Teaching Kids to Prevent Conflict
How many of us, as youngsters, became angry with a friend or situation that got us into trouble only to hear from a parent, “What could you have done differently to keep this from becoming a problem?” In other words, when you were embarrassed or put into a volatile situation, could you have stepped back and thought about how to defuse the potential problem instead of escalating it?
In some ways, this is the “theory” behind counting to ten when you are angry before responding. It gives you think time–time to not only let the initial anger burst to lose steam, but also time to think about how to respond in a way that will not make the original problem worse. The problem with the warning to count to 10 is that it does not explain that both the dispersal of anger and thinking about the situation are supposed to occur together.
As educators, many of us continue to have the mistaken notion that it is outside of our job description to teach social skills. Technically, that is probably correct. But take a look at the teachers the students qualify as their favorites. These are not teachers who lack discipline in the classroom. These are the teachers who, aside from having respect for the students in their classes, also model and–when necessary–teach appropriate social behaviors through “safe” means. For example, Johnny might have torn up his test paper when the teacher asked to see it. Rather than respond to the incident immediately, on another day far enough removed, the teacher may begin an activity based on dealing with how to respond to situations that anger us, including starting by counting to 10 before responding. He/she could ask the students to act out scenarios based on, say, name-calling. After each presentation, the whole class could comment on the way each group handled the problem and discuss what other actions or reactions might have worked.
The role-play actually helps students to visualize and practice socially acceptable means of problem prevention. Practicing and observing appropriate scenarios stays with students to help them out in similar situations, or to help them generalize to more emotionally-packed interactions.
The teacher should always stress that problem prevention is not the time for the offended individual to retort with a snide remark or comment that will escalate the problem, no matter how cunning the “come-back” might be. It seems that individuals are almost hard-wired to want to “save face” in social mis-interactions, but we do not always know when we would be better off simply saying nothing. This is why it is a good idea to teach counting to ten while thinking about appropriate solutions, including not responding at all.
Interestingly, I just finished reading a science fiction/fantasy trilogy which I call the Stormlord Trilogy, by Glenda Larke. What I find interesting is that Ms. Larke gives us the thinking process of several of the characters–processes that help keep the character out of trouble (or out of more trouble) in an immediate situation. She writes things along the lines of, “And you’re an idiot, I could have said, but decided now was not the time to make him angrier.” [Note that this is not a direct quote of anything in the book; just a generic type of example.] Such commentary might be helpful to older teens. Actually, such commentary would be helpful to any reader, but the book contains just enough sex and gore to keep it from being a book suitable for most pre-teens and younger teens. The point is, individuals can learn social interaction skills from a number of good sources, not just teachers and parents.
So what makes this a classroom management technique? Once students learn to react proactively in negative interactions, they continue to do so, especially in an environment where they want to practice what the teacher teaches. The net result is that the teacher is involved in fewer incidents of confrontations between or among students because either the students are continuing to practice conflict avoidance, or classmates may be reminding their peers to count to ten.
This is a technique that works at all levels of education, from pre-K through college. Setting up a short activity to work through problem escalation is reasonably easy, and could take as little as ten to fifteen minutes for engagement and subsequent discussion. At the college level, students pick up very quickly that there is a reason for this activity, even if it appears to have nothing to do with the subject matter of the class. Often, at the post-secondary level, all the instructor needs to do is say something along the lines of “What you have just practiced is a method I would like you to think about before a small disagreement, especially with a peer, becomes a major problem during our class sessions.”
All of my suggestions come from years of experience at various levels of education. Most of the ideas are based on theory, speaking with and observing other teachers/instructors, and much reading of research and general teaching techniques. At some point, the methods I discuss have become part of my teaching skills, and the actual sources of the methods have become lost. Thus, at this point I may not always cite resources that support what I have written, although I know they are out there only waiting for me to find them again.
In the meanwhile, if you have used role-play for conflict avoidance, please share your experiences with a response to this post. I would love to hear your stories.