Conflict resolution skills should be a fundamental part of schools' curriculum, discipline approach, and management style: studies have consistently found that the more conflict resolution techniques permeate the atmosphere and curriculum in schools, the greater the decrease in violence, improvement in classroom management, and enhancement of students' social and emotional development.(1)
In contrast, punitive approaches, such as "Zero Tolerance Policies" applied in such a way as to cover infractions that pose little or no real danger, (2) information dissemination, "fear arousal" and "moral appeal" are largely ineffective. (3) Other important factors, such as the correlation between discipline problems and crime with the ratio of child-to-teacher, are beyond the scope of this article.(4)
Media sensationalism has resulted in a false perception of the nature of conflict both in society in general and in schools. Although murder accounts for 0.4 percent of all reported crime, it accounts for nearly half of all TV news reporting.(5) This bias in coverage is reflected in recent survey results showing 71% of Americans thought school shooting likely in their schools, despite the odds of a school-aged child being killed in school in 1998-1999 being one in two million. (6)
The violence experienced by children is not about schools themselves, but a reflection of our society. In fact, most of the violence youth experience occurs not in school, but afterwards, with violent crime among youth greatest between 3:00-4:00 p.m. on school days.(7) The extent of youth exposure to violence is alarming: 77% of high schools, 74% of middle schools, and 45% of elementary schools reported witnessing one or more violent incidents during 1996-1997.(8) Ten percent of high school students reported carrying a weapon (e.g., gun, knife, or club) on school property the month preceding the survey, typically for self-protection. Five percent of high school students stayed home at least once in the month prior to a Youth Risk Behavior Survey due to fear of school-related violence.(9)
Who commits acts of violence? Self-report studies have repeatedly confirmed that virtually all youths have committed delinquent acts, with participation in fist fighting being particularly common.(10) Additionally, more subtle tactics, such as name-calling or ostracizing, can cause greater emotional harm than physical assaults. Such tactics have even resulted in suicide.(11) Physical and emotional bullying are not limited to males: females are involved in 3/4th of the 5.7 million cases of children abused annually.(12) Students with disabling conditions are particularly easy targets of punitive measures - perhaps because it is easier to catch the child with a disorder, such as ADHD, who immediately retaliates to taunts, rather than the student who uses more subtle tactics or can delay their revenge until after school. (In fact, in 95% of the cases in which children receiving special education services were suspended, it was for nonviolent behavior.(13)) Minority students are also greatly over represented in the "Zero Tolerance Policy" punitive excesses.(14) Yet, a recent study found that the high profile school shooters have been middle-class, physically healthy, Caucasian students of average or above average academic achievement who have no history of serious school or conduct problems. What they had in common was that each incident was precipitated by discipline or rejection, each shooter was suicidal, and each felt himself to be a social outcast, teased or victimized.(15)
Despite its potential harm, conflict is a natural part of life. Conflicts can be as small as what to watch on T.V. to as large as who will be the next president.(16) Conflicts come from misunderstandings, from competing interests, and from scarcity of resources or services. Conflict is not the culprit: how we respond to it is the issue. This is especially true where relationships are ongoing, such as school, the workplace, and families. Destructive conflict can result in violence, loss of friendship, or unnecessary legal bills. Cultural beliefs, such as that one should not intervene in another's fights, have also been found to promote violence. On the other hand, constructive conflict can lead to innovation, better communication and improvements in the status quo for all concerned.
Common responses to conflict are either aggressive, such as fights, insults, threats, or law suits, or passive, such as ignoring the conflict, walking away, refusing to listen, or giving in. Another common approach is to demand or expect the solution to come from an authority figure, such as a parent, teacher, principal, or judge. While each of these responses is appropriate under some circumstances, a collaborative approach to conflict is often the most appropriate and sometimes only method to obtain satisfactory, long-term results.
One collaborative approach gaining tremendous recognition in this country is mediation. Courts throughout the United States are now routinely requiring parties, especially in divorce cases, to submit to mediation. Mediation has been consistently shown to result in high rates of settlement, with far greater compliance to the agreements entered into voluntarily than to court orders. After the shooting sprees by postal workers, mediation was introduced to resolve employment disputes within the postal service. The success rate was so phenomenal that now virtually all federal agencies have alternative dispute resolution programs.
What is mediation and how does it apply to conflicts in schools, either between students or between parents and schools? In theory, mediation is deceptively simple. One or two trained, neutral mediators control the process of reaching resolution, while the parties control the solution reached. Rather than seeking to assess blame, as in litigation, the emphasis is on the future. Surprisingly, children can be as adept at being mediators as adults, because their understandings of the facts are often developmentally appropriate to the disputes between children.
There are four basic steps in mediation. First, the participants must agree to try to reach an agreement and to abide by certain rules, such as no name-calling and interrupting. Second, the participants each provide their perspective of the facts. The mediator(s) attempts to both truly understand what the speaker is communicating and make the speaker feel understood.(17) Attention is also placed on understanding and communicating the speaker's feelings. The mediator(s) helps the participants distinguish between positions and interests. For example, the parents' position might be that their child should attend a different school, while their interest might be having a specific educational need of their child met or having their child accepted more by his or her peers. Only after the interest is known can all options be explored. It is amazing how effective this seemingly, simple second step is at helping participants understand the situation and preparing them for the next steps. Third, the participants brainstorm possible solutions. The fourth and final step is for the participants to agree upon a solution, with the mediator's role being to assure the solution selected is feasible, concrete, and precise. Mediators are also entrusted with insuring the participants are respectful of one another and evening the playing field when one participant has less power or information than the other.
In conflict resolution education, the skills used in mediation are learned experientially and applied to different situations. Students have hands-on lessons on active listening, communication approaches, conflict styles, anger management, conflict escalation and de-escalation, perspective taking, positions and interests, brainstorming, win-win problem solving, negotiation, and mediation. Students learn that the process can be as important as the result. Compare for yourself the difference in your reaction to being told by your spouse that you are moving to having a discussion in which you both agree moving is best. Compare also your comfort level if you and your spouse disagree, but both feel certain through your arsenal of problem solving skills you will ultimately reach agreement.
Students also learn by observing adults' behavior. The most successful approach includes infusing conflict resolution skills at the classroom-level, school-wide and in interactions with parents.(18) Yet, many school administrators react to parents' concerns by ignoring them or informing parents that their only option is legal recourse. In fact, mediation is currently being conducted between parents and schools very successfully, primarily in special education matters.
With conflict a familiar part of the human experience, schools are consciously or unconsciously teaching methods of conflict resolution. The only question is what method is being taught. Simply punishing students for conflict neglects the responsibility to educate and passes the problem to society in general. Consider for example that students who are suspended are three times as likely to drop out as their peers.(19) Allowing one youth to leave high school for a life of crime and drug abuse costs society $2 million!(20) Spending the time and money to provide conflict resolution education is a smarter investment.
1. Jones, T., Ph.D. "Conflict Resolution Education: Goals, Models, Benefits and Implementation"
(2000), Temple University - summarizing research findings by U.S. Department of Education.
2. The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University (2000) "Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline Procedures"; Asherman, J. "The Unnecessary Detention of Children in the District of Columbia" Volume3, n.2 District of Columbia Law Review 311 (Fall 1995).
3. "Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn't, What's Promising", A REPORT TO THE UNITED STATES CONGRESS, Prepared for the National Institute of Justice by Lawrence W. Sherman, Denise Gottfredson, Doris MacKenzie, John Eck, Peter Reuter, and Shawn Bushway (2000).
4. "School Violence, Risk, Prevention Intervention & Policy"by Daniel J. Flannery, Kent State University & University Hospitals of Cleveland (December 1997).
5. Livingston, J. "Crime & Criminology" Prentice Hall (1992), pg. 30.
6. Brooks, K., Schiraldi, V. and Ziedenberg, J. (April 2000), "School House Hype: Two Years Later", Justice Policy Institute and Children's Law Center, Inc.
7. "Violence After School", 1999 National Report Series, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (November 1999)
8. "Violence and Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools: 1996-1997," National Center for Education Statistics, 1998.
9. "Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1997 Update on Violence," Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1997.
10. Empey, L. & Stafford, M. "American Delinquency" (1991, 3rd Ed.) pg. 95-97.
11. "Sticks and Stones" By Kathy Watson, from myprimetime.com.
12. Adler, F., Mueller, G. & Laufer, W. "Criminology", Second Edition (1995), pg. 84; "Children as Victims", 1999 National Report Series, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (May 2000).
13. Brooks, K., Schiraldi, V. and Ziedenberg, J. (April 2000), "School House Hype: Two Years Later", Justice Policy Institute and Children's Law Center, Inc.
14. The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University (2000) "Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline Procedures"
15. "The Classroom Avenger", by James P. McGee, Ph.D. and Caren R. DeBernardo, Psy.D., Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Health System (2000). Each of the shooters had also clearly communicated their intent prior to the incidents.
16. "The Election: Chaos Theory; How to Stop Worrying and Love the Limbo," by Dan Barry (New York Times, Week in Review, Nov. 12, 2000), quoting mediators including the author.
17. "Student Resolving Conflict: Peer Mediation in Schools", by Richard Cohen (GoodYearBooks, 1995).
19. Brooks, K., Schiraldi, V. and Ziedenberg, J. (April 2000), "School House Hype: Two Years Later", Justice Policy Institute and Children's Law Center, Inc.
20. "Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report,"(NCJ 178257) Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.