Peace in the schoolyard: conflict resolution in the classroom

By Caitlin McVean | 1995-07-01 12:00:00

By giving young people skill to express and resolve conflicts on their own, educators build their self-esteem and their sense of responsibility. Each child becomes more aware of the unique qualities of other children, thus reducing the likelihood of further conflict. I have been volunteering this year helping elementary school kids learn conflict resolution, using successful programs from the United States.

Creating A Peaceful Classroom

In her book, Learning the Skills of Peacemaking, Naomi Drew sets out four components of the peaceful classroom: accepting self and others, communicating effectively, understanding cultural differences, and resolving conflict. She says that peace begins with each individual; it manifests itself first in how we feel about ourselves. Drew suggests a method of "creative visualization." At the beginning of each class, students are encouraged to imagine what kind of class, school, country or world they want. She asks such questions as: "How do you want to be treated by your classmates?" "How would our class be if we all did our best to get along?" "How would the world be different if everybody were committed to peace and knew how to make it a reality?" Some, she cautions, may resist this thinking. Many people have given up believing that they can change anything. But teachers who promote peace need the faith that--no matter what--we are capable of reaching each child. I have seen teachers give up on especially difficult children. However, even more than others, those children need acknowledgment for doing something right. If we ignore their negative behavior, it tends to diminish. Drew suggests making a list of a particularly difficult child's positive traits and sharing it with the child.

But if the negative behavior continues, you may need to take further steps by offering the children a choice. "Jason and Carl, you can either stop arguing or put the game away." You may also make a personal request. "I'd like to ask you to play quietly now. Are you willing to stop arguing and continue your game?" If these steps don't work, try a time out. "It seems to me that you boys need a break from one another. When you both feel ready to resume playing calmly you can return to the game." The key thing is to avoid judging or punishing. Drew sometimes uses a reward system to reinforce behaviors--such as perhaps a star chart. Each child receives a star for good behavior. In the school where I volunteer there is a practice of rewarding a "Star Student" from each class every week. These students are further rewarded by serving as the teacher's helper the following week. Express love. Have fun together. And take care of yourself too, treating yourself lovingly. These guidelines help create a peaceful classroom.

Conflict Resolution

I will be referring here to Conflict Resolution: An Elementary School Curriculum, a working program based in San Francisco. For a program such as this to work, it is important to give merit to each student's answer. There is no single right answer. If we approach conflict with this spirit, respecting others' differences, we'll be on our way to creating peace. When we think of conflict, we may assume that someone must lose and someone win.

However, the Community Board Program in San Francisco treats conflict as a positive part of life in which we develop new responses to problems. It strengthens relationships and reveals more to us about ourselves and others. These qualities come together in the "Win-Win assumption." Problem-solvers set out, not to prove that the other is wrong, but to find out what the other person's concerns are. What this process involves is the search for the underlying issue in each conflict. The first step is discovering and appreciating how each person sees the situation. This is where the self-esteem comes into play. A child who feels good about herself will feel less threatened by other points of view. It is unrealistic to enter a conflict intending to change the other person's view. Instead, we need to understand the feelings lying behind the problem. Each person needs to identify what she is feeling and talk openly about it.

This breaks down a big barrier; no one has to guess or run the risk of misunderstanding. To convey feelings, the disputants must talk clearly. Too often in a conflict situation we react by blaming or accusing the other person. This only serves to make the other side defensive. The Community Board program suggests the use of "I messages" that describe one's feelings about the other's behavior. This makes both sides aware of the results of their actions without any judgment being made. A typical scenario would include the speaker's feelings ("I feel..."), the actions that brought on these feelings ("When you..."), why the speaker feels this way ("Because...") and what they want ("And I want..."). This is a simple little guideline for children of all ages. However, we must hold such conversations in appropriate times and places, and we must be careful how we express such messages. There is more to a conversation than the words. Only by listening can we gather necessary information for mutually acceptable solutions. Listening also gives all the parties to the dispute a chance to calm down and focus on something besides their own anger. This requires setting aside one's own feelings momentarily, in order to understand the other. This is one of the most difficult steps in conflict resolution. Both sides need to know they will get an equal chance to be heard. The Community Board Program encourages "active listening"--responding to the speaker so as to show how you understand what the speaker is saying, feeling, and doing. One way is to ask each side to restate what the other has communicated. The listener must put aside his own reactions to what is being said and remain open. To seem unwilling to hear the other side of the argument will provoke defensiveness. Now we can turn to the actual process involved in resolving conflict, according to The Community Board Program:

  1. Both students agree not to interrupt or name call, and to work to solve the conflict.
  2. One person tells his or her side of the story, using "I messages."
  3. The other person restates what the problem is for the first person. Repeat steps one and two for the other person.
  4. Both people suggest possible solutions through brainstorming.
  5. Both sides agree on a resolution. This process can be simplified according to level of maturity. For example, when working with younger children, instead of having them restate the other person's position, you may ask them if they understand what the other has said. The agreement needs to be specific about who will do what, when, where, and with whom. Without these details it is unlikely that the solution will be carried out. Also, the agreement needs to be balanced. Both people need to share the responsibility to make the agreement work. The agreement should also be one that both sides can carry out, and the problem must be solved effectively. The teacher, as the main person to whom children turn with problems, has the responsibility for educating them in positive conflict resolution. One way to aid in this process is by showcasing conflicts. With the consent of the students, bring their problem up in front of the class and work it through. Each classroom can have a "Quiet Corner" where children go to resolve their conflicts. It should be a place removed from the class, with easy-to-read instructions posted on the wall.

Before taking their problem to the quiet corner, students must ask the teacher's permission and briefly explain their conflict.

Furthermore, students must state their solution to the teacher before rejoining the class. This allows the teacher to make sure that the process is carried out and that the solution is workable.

Schoolyard Helpers

Another suggestion of the Community Board Program is to use conflict managers in the schoolyard. Conflict managers are students, trained in the resolution process, who offer help, which students can either reject or accept. They do not solve the problems but rather act as a neutral third party. By redirecting the disputants' attention to this neutral party, anger can more easily be diffused. It is important to give students a big role in conflict resolution. They will have the most profound impact on their generation; we are just there to lead them in the right direction. Luckily, I am part of a successful conflict resolution program. Shelter Bay Public School in Meadowvale is one of a handful of schools in Ontario with such programs. Under the leadership of Marilyn Rathke, Shelter Bay has established both a conflict managers program and an in-school conflict resolution program. In small groups, students are exposed to activities that require co-operation and effective communication. One of the most important ways to avoid conflict is through effective social skills. This may be as simple as learning to ask for something nicely or waiting your turn to speak, but the rewards are endless.

Finding students who experience difficulties in the classroom, teachers reward their positive behavior by giving them time to share their success with Mrs. Rathke. This serves to improve self-esteem by giving these children the attention and reinforcing the messages that they need to learn. The conflict managers are selected from grades four and five, to ensure the continuation of the program from year to year. They are nominated by their classmates but retain the option of saying yes or no, since those selected to be conflict managers should really want to be there.

They receive training in conflict resolution and must pass a test to qualify for the position. These students have been very effective in aiding conflict resolution among their peers.

Students are glad they don't have to take their problems to a teacher and that they are trusted to work their problems out on their own. This new responsibility has given students a vested interest in the program and has reduced conflicts. It really does work.

Peace in the Schoolyard

It's 10:15 a.m. and the students of Shelter Bay Public School are pouring out onto the playground. Two figures stand out from the rest. Overtopping their jackets these grade five students proudly display their uniform; a black and white T-shirt with the words "Conflict Manager" on the front and back. It is their job to help settle any conflict that may arise in the schoolyard. Their chance has come. Two students have just begun to argue and one of them is in tears. The Conflict Managers question both students and determine that one has hit the other--but also that the child who was hit had called the other child names. They both express feelings of hurt and anger and demand an apology. The Conflict Managers' job has been made simple by one fact: both students wish to solve the problem. By listening to one another describe their feelings of hurt, they are better able to understand one another and why what they did was wrong. Both students apologize and agree not to hurt each other in the future. The Conflict Managers move on.

It is not long before another argument breaks out. This time, one student is accusing another student of stealing Pogs, part of a popular schoolyard game. The grade four student had dropped his Pogs by accident, and in the process of picking them up had seen the other child pick some up and put them in his pocket. When he had asked for them back, the boy denied taking them. The boy did have Pogs in his pocket, but far more than he had been accused of stealing. The Conflict Managers, in their role of mediator, are unable to secure an agreement between the two students. In this case the Conflict Managers feel that it is best to inform a teacher of the situation, and both students agree. This is a good example of some of the limits placed on Conflict Managers. They are not in a position to judge other students, nor are they able to force students to solve the problem.

Just as recess is about to end, one further conflict breaks out on the soccer field. The soccer game has just been interrupted by one of the students who has been watching the game; she has taken the ball and refuses to give it back. As the Conflict Managers arrive, the student is attempting to join in the game. The other students refuse to play. When asked why she took the ball, she states that she is never picked to play soccer and that all she wants to do is join in. The other students express that they would have let her play if she had asked rather than just taken the ball, but now it's too late. She refuses to give the ball back until she is allowed to play. The Conflict Managers ask the group if they wouldn't mind letting the girl play at afternoon recess. They agree. In return, the girl gives the ball back and apologizes to her friends. As the Conflict Managers leave, they overhear some of the students apologizing for not including the girl. The bell sounds and the students of Shelter Bay file back into the school. The Conflict Managers have done their job and return to being ordinary students--until they're needed again.

Conflict is a part of life. By teaching young people how to respond to conflict in a constructive manner, we are giving them the power and the knowledge to shape the future. The Conflict Manager program is just one example of how children can make a difference. Conflict doesn't have to be negative. It offers a chance for us to learn about others and about ourselves. Embrace it.

Cultivating Peace on the Playground

As both urban and suburban schools fill to capacity we are forced to assess the quality of our childrens' experiences both inside and outside of the classroom. Conflict resolution, through mediation and peer management, has been successful in modifying aggressive behavior in the classroom, and to some extent, the playground. However, more can be done. Some schools have already concluded that the environment must play a key role in conflict resolution. By naturalizing school playgrounds, each child, regardless of his or her interests, will be able to find a place to belong.

Not every child takes comfort in large group activities such as baseball or tag. In fact, by giving students no other opportunity to socialize on the playground, we are creating a situation where bullying and conflict are most likely to thrive. Thearchitects of the modern playground appear to have given little thought to this situation. More often than not, there is inadequate space provided for children to sit or get out of the sun. We cannot assume that the schoolyard experience is positive for everyone, just as we cannot presume to know what each child wants.

Shelter Bay Public School near Mississauga is showing what communities and schools can do to correct this problem. The school has embarked on a plan to create a more natural and healthy environment. The staff, parents, and students planted trees and flowers and constructed alternative play areas. While this is only a start, the benefits can already be seen. These areas are being used and they are a source of great pride for Shelter Bay students. With a little hard work and a vision, we can make a difference.


(f.1) Naomi Drew. Learning the Skills of Peacemaking. California: Jalmar Press, 1987.
(f.2) Gail Sadalla, Meg Holmberg, and Jim Halligan. Conflict Resolution: An Elementary School Curriculum. San Francisco: The Community Board Program, Inc., 1990.

Caitlin McVean is a graduate of political science and peace and conflict studies at the University of Toronto. She is entering teaching college in Ottawa in the fall.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1995

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1995, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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