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Carmen Y. Reyes
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Mediating Conflict and Fights On this article, I focus on strategies that teachers can use to handle conflict between students. When handling conflicts and disagreement, the main role for the teacher is one of mediator or facilitator, where the teacher assists troubled and angry children in clarifying their concerns, as well as in problem solving. Leviton and Greenstone (1997) define the mediator‟s role as an individual that provides a neutral environment where both parties in conflict feel treated fairly. The mediator also helps to identify the issues, and in clarifying those issues, making sure that each individual understands what the other person is saying and checking frequently for mutual understanding. When the mediator is also a teacher,
the teacher guides the students in conflict in considering alternative ways of handling the problem. Other things a teacher can do as a mediator are: Helping the Students to Speak Cooperatively with Each Other Make sure the students know and respect the boundaries. Introduce the rules, assign the tasks, use the space wisely (e.g., have the two students sit apart), and use your own body wisely; for example, use your body to separate the two students. Narrow the emotional gap between the two students by pointing out the similarities and minimizing the differences between them. Help the students see advantages in having a difference between them; for example, in having different opinions about the same issue, in having different views of the same situation, and in having different ways of responding to the same event or problem. Point out positive aspects of each child‟s behavior that the other child perceives negatively. Detach yourself from the problem. See yourself as offering support to both students, not taking sides. Become a detached observer and participant. Be a judge, bringing the two students together for a face-to-face hearing or talking to each child separately. Restate the conflict in your own words, and ask each child if you restated it well. Let the students know that you understand them, and that you are mediating for both children‟s benefit. Remember that listening to a child does not mean that you are agreeing with what the child is saying. Create a non-blaming view of the problem in which neither child feels that he is to blame for the conflict. Help the students see the conflict as a problem they both share and not as something for which the other child is responsible. Help the students talk about the conflict in a descriptive, behavioral (describing what they see and hear), and no-blaming way. Rather than see the other child as the enemy, find a common ground and see one aspect of the behavior as the enemy. For example, instead of blaming William for pushing, see “pushing in line” as a problem that affects everybody in the
classroom, including William. This approach gives the teacher-mediator the tools to develop a collaborative alliance in solving a mutual problem. Use an umbrella conflict definition, using terms like cooperative alliances, teammates, and we. Explain to children that all human interaction is mutual and reciprocal; that is, when we interact with others, we give and take in the same amount. What one person does is context for the other person‟s behavior, affecting the other person and creating a reaction in the other person. Develop empathy, encouraging the students to talk about the sad feelings and responses they had instead of the angry feelings and responses. The other child hears about the hurt, not the anger. You may need to suggest feelings. Ask one child to elaborate on sadness, and have the other student paraphrase. Sequence the conflict focusing on feelings and responses to help students see its interactive nature, and to help students express feelings behaviorally; for example, “After Theresa said _____, how did you try to let her know how much her words hurt you? So, that is how she responded to you. How do you feel about what you said/ did next? Did your response give you something you wanted or were expecting?” Ask the child speaking to express her concerns focusing on herself; for example, “Wait a minute here…lower the tone of your voice, speak slower, and only talk about _____ (what you said, what you did, or your feelings). Do not talk about what Linda said or did. Linda will tell me that.” Teach students to use a self-focus rather than focusing on the other student. Direct the child speaking to use “I” statements such as, “I feel _____,” “I like _____,” and “I do not like _____.” Prepare the listener; for example, “While Kevin is talking about what is troubling him, your job is to pay attention and to listen to him closely. After he is finished, you have to tell me as fully as possible what Kevin just said.” Direct the two students to speak directly with one another. Do not let one child monopolize the conversation. Obtain symmetry by switching the speaker‟s and the listener‟s roles.
Hold the speaker responsible for what he says. When the speaker criticizes the other student, ask him to give details, and/or to give examples. Ask the child speaking to elaborate by asking questions such as, “What did she do that bothers you the most?” “What would you have like to hear her say?” and “What did you feel like saying to her?” Make sure the students consider perspectives other than their own by asking questions like, “What would _____ advise you to do?” or “What your best friend Ricky say about this?” Help the students see the problem from the other child‟s perspective, e.g., “If you were in Linda‟s shoes, how would you have felt when someone calls you „fatso‟?” Another example is, “If you look at this problem from her side, what you would see?” Direct the students to reverse roles and continue talking from the other child‟s perspective. Additionally, have each student defend the other child‟s point of view. Teach the students how to think about the problem from different angles, and encourage a discussion of alternatives. You might say, “There are a lot of ways to think about this problem.” Help the students generate new ideas and alternatives; for example, “Have you thought about _____?” or “Maybe the two of you would like to consider _____” Ask what if questions to help the students consider new ideas and alternatives. For example, “What would happen if _____” or “What if you do _____ instead?” Ask the students to consider new alternatives from the other child‟s point of view; for instance, “If you were Drake, what would you have done differently?” If one of the students is a bully, empower the victim by using the balancing technique; that is, ally with the victim, ignore the bully, and enter into a coalition with the victim. To break a fight or stop an argument, appeal to the easiest child first; that is, appeal to the child that will comply faster. Always talk first with the child with whom you have greater rapport. Do mini-summaries of the important points made to make sure that all understand what one says.
Heal the pain, making clear to everybody involved that there was no intention to do harm. In addition, make sure that everyone understands what each party is going to do to solve the conflict. Do a cost analysis (consequences) of continuing the problem. Help the students find new ways of communicating. Keep the following elements under control: clarify, build on what each child says, cut out the blame, cut out attacks, and watch for escalation. Always have the students put the solution that they select in their own words. Helping the Students to Problem Solve A problem or conflict between students exists when one or both children want something from the other child but they do not know how to get it. Success may depend on organization from an external source (the teacher). When we use a problem solving approach to mediate conflicts between students, first, we focus in finding what each child wants, and then we help the students identify an appropriate way to get it. In planning a solution, we help children identify what each student will do to settle the conflict; for example, “William will walk first in line and Carlos will walk last in line. Weekly, William and Carlos will rotate their positions in the line.” Avoid stating a solution in terms of what the student will not do; for example, “William will not push Carlos in the line.” In addition, any solution proposed must be within each child‟s reach and ability. Most importantly, keep in mind that a solution selected or imposed by the teacher is not going to teach students how to solve future problems and frustrations. Therapeutic teachers teach students strategies to help them solve problems on their own. To teach students social problem solving strategies, we can start by helping children build negotiation skills following these steps: Steps for Building Negotiation Skills Step 1: Help each child figure out what he wants that is within his reach. Step 2: Have each child listen to what the other student wants. Step 3: Find areas where both students agree. Step 4: Explain to the students what they need to do to compromise. In a compromise, both students agree to modify what they want, so that each child gets at least one part of what he wants and neither child gets all.
Step 5: Have each child think about what he is willing to give to get what he wants and to reach a solution. Step 6: Have one child make an offer, asking for what he wants and including what he will give. Step 7: If there is no agreement, have the other child make an offer, including what he will give. Step 8: Continue looking for a fair deal until the students reach an agreement. We can help the students articulate what they want by asking, “Tell me what you want from this situation,” and “Tell me what you need to settle this matter.” In addition, we must help the students recognize what is and what is not within their reach. The Problem Solving Steps Bedell and Lennox (1997) identify the following problem solving steps: Step 1: Describe the problem, presenting the problem in a goal-directed manner. Step 2: Identify what the first student wants. Direct the child‟s attention to what she wants the most (the primary wants). Do not attempt to solve multiple problems or “wants.” Step 3: Identify the second student‟s primary want. Step 4: Plan, using a how-to approach to satisfy each child‟s unmet wants. Step 5: Make a decision. Step 6: Implement the decision. After the conflict, help the two students gain insight from the problem. Have the children answer questions like: 1. What are my choices? 2. What did I learn from this problem? 3. What can I do differently or better to handle a similar problem in the future?
References Bedell, J. R., & Lennox, S. S. (1997). Handbook for communication and problemsolving skills training: A Cognitive-behavioral approach. NY: John Wiley. Leviton, S. C., & Greenstone, J. L. (1997). Elements of mediation. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.