists claiming victim status and both certain that their behaviour was justified, finding out the "truth" is impossible. With incomplete information, any attempt to impose a solution is likely to seem arbitrary and unfair.
In turn, perceived injustice causes young people to become disenchanted with school and to avoid recruiting the support of their teachers in future.
Finally, punishment does not work. Not only will it fail to teach young people how to solve problems, but a sizeable proportion of students (about 40 per cent) say that reprimands exacerbate the problem, according to the 2007 study "Bullying and peer victimization at school: perceptual differences between students and school staff".
Far better that in resolving disputes you are guided by an awareness that all behaviour - even disruptive behaviour - is an attempt to meet a need. Behaviour is children's loudest form of communication. When it comes to conflict with others, what students are most often defending is their desire for safety, belonging, self-esteem and autonomy (the need to govern ourselves).
With this in mind, these are the steps that teachers should follow to resolve disputes.
Discover what the conflict is about
The crucial point here is to enquire in a curious tone, so that you gather enough information to be able to help, rather than in an accusatory tone that implies you are trying to determine who to blame. You might begin by commenting, "You two look upset" and follow this up by asking a question such as, "What's up?".
When tempers are running high, it is tempting to listen to the emotions. However, you need to look beneath the feelings because these are the messengers, not the message. The real story is what need is not being met. When a student complains, for example, that a peer will not let him play, he may be experiencing hurt and loneliness, which means that his need is for belonging or inclusion.
Reframe the problem
Rather than focusing on the children's feelings (because in the heat of the moment, the only observable feeling may be anger and addressing that will be a dead end), you should reflect backwards and forwards between the protagonists: "Oh, I get it. You want them to let you play so that you feel included. And he doesn't want you to play because he doesn't feel safe when you get angry if you don't win."
Guide students to their own solution
Ask "What can you do? What are your ideas?" You may have to suggest solutions if the children are too young to generate their own (this is typically not necessary once they are of school age). The advantage of asking for their ideas is that it increases the chances of finding relevant and vibrant solutions, not only because two heads are better than one but also because contributing makes students more willing to put the solution into action.
Meet everyone's needs
Ask the students to commit to a solution that satisfies them both. The aim here is not to find a compromise (in which no one's needs are met) but to find a strategy that honours and meets everyone's needs (theirs and yours).
Repeat the process
Invite the students to come to you if they need more help. If they do, repeat the steps. The failure of their solution signals that the previous plan did not fully address the original problem, or the solution was too ambitious. Therefore, you will need to repeat the process to generate a different strategy that is achievable and effective at meeting everyone's needs.
Dr Louise Porter is a child psychologist and author of books including A Guidance Approach to Discipline, Behaviour in Schools and Teacher-Parent Collaboration
Pick up further strategies from the Center for Nonviolent Communication: www.cnvc.org
Help peace to break out in your classroom with TES Connect's conflict resolution resources.
- Olweus, D (1993) Bullying at School: What we know and what we can do (Blackwell)
- Bradshaw, CP, Sawyer, AL and O'Brennan, LM (2007) "Bullying and peer victimization at school: perceptual differences between students and school staff", School Psychology Review, 363: 361-82
- Greene, RW (2010) The Explosive Child (Harper)
- Gordon, T (2000, 2nd ed) Parent Effectiveness Training (Three Rivers Press)
- Greene, RW (2008) Lost at School (Scribner).