Prevention or escalation: the choice is ours

29th November 2002 at 00:00
VIOLENCE IN SCHOOLS: The Response in Europe. Edited by Peter K Smith. RoutledgeFalmer pound;22.50 pbk, pound;70 hbk.

BEFORE CONFLICT: preventing aggressive behaviour. By John D Byrnes. Scarecrow. pound;18.95 pbk, pound;30.95 hbk.

CONFLICT RESOLUTION COMMUNICATION: patterns promoting peaceful schools. By Melinda Lincoln. Scarecrow pound;16.95 pbk, pound;23.95 hbk.

ANGER MANAGEMENT IN SCHOOLS: alternatives to student violence. By Jerry Wilde. Scarecrow pound;22.95 pbk, pound;30.95 hbk.

I took my four-year-old granddaughter to a birthday party recently. A little girl emerged from the throng to complain tearfully to her mum that a "big boy" had hit her. Mum, laughing and rolling her eyes to the rest of the adults at the idea that her daughter didn't know the solution, said, "So? Hit him back."

It's as if we're all too lazy and selfish to deal with disagreement in any other way than by straight confrontation. Negotiation takes too long and might involve giving something up. Ask any head about angry parents, not to say battling children, if you doubt this. What price conflict resolution and the management of anger - to say nothing of citizenship?

We've all been most shocked in recent years by high-profile lethal incidents involving pupils on school premises - the Columbine high school killings, the murder of London head Philip Lawrence in 1995, the massacre of 17 pupils and teachers by a 19-year-old in Germany earlier this year. Whether these are rare and aberrant happenings that don't connect with any general trend, they've heightened the perception that schools are more violent places than they used to be. Without such incidents we wouldn't be reading Violence in Schools, a collection of 20 papers arising from EU-funded research, each describing the reality of school violence and the response to it in a particular country.

Surprisingly, the picture across Europe is of little evidence to match the perception of increased violence. Smith writes in the introduction: "Some countries report little change, or only a slight increase, others a curvilinear increase then decrease, others mixed findings depending on type of violence."

The individual accounts vary - one of the most interesting is that from Norway which includes a good case study of school decline and recovery in which "the most alarming aspect was that the head and the staff had lost control". Norway's story includes an account of the Olweus programme for tackling and preventing violence in school, which is now being used in Austria, Finland and Germany.

Another prevention strategy that's provoking interest in other countries is Iceland's Lifsleikni "life skills" programme. This has the status of a curriculum subject, taking at least an hour a week from ages nine to 15, and aims "to enhance the general development and maturity of children, their physical health and psychological strength".

That sounds idealistic, but it's clear that in many countries the hope for progress lies at a deeper level than straightforward prevention and control (our citizenship programme is a similar example). It's only by educating basic attitudes - and by addressing poverty, but that's another story - that we'll tackle the racist violence that's disfiguring the image of so many European countries.

In Before Conflict, John D Byrnes shifts the focus to the United States in the wake of the Columbine shootings and 911, but everything he tells us has echoes here. He seeks to help us head off anger and violence, showing us how to recognise and tackle the root causes. He's thinking largely of the adult workplace, but the principles are universal. He identifies what he calls, "The unmagnificent sevenI seven basic types of troublesome and potentially aggressive personalities": the Sherman tank, the sniper, the exploder, the complainer, the negativist, the clam and the bulldozer. The titles are self-explanatory - and metaphorical, although he might consider an alternative to "sniper". There is advice on how to deal with each: isolate the exploder from his admirers; document the complainer's complaints to show just what they add up to.

From the same publisher, Melinda Lincoln's Conflict Resolution Communication directly addresses educators. Again, the perspective is from the US although the author, who spent 20 years in the classroom, is now in the UK training educational mediators at Oxford Brookes University. She believes conflict arises when people are locked into inappropriate patterns of behaviour and response: "Abusive and controlling actions demonstrate thoughtlessness, indifference, intolerance, and a lack of respect for others." It's these patterns that we need to replace with others.

"The strategies of conflict resolution communication enable students to think before they act, to listen before they commit to narrow-mindedness, and to choose options that benefit all concerned and enable them to find a resolution in a peaceful environment."

This is a thoughtful book, but not easy to read. You wish for more explanation of what we need to do in our schools and classrooms. The author knows, but she doesn't always make it clear.

Jerry Wilde's Anger Management in Schools, in its second edition, sets out a "reflective emotive behaviour therapy" model that helps students to acknowledge and confront their feelings. This is effectively a psychological tool, but one classroom teachers can use. There's less emotion and more instruction here than in Conflict Resolution Communication - so the two books could complement each other.

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