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Jan 08

De-escalating Conflict in the Classroom

By Rachel Lissy, Senior Program Officer at Ramapo for Children Special Education Articles Add comments
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Conflict is a necessary part of life.  It inevitably occurs in classrooms where groups of individuals, with varied needs and experiences, pursue shared and individual goals.  Successful classrooms are not “conflict free zones,” nor are they environments where every request, transition and interaction is a “battle of wills.”   The trick is to create an environment where conflict is strategic, fruitful and relatively rare.

The best way to promote constructive conflict is actually to avoid conflict whenever possible.  Learning from conflict takes patience and time, both of which are often limited resources in a classroom.  It’s important to pick your battles.  Avoiding conflict does not mean “turning the other cheek” or not holding young people up to expectations.  But there are myriad ways to address negative behavior that are non-confrontational and proactive.

How do you know which conflicts to avoid?  How do you decide which behaviors to confront?  At Ramapo for Children we designate certain behaviors as “Big No” behaviors.  “Big No” behaviors are those that threaten emotional or physical safety.  Fighting, bullying, threatening and stealing are all “Big No” behaviors.

When an adult observes children engaging in a “Big No” behavior, he/she needs to confront that behavior firmly, decisively and with resolve.  We encourage new teachers to develop and practice a “Big No Voice” that communicates that they mean business!  Teachers should keep these “Big No” behaviors in mind when deciding whether or not to confront a negative behavior and engage in a potential conflict.  If you see a behavior you consider negative or disruptive, ask yourself, “Is it unsafe? Is it a Big No?.”  If the answer is yes, than that’s a battle worth picking.  Confront the behavior. Tell your students: “It is my job to keep you safe!”  If, however, the answer is no and the behavior is not unsafe, then consider addressing the behavior through more proactive strategies.

For example, if two students are talking during a lesson, the teacher might interrupt their instruction and tell the students to stop talking.  This approach invites a power struggle because the teacher is using her power and authority to control student behavior (in this case, socializing).  Alternatively, the teacher could stop and ask herself “Is this behavior unsafe?”  Talking during instruction is disruptive, annoying and distracting, but it is not unsafe.  The teacher can try more proactive strategies such as moving closer to the students, using a non-verbal cue, asking one of the students for help with the lesson, or simply pulling up a chair between the chatting students and offering to help them get focused.  Teachers use these more proactive techniques all the time—they are examples of the “craft of teaching.”  With these strategies the teacher helps students focus in class without confronting their off-task behavior directly and engaging in unnecessary conflict.

Avoiding unnecessary conflict allows us to more intentionally and thoughtfully learn from and process conflict when it does occur.  Learning from conflict is difficult for both children and teachers in the heat of the moment.  If you find yourself in a conflict or power struggle with a student, you may feel your blood pressure rising, your face getting red, your voice getting louder.  When involved in a conflict with a child, it’s important to be the thermostat and not the thermometer.  Be careful not to reflect the frustration and anger of your students.  Instead, project confidence, commitment and caring.  Communicate through your voice and body language that things will work out eventually.  Remind yourself and your students that disagreement and conflict are normal. They are part of life.  Working through conflict together strengthens our relationship and builds our capacity to learn and grow.

After a conflict has occurred, give all involved parties time to calm down.  This includes you!  Once everyone is calm, you will want to process what occurred and plan for the future.  At Ramapo, we use a three step process for resolving and learning from conflict called W.O.W. This stands for: What’s Up?, Own Up? and What Now?  Everyone involved in a conflict (including the teacher, if appropriate) takes turns sharing what they think happened, what they think they could have done differently, and what they think the plan should be moving forward.  If necessary, students can write or draw their answers to these three questions during class and then review them with the teacher when time is available. Processing conflicts deliberately and consistently helps us identify patterns in our interactions. If you find yourself repeatedly having the same W.O.W. conversation with a particular student, that’s an indicator that you could both benefit from some individualized behavior planning.

Fundamental to all of our work at Ramapo is an abiding belief in the power of observational learning.  Our response to conflict in our classroom is an incredibly powerful teaching tool for preparing our students for the complexities of collaboration, friendship, compromise and community.  Choose your battles wisely, with a focus on emotional and physical safety.  Approach conflict with confidence, commitment and caring.  Take time to reflect, repair problems and plan for the future.  This will not only strengthen relationships in your classroom but will also provide your students--and you—with valuable social emotional and conflict resolution skills.

About Ramapo for Children 

Ramapo for Children believes that all children seek the same things: to learn, feel valued, and experience success.  Ramapo helps children align their behaviors with their aspirations through four program areas: Ramapo Training, which provides parents, educators, and youth workers with practical tools for managing difficult behaviors and fostering environments that support success; Ramapo Retreats, year-round adventure-based experiences for youth and adults that provide strategies for successful communication, teamwork, and leadership; Camp Ramapo, a residential summer camp that serves over 550 children ages 6 to 16 who face social emotional, or learning challenges; and the Staff Assistant Experience, a transition-to-independence program for young adults who are on the cusp of self-sufficiency. For more information about Ramapo for Children, please visit www.ramapoforchildren.org or contact Elissa Harel Ryan at eryan@ramapoforchildren.org or 646-588-2310.


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