Keeping the Peace Among Students
By Dana Razzano, Internet Reporter

Reports on outbreaks of school violence seem to fill the nightly news with more frequency than ever. Despite assumptions and fear that schools are no longer safe environments, many educators and students are implementing conflict-resolution skills within their schools to increase positive inter-personal communication and encourage a peaceful environment.

"Conflict is a natural part of life and everyone, both adults and youths, needs to learn how to deal with conflict constructively and effectively," said Donna Crawford, Executive Director for the National Center for Conflict Resolution Education (NCCRE). "Conflict resolution provides an arena that creates an understanding of difference and respect for difference. [The process] enables individuals to deal constructively with their differences by focusing first on their commonalities." 

Peacemaking skills are also important, says David W. Johnson, Co-Director of the Cooperative Learning Center, because students who learn these skills gain self-empowerment and experience greater academic successes. Schools shouldn't fear conflict but rather encourage and embrace it. Through the constructive management of conflict comes new understanding and acceptance that often didn't exist before, said Johnson.

Practice Makes Perfect

Reinforcement and repetition of peacemaking skills are essential to ensure long-term effects. "[Students] have to practice the procedure enough so it becomes an automatic response pattern," said Johnson. "It may take hundreds of times of repetition, but in the heat of the moment you experience an automatic response [not a full-thought process]." 

The Cooperative Learning Center's Peacemaking Program aims to be a 12-year spiral curriculum (or 13-year, if started in Kindergarten), where teachers cover skills taught the year prior, and reinforce these peacemaking skills at a higher, more sophisticated level of conflict resolution each year. 

"[The NCCRE's] Creating a Peaceable School is an ongoing process for responsibility, education and conflict resolution where all students learn and use the strategies and skills everyday in the classroom," said Crawford. 

Though the NCCRE and the Cooperative Learning Center support programs designed to teach conflict resolution skills at a young age, Crawford and Johnson both agree that no one is too old to benefit from learning peacemaking skills. "Behaving in a constructive way is advisable for all ages," said Johnson. Implementing a set of conflict-resolution procedures should be able to be applied universally. A basic resolution procedure is "simple enough for a kindergartener, yet sophisticated enough for a businessman," he says.

The universality of conflict resolution skills has also enabled juvenile justice facilities to employ these skills to establish more productive and effective communication among youths, while reducing violent confrontations. "The mediation and conflict resolution skills employed in high schools can also be used in juvenile justice facilities," said Crawford. "Youth in detention facilities often lack the foundation skills of conflict resolution, especially those associated with perception and emotional abilities. Therefore, more time and focus is given to the development of the foundation abilities." 

A New Set of Rules 

Though one's home environment may impact factors in their life, learning and employing conflict-resolution skills can be successfully implemented without parental involvement. "For conflict resolution to be effective it must be voluntary, a valued option for problem solving, not something to be enforced," said Crawford. "Parents can certainly support and nurture the development and use of conflict resolution skills by their children in the home. Although, children can and do learn to use conflict resolution skills with or without parent involvement or support."

According to Johnson, students are asked to "leave home at home." Regardless of how a student may respond to a conflict or how his or her parents tell them how to respond, the rules at school are entirely different. Johnson says it is nearly impossible to expect schools to recognize all of the different cultures of their students and take them into account when resolving disputes. Instead, schools need to create an entirely new culture and set of procedures for students to follow. The culture that needs to be reinforced for successful peacemaking is "everyone is equal at school; no one has to defer to the other," he said.

Although parents don't need to practice conflict resolution skills in their homes in order to benefit the learning of their children, the NCCRE highly values parental and community involvement. "A parent group, community organization, service club, or the police department may form a partnership with the school to sponsor peaceable school activities," said Crawford. The NCCRE also provides conflict resolution skill development workshops to help parents develop an understanding of conflict, the principles of conflict resolution, and how to apply those principles in their home. 
"A lot [of what students learn] transfers to the home," said Johnson. Parents often call, surprised, because their first-grader is trying to mediate a conflict, he said. 

Establishing Procedure

Johnson says that students will engage in using peacemaking skills if "they know the procedure, there is a culture/context within the school that supports the procedure and if the student is skilled to use conflict resolution skills. The opposite of empowerment is helplessness; when a conflict comes up, a student is helpless if he doesn't have this set of skills."

This set of peacemaking skills, says Johnson, includes: conflict (not the avoidance of it but the constructive management of it), following a negotiation procedure, and using a peer mediator to facilitate negotiation process. When a conflict arises, students are taught to negotiate and then turn to a peer mediator if that doesn't work. From there, students may choose to have teachers mediate, then arbitrate and finally ask administrators to mediate and give a final arbitration. The goal is to establish a clear procedure that is practiced over and over again. "We've found that the number of conflicts that teachers have to deal with are down 60 percent and the numbers for administrators have dropped about 80 to 90 percent," said Johnson. 

The procedure of the NCCRE also involves many similar components, yet differs in the structuring of using peacemaking skills. "The choice of strategy is an individual one, with the primary goal being for disputants to resolve conflicts peaceably," said Crawford. "Students may request mediation when they are involved in a dispute, or teachers and administrators may refer them. The teacher coordinates mediation in the classroom and a committee of students may be appointed to assist." 

In addition to mediation, negotiation is a very powerful and important tool for students to use, said Crawford. "Many students may initially choose mediation instead of negotiation in their attempt to resolve conflicts but will likely turn to unassisted negotiation as they become more comfortable with the strategy." 

Curriculum Enhancement

Since teachers are mainly responsible for incorporating conflict resolution skills among their students, it goes without saying that they have to be very well trained. Teachers are central in implementing peacemaking skills, said Johnson. 

"It is important to realize that a student's success in developing an awareness of the positive potential of conflict resolution is an outgrowth of the endeavors and commitment exhibited by the adults in the school to approach conflict in a positive way," said Crawford. "Educators who bring positive ways of resolving conflict into their classrooms will see results that will have a powerful effect on their lives and work as well as on the lives and work of their students."

Johnson advocates teachers incorporating conflict resolution strategies directly into their standard coursework. "While teaching Hamlet, when you come to the part where Hamlet goes to see his father's ghost and the ghost tells Hamlet to kill his uncle, the teacher can stop and have students discuss how to negotiate this conflict," said Johnson. Conflict resolution skills can be used when any major conflict is discussed in English, History or any other class, he said.

Involving students as a group to resolve conflict is one strategy the NCCRE uses as well. "Group problem solving is the most complex of the conflict resolution strategies because of the dynamics created by the number of individuals involved," said Crawford. "However, because the teacher normally orchestrates the strategy it is perhaps the easiest to implement. Group problem solving provides a forum for considering and resolving specific issues [at the students' suggestion] in the classroom." 

Crawford says that the regular use of group problem solving sends a positive message to students that teachers are concerned about their problems and ideas. Additionally, allowing students to help determine topics of discussion further supports the message that students can use their minds to solve the problems of living in their school world, she said. 

Through their research, Johnson has found that students who have conflict resolution skills incorporated into schoolwork discussions have a better retention rate regarding that material than students who didn't discuss conflict resolution. "When conflict training enhances instruction, there is better chance for it lasting long-term," said Johnson.

Crawford also adds that teachers involved in the peaceable schools program were surveyed and reported that students are better able to brainstorm possible solutions (analysis), create a best solution (synthesis) and evaluate the solution (evaluation). Additionally, students are better able to communicate with adults and peers and to work cooperatively. Students also had improved problem solving skills and overall academic performance through enhanced critical thinking skills. 

Lifelong Benefits

Learning peacemaking skills give students a developmental advantage, said Johnson. 
These students learn "to work with others on a project and resolve conflicts more easily," he said. "They are more likely to have friends, do well in school, get a job, get promoted in their job, have lifelong friends and have a good marriage, over others [who don't have these resolution skills]. These are important gifts to be giving to students," said Johnson.

Both the NCCRE and the Cooperative Learning Center strive to continue working with more educators and reach even more students in the future. "What we really want is every child in America to be taught to resolve conflict in a constructive way, and then have 18 years of reinforcement [of that behavior]," said Johnson. 

Crawford and Johnson agree that ultimately, the results of their work could lead towards a much more civil society.


For more information on the National Center for Conflict Resolution Education, contact:
Donna Crawford
National Center for Conflict Resolution Education
Illinois Bar Center
424 S. Second Street, Springfield, IL 62701
Phone: 217-523-7056 Fax: 217-523-7066

For more information on the Cooperative Learning Center, contact:

Cooperative Learning & Conflict Resolution Center 
University of Minnesota, College of Education 
60 Peik Hall, 159 Pillsbury Drive SE. 
Minneapolis, MN 55455 
Phone: (612) 624-7031 
Fax: (612) 626-1395
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339