Resolving conflicts is a necessary skill for students to learn and we can begin expecting independence in elementary. Sometimes, when you feel like you are lining up 20 kittens rather than 20 students, there isn’t a lot of time to resolve every student conflict.
When we do get involved past the demand for an apology, we often do the heavy lifting for students. They go through the motions, but they don’t learn the skill or why it’s important. The likelihood they are going to start independently and effectively resolving conflicts with peers is pretty much zilch.
I use 6 steps to turn each conflict into a teachable moment, that actually requires me to teach less each time. These six steps are straightforward, but also have mini-skills embedded in each one. Students will struggle with a certain step if they don’t have the necessary skills to complete it independently. Notice where students are struggling in the steps and integrate activities and read alouds to target these key skills.
The very first step is to have the student or students calm down. This sounds obvious, but very often we rush past this step and engage a student in problem-solving before they are ready. You can always schedule a time for later in the day for students to complete the rest of the steps.
If students are struggling to do this step independently, try a lesson on coping strategies. Let students learn about different ones and find ones that work for them.
For younger students, deep breaths are a great place to start. Jazz it up with different names, such as Belly Breaths or Flower Breaths. Conscious Discipline has great visuals for these (free membership area).
Step 2: Share, Listen, Check
This step requires students to listen, check they understood, and share their perspective. Needless to say, this can be the most challenging step and it will likely require more of your support for longer before students are independent.
When it is their turn to listen and check, students need to work on reflective listening and paraphrasing. To encourage, and guarantee, that students are truly listening and trying to understand the other student’s perspective, they will paraphrase what the other student said. It is helpful to provide them with sentence frames such as:
“I think I heard you say you feel …” or “So you want me to try to …”.
When it is the student’s turn to share their perspective, it is really helpful to have them use an I-Message to communicate in a way that is respectful but assertive.
“I feel sad when you don’t let me play because I am alone.”
Consider adding in lessons around I-messages and assertive communication to help your students talk about their feelings and perspectives in a way that is easy to hear and act on.
Step 3: Take Responsibility
Once students have shared their perspective about the conflict, they need to take responsibility for their actions. In many instances, students each have some part of the responsibility, even if not equal. I prompt students to think about what they could have done differently.
For example, Lily might be angry because Juan was playing with Kori and not her at recess. Juan doesn’t have to play with Lily all the time, so Lily could take responsibility that it isn’t fair for her to expect that Juan always plays with her. Juan could take responsibility that he could have nicely told Lily he wanted to play with Kori today or found a way to play with both Kori and Lily.
A good prompting question to ask students is “Could you have done something differently to change what happened?”
Given what the students heard from each other and the responsibility they took, the now need to brainstorm solutions that are agreeable. I emphasize thinking of solutions that are win-win for everyone. I preview what a compromise might look like and how they both get something from this. I make sure to check students who are only suggesting solutions that mostly benefit them.
It can be helpful to start the discussion with some suggestions, but it is best if this really comes from the students.
Step 5: Choose a Solution
At this point, the conflict should feel like it is nearing a close. Students have expressed themselves, felt heard, taken responsibility, and brainstormed good solutions.
Next students cross off solutions that are not ok to both of them. They also cross off solutions that won’t prevent future problems. I like them to imagine when this happens again, do you think this solution will work? Finally, I ask them to choose the solution together they think will be the most successful. Find the win-win.
Step 6: Affirm, Forgive, or Thank
You could stop things at step 5 depending on the situation, but I like to conclude by giving students the option to affirm, forgive, or thank. I don’t demand that they apologize because sometimes they aren’t ready and/or the situation doesn’t need it.
Affirm. This focuses on acknowledging what happened and encouraging their partner.
They can say I understand why you were upset and I will follow through with our plan.
Forgive. If it makes sense, the students can forgive someone if they have apologized or taken responsibility for something specific.
Thank you for your apology. I forgive you.
Thank. The student can acknowledge the time and effort it takes to resolve conflicts.
Thank you for working on this with me.
As I said at the beginning, there are a lot of skills involved in resolving conflicts. To improve independence, introduce lessons on coping skills, active listening, assertive communication, problem-solving, and empathy.
Do you have a school-wide social emotional learning or character education curriculum? Often, these curriculums focus on these skills and can be easily supplemented with materials you create and children’s books.
Check out these resources for supplements to your curriculum.