Student-Centered Conflict Resolution Practices

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During the 2011-12 school year, the US Department of Education counted 130,000 expulsions and roughly 7 million suspensions among 49 million K-12 students, one for every seven kids. Unfortunately, research shows that corporal punishment is still used in some schools in the U.S., too. 

Clearly what we’ve been doing isn’t working. It’s time to break away from traditional behavior management techniques. Instead of using an approach that relies on shame, control, and external rewards, how can educators learn to truly get to the root of challenging behavior and change it for good? 

The answer is right in front of us: teach our students healing ways to resolve conflict.  Putting students at the center of conflict resolution allows them to use their own words and explore their own solutions. If we act as facilitators, guiding our students to make deep and lasting changes, the entire process is educational and rewarding, for teachers, students, and the communities in which they live.

Learning to use a student-centered, collaborative approach to conflict resolution means we must shift our thinking. 

According to psychologist Ross Greene, who has taught at Harvard and Virginia Tech, “We know if we keep doing what isn’t working for those kids, we lose them. Eventually there’s this whole population of kids we refer to as overcorrected, over-directed, and over-punished. Anyone who works with kids who are behaviorally challenging knows these kids: They’ve habituated to punishment.”

So, as educators, how can we set kids up for success? 

Offer simple strategies for resolving conflict. In order for students to work through difficult situations with their peers, they will benefit from doable protocols, taught intentionally and transparently, to support them through the process. 

  • CURB IT. For older students, the CURB IT strategyempowers learners to slow down and resist impulsive, harmful reactions.

  • A Bug and a Wish. For young students, using strategies like Bug and a Wish can give little ones language to express themselves when they are in conflict.

Use restorative justice practices. The philosophy of restorative justice in schools views misconduct as a violation against people and damaging to the relationships in the school and throughout the community. Emphasis is placed on cultivating empathy, respect, honesty, acceptance, and responsibility. Using this conflict resolution technique provides effective ways to address behavior while offering alternatives to suspension and expulsion. 

Although implementing restorative justice practices from the ground up is extremely challenging and time-consuming, small changes can make a big difference. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Hold peer conferences to solve conflicts. Recurring problems in class? Use restorative justice circles to work them out, together. Essential guiding questions to prompt critical thinking include: Tell me what happened? What was your part in what happened? What were you thinking at the time? How were you feeling at the time? Who else was affected by this? What have been your thoughts since? What are your thoughts now? What can we do to support you?

  • Co-create classroom norms and expectations. Allow your students to drive change in the classroom. Ask your students: What do we all need to be successful? What do you need from me? What do I need from you? What happens when someone in our community is suffering? How can we respond in a compassionate way? Create expectations together and put them up in the classroom as a visual reminder.

  • Use language that empowers. Refrain from using language that places blame, demeans, or embarrasses students. Instead, acknowledge the student is suffering, get to the root of the problem, and discuss solutions and future changes that can be made together and individually.

  • Be proactive. Embed daily mindfulness practices and positive behavior supports into your classroom routines. Some ideas include:

    • Hold a Mindset Monday. Students and teachers choose inspirational quotes to read or learn about world change makers.

    • Create space for mindful moments and meditations throughout the day. Check out our June newsletter for some excellent, doable ideas.

    • Create a Peace Corner. Encourage your students to seek calm and peace when they need space, time to reflect, or a way to decompress after a difficult experience. Your peace corner can include books on mindfulness, soothing music they can listen to, comfortable seating, yoga mats and pillows, floor lamps, Christmas lights, sensory tools and fidget toys, and anything else that your students want to add.

Shifting behavior management techniques so they are student-centered requires a lot of planning and coordination, but the transformation is well worth the effort. Be on the lookout for our next series of newsletters, featuring Inspiring Educators who are on the forefront of bringing innovative teaching practices to their schools!