Navigating Conflict with Conversations

Version 2I’m sure we have all experienced being sidetracked in our lessons by students’ emotional flareups. Sometimes they come without warning, other times we see the knarled brow and clenched fists from the moment a child enters our classroom, communicating to the observant teacher that the child’s emotional condition is volatile and that the child could loose control at any moment. No matter where this goes, it is important that the teacher remain calm and in control at all times. As much as we dislike having our plans interrupted by these situations, they do happen, and we must be prepared to act effectively; to manage our emotions and the child’s emotions, and for containing the incident to as small a number of students as possible. The following are some suggestions on how to be prepared for and how to handle volatile or deteriorating situations in a class.

Establish expectations ahead of time. If a conflict breaks out in my classroom, the last thing I want is for additional students to become involved. If there is a fight between two students, I want it to remain a two-person conflict. To this end, I tell my classes that if a fight starts, everyone is to remain calm and in their seats. There may be one student, usually a friend of one of the students involved, who wants to help, and sometimes will get up and come over to assist. Depending on the situation I may allow this if the friend is safe and actually helping, but otherwise I will tell such a student to be seated. At this moment, it is up to me to calmly restore order.

Remain Calm, Confident, and in Control. I will calmly tell whichever student is calmer to return to their seat. I promise them to hear their side of the story, but at that moment I need them to sit down. The child who is more upset will remain with me momentarily, and then go to a safe place, either a practice room or in the hall just outside my classroom, to calm down. They can take all the time they need, and I continue to monitor them every minute or two. At that point, I may invite them back in, or if they are still struggling to maintain control, I will send them to the office, not for discipline, but just to continue cooling down. My administrator is fine with this, and prefers that to the situation escalating.

At this point, if I need to conference with either or both students, the rest of the class needs to be on task doing some meaningful work. Much like the “do now” activities used at the beginning of class, it is a good idea to have “contingency work” ready. It may be an extension of the “do now” or a separate assignment, but it must be something the class can do without any involvement by you, so that you can counsel the students in conflict while the class goes on working.

As you talk to the students in conflict, your objective is to allow them to talk, make them feel like they’ve been heard, that they are being treated fairly, and that you care about them feeling better and being restored to the class. Harvard researchers have found there are five behaviors the teacher can exhibit that will help in this situation. First, listen attentively. Listen not only to learn what happened, but also to learn the student’s perspective and interpretation of what was said, heard, and done. This is when the student can be made to feel that you care and that they are being heard and understood.

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Second, modulate your speech. You want to speak conversationally without a hint of irritation or disapproval. This will help calm the student, as they match your level of calmness and objectivity in talking about what has happened. Third, approach the conversation with a learning mindset. You want to know and understand what the student is saying, and what they need from you to bring the incident to closure. You are not trying to convince the student that they acted wrong, or that you are right and they are wrong. You are just trying to learn so that you can come to a fair and helpful decision on how this will end.

Fourth, show receptivity.  By your words and actions, demonstrate that you are approaching what the student is saying with an open mind, and that you are willing and wanting to understand what they are saying and to respond satisfactorily. And fifth, be curious. Be thoughtful about what is being said, and if there is something else you want to know, ask the student. It may be that your questions will help the student think through his or her actions in a way they otherwise would not, and it also may help you make a more informed decision as to where to go for the next step.

When emotions are in check, and all parties have soon become calm, the conversation may conclude quickly, within 5 minutes, so that you can resume teaching your class. The class can be interrupted from their “contingency work” at any time. Other times, more time wil be needed to conference with the students involved in the incident. Postponing the discussion until after class, visiting their classroom during your preparation period to pull the students for conferencing with them, or inviting the students to discuss what happened over lunch with you in your classroom are alternatives that have worked well for me.

Being active in resolving conflict whenever possible builds trust and improves classroom behavior far beyond what “farming out” students to administration for discipline, and solving problems through discussions instead of immediately doling out punitive consequences affords the opportunity to teach students how to self-correct and manage emotions and minimize the liklihood of repeat incidents. Punishment does not accomplish either of these positive outcomes, and may instead build up resentment and increase the liklihood of similar incidents in the future. To be sure, when physical fighting occurs, administration needs to be involved, and consequences are needed, but even there, some vehicle for reflecting and correcting needs to be provided.

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