How do you handle classroom conflict?
Schools are full of conflict.
Conflict is a fact of life and sometimes it can be positive and helpful. When two colleagues collide in opinions and challenge each other professionally then conflict can help us see other points of view and become better practitioners.
However, professional conflict isn’t something we associate with children. Conflict between children is often messy and rough round the edges and it is something we have to deal with on a daily basis. Unhealthy conflict can soon spiral out of control if is allowed to turn ugly but conflict is on a spectrum and so we need to manage accordingly.
Obviously how you manage conflict will need to reflect your school behaviour policy but there are some general strategies worth thinking about, using and sharing.
10 Strategies For Avoiding Conflict
1. Hold Up A Mirror
In order to contribute towards unwanted behaviour then we need to look at ourselves and ask whether we do any of the following:
- Make assumptions that children know how to behave responsibly and “properly”
- Give vague messages
- Give inconsistent messages
- Apply shared or whole-class punishments in response to the behaviour of an individual child
- Take things personally
- Issue random empty “threats”, e.g. “If you don’t get this finished then you won’t be going on the school trip!”
We’ve all been there in some way but these only serve to muddy the waters of conflict resolution and being aware of our own behaviour is an important first step.
2. Hang fire
It is easy to jump into the middle of a conflict and try and “sort it out” but this doesn’t always help children. If the disagreement is relatively minor then we need to bide our time, hang back and keep a watchful eye whilst children try and resolve things themselves. How will children learn to deal with problems if we dive straight in at the first sign of trouble?
3. Remove the heat
When a situation has got out of hand and you are first on the scene after a fight or during a fight, separate the children immediately and leave them for 10 minutes before speaking to either. This takes the behaviour off the gas ring and gives children some stewing time thinking what will happen next. Whilst children are cooling down, plan your strategy and remember not to take sides.
4. Focus on ‘Needs’
Conflict produces a fight or flight response but for many children a physical and impulsive reaction is almost default. Teach a measured response by supporting children to make ‘needs statements to help them work through a situation. Hilary Stacey and Pat Robinson in their book Let’s Mediate suggest a useful model for young children to follow using the steps:
“I want it because…”
Make a suggestion to sort it out
Agree what to do so that is fair.
This simple model is the basis for sorting out conflict at many levels.
5. Assert Yourself
Children need to be taught how to assert themselves in conflict situations by standing up to aggression in a positive manner. They need to know and taught that you have to say no to people sometimes and this can be done without aggression. If someone is hurting them then children need to say, “Stop it please, I don’t like it!”.
6. Stay in control
It is easy to let our own emotions get caught up and carried away in the emotive situations we encounter but staying in control is crucial. It can be frightening for other children if they see their teacher ‘losing it’ and it can overwhelm them. Grab back what control you can and display calmness even if inside you are raging! Children need to see we can handle a situation even if we are bluffing.
7. Practise Reactions
We can’t prepare for every situation but we can get ourselves as ready as we can be practising our responses. Why not do this role playing with colleagues in a staff meeting? Anticipate what might happen, think through implications of any intervention, think short term and long term.
Try and look for the reason behind the behaviour. Don’t focus on the child personally but analyse what is happening and see that there are rules governing a child’s behaviour, rules that have come from somewhere, something or someone in their lives. Look for patterns of behaviour.
9. Involve parents/carers
Although some parents are incredibly difficult to engage, most want to be involved if there is a problem so reach out to them as early as possible and work together. When a child knows you are working in partnership, this can, on occasions, make them less likely to start a conflict. Number one rule: don’t apportion blame as this will inflame a situation.
10. Seek help
Support will vary from one school to another but don’t think you have to handle a situation by yourself. A more experienced colleague will be able to share their strategies and your school’s management team is there to support you so use them. The educational psychologist attached to your school will also be able to give advice.
Conflict is never easy to manage but some simple strategies can minimise the negative effects on children and on ourselves.