Conflict Prevention and Conflict Resolution

Strategies for success

Dealing with classroom conflict requires a multi-faceted approach, as problems can arise for a number of reasons. (Some don’t even have anything to do with school, but still manage to end up in a teacher’s or administrator’s lap!)

Looking for a bigger hammer to hit them with (metaphorically speaking, of course) is one of the least effective approaches and will often make things worse. So here is some background information along with alternatives for seeking heavier punishments or other negative reactions. 

NOTE: This summary was originally created for educators. The suggestions are equally effective with your own children and (in many cases) with other adults.

Frequent sources of conflict

  • Unresolved crisis (frequently family, relationship, financial, or community issues)
  • Unmet need for power or attention; perceived inability to meed these needs in healthy or constructive ways
  • Perceived inability to succeed (frustration, despair, boredom)
  • Unmet need for physical, emotional and/or academic safety
  • Boundary issues, including:
  • Lack of boundaries (on part of the adult)
  • Unclear, undefined or ambiguous boundaries
  • Unenforced boundaries (no follow-through)
  • Boundaries with built-in loop-holes (ex: “…unless you have a good excuse.”)
  • Violations of student’s boundaries
  • Also see Children at Risk: Common characteristics and family patterns
  • Also see Stressful or Painful School ExperiencesEvents and experiences that can compromise emotional safety and learning for more information.

Self-Assessment: To what degree do the power structures in my classroom (or school) accommodate the students’ needs for SAFETY, SUCCESS, & POWER?

Strategy: Boundary-Setting

Boundaries:

Boundary-Setting Strategies and Tips:

• Boundary-setting works best in an atmosphere of love, acceptance, and respect for the people you’re working with (that is, who they are, not how they behave). Examine the degree to which you can feel and express these characteristics of healthy relationships unconditionally.

Boundaries work better than rules. Rules come from a place of power, are typically win-lose (as opposed to win-win, as are boundaries) and are usually have the greatest commitment in the people the rules benefit most (and/or the people who made the rules). In a school setting, rules place responsibility on the adults. Boundaries put greater responsibility on the students.

• For the same reasons, boundaries work better than commands, demands, or expectations.

• Anticipate your needs as well as the needs of others involved. Look for ways to get your needs met that will still accommodate the needs of others.

Avoid reactivity, even to snarky, disrespectful behavior. There are better ways.

• There is no such thing as unmotivated behavior. Think about what motivates the other people involved? What’s in it for them to cooperate? A good boundary encourages cooperation by connecting meaningful payoffs to cooperative behavior.

• The best “payoffs” are those that do not rely on the adult’s anger or conditional approval.

• All motivation is “internal,” whether it involves doing something for the love of the task (or subject), doing something to gain access to something more meaningful, or doing something to avoid something painful or unpleasant. Avoid depending on threats or fear to get others to do what you want. 

• Communicate your boundary clearly before it’s violated, even if the other person should know what it is. If you have failed to set a boundary because you couldn’t possibly anticipate the other person’s behavior, stop and do so before things get totally out of hand.

• Listen, negotiate, and empower. Offer choices within limits you can live with. If the other person suggests something that is unreasonable, uncomfortable for you, unsafe, or just won’t work, say so: “That won’t work for me.” Make a counter-offer or ask for another suggestion.

Follow through

Once you’ve set a boundary, be willing to live with the conditions and outcomes you’ve set. If your boundary is unreasonable, renegotiate it next time, not in mid-stream.

Strategy: Communication

Dealing with parents and community:

Maintain regular positive contact. Let people know what their kids are doing right.

• Document. Document. Document. Many conflicts can be avoided when teachers can back up decisions regarding choices such as academic placement, particularly with regard to accommodating student academic or learning style needs. Any assessments or anecdotal notes will help if you are challenged. Be as objective as possible: state facts, not interpretations or judgments.

• Maintain healthy boundaries. Do not ask parents to solve problems between a teacher and a child. Relationships tend to be more cooperative and mutually supportive when parents are simply informed about problems (and what the teacher or staff is doing to handle it) rather than asked to take responsibility for the solution of the problem.

• By the same token, support parents’ problem solving skills without taking responsibility for the solution. (For example, good boundaries allow you to refuse to kick a kid off the team at school because he broke curfew at home.)

• Attack problems, not people. Make clear the goal of reaching a solution, gaining a commitment to more positive behaviors, and/or preventing further problems, rather than exacting punishment, making the student wrong, blaming, shaming, or criticizing.

With staff, students, administrators, other individuals:

• If something isn’t working, talk to the person involved. Complaining and triangulating (trying to get to the person involved by going through a third party) will usually complicate matters.

• If at all possible, wait until you feel calm and rational before approaching the other person. Reactivity generally creates obstacles in communication.

• Stick to the issues. If at all possible, leave feelings out of it. (After all, people don’t create your feelings, and relationships get “muddy” when we try to get what we want from others by making them responsible for how we feel or react.) Instead of “When you… I feel…”, try “This isn’t working” and then renegotiate the boundary, or develop a new agreement from here on in. 

• If you have feelings come up, deal with them. You might want to share them with a neutral party (possibly one not on the staff in your building) who can listen, validate, and support you without getting personally involved in the problem at hand. If you express your feelings directly to the person involved, be careful to not attempt to make that person responsible for the feelings. (Does your district have an Employee Assistance Program?)

• Better yet, leave your feelings out of the equation and simply ask for what you want! Remember, you want the other person to change his behavior so that you will be available to talk, or so that he can use certain materials again, or whatever—NOT so that you feel better!

Strategy: Supportiveness

Conflicts between students, staff, staff and students, others (when you’re not personally involved in the conflict):

• Get clear on your role.

• Listen. (This is a critical skill for interacting successfully with children and other adults.) 

• Distinguish between feelings and behaviors. All feelings are OK.

• Accept: Make no judgments about anyone’s feelings or their right to be upset. Resist the urge to dismiss their feelings, distract them, deny that they really feel that way, or engage in other destructive behaviors, such as blaming, shaming, attacking, enmeshing, or asking them to defend their feelings. (More ideas for avoiding non-supportive strategies here.)

• Validate the reality of their experience, and support their right to their feelings.

• Maintain your boundaries. 

• In helping others find solutions, ask–don’t tell. Resist the urge to give advice or get in the middle of someone else’s conflict. You get to feel important and needed, but it robs them of the opportunity to build competence and confidence in their own problem-solving ability. Help the other person think through their options and the potential consequences of various choices. By the way, this works best after people have had a chance to externalize their feelings. 

• Model and teach conflict-management.

• Leave the door open for future discussion.

Strategies: Other

Establish a win-win power dynamic (authority relationship). You still get to be in charge, but without depriving anyone else of their needs for autonomy.

Goal: How can we both (or all) get what we want?

Means: Offering choices (in which any of the choices you offer is acceptable); requesting and considering students’ input in decisions that affect them.

Allows for student empowerment within limits established by the teacher/parent/authority.

Reduces the need for rebelliousness, acting out.

Create a Success-Oriented Environment

Goal: Make success possible for every student in the classroom

Means: Giving clear directions; Identify and attempt to accommodate individual learning styles and needs; Establishing, communicating, and maintaining clear boundaries around the options you offer.

Focus on the Positive

Restructure reactive environments to proactive environments (emphasis on prevention)

Restructure punishment-oriented environments to become more reward-oriented

Express contingencies as promises rather than threats

• Use the examination and review of a student’s work to identify what that student still needs to learn, rather than as an excuse to simply mark errors, flaws, omissions.

• In giving feedback, emphasize positive performance, achievement. Build on what the kids already know or can do. Keep raising the bar, but make success within reach. 

Eliminate Double Standards

Hold yourself to same standards as expectations for students. Make sure your behaviors, language, attitude, tone of voice, body language, etc. are congruent from what you want from students

Avoid making a big deal out of things kids do just because they’re kids (If you wouldn’t yell at an adult for the same thing, don’t yell at a kid!)

• Remember that kids need and respond to positive motivation—just like you do.

Excerpted and adapted from several books by Dr. Jane Bluestein, including: Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, © 2001;  Parents, Teens & Boundaries, © 1995; The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Parenting, © 2022; and The Win-Win Classroom, © 2008.

© 1990, 1995, 2001, 2008, 2012, 2022, Dr. Jane Bluestein

Please note that suggestions for educators also apply to your own kids at home and, in many cases, to your relationships with other adults.

Other resources from The Win-Win Classroom and Creating Emotionally Safe Schools.

Stressful or Painful School Experiences that can affect learning and behavior in negative ways
Rules and Boundaries
Guidelines for Reinforcing Positive Behavior
Teacher Self-Assessment
Dealing Successfully with your Students’ Parents
Getting Away with Success
Rules and Boundaries
Handling Negative Behavior
Industrial Age vs. Information Age Classrooms
Guidelines for Offering Choices
Behavior Management: Intervention Strategies
Win-Win Ideas for Administrators

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