The Ultimate Guide to School Conflict Resolution
Building Campus Relationships: Overview
Conflict, disputes, and disagreements are a fact of life. No matter what rules or policies are in place at your school, the odds are high that you spend a fair amount of time helping resolve student and staff conflicts. Unfortunately, these issues can seemingly erupt out of nowhere and are sometimes difficult to handle. But, on the bright side, while conflict may seem extremely difficult to deal with, there are several proven strategies and methods to work towards a resolution. This guide will go over what causes conflict in schools, what you can do about it, and why it’s crucial to resolve these issues for a healthy learning environment.
How Conflict Can Arise in a School Setting
Common school conflicts can be broken down into a few categories. Each with unique roles, causes, effects, implications, repercussions, and solutions:
- Teacher to student conflict
- Teacher to teacher conflict
- Teacher to administration conflict
- Teacher to parent conflict
- Teacher to staff conflict
- Student to student conflict
We will briefly touch on each type of conflict in this guide to school conflict resolution with links to articles for each type of conflict if you want to learn more. TEEN TRUTH also created a more profound instructional guide with our book on “Building Campus Relationships from the Inside Out: A Guide to Decreasing Staff Conflict and Increasing Campus Relationships,” available in a digital download or hardcopy version at teentruth.net/shop.
What Is Conflict?
In schools, conflicts are almost inevitable with a range of students and teachers from diverse backgrounds, education levels, and home lives all coming together on one campus. In the melting pot that is your typical public school, conflicts can begin from the simplest spark. A student interrupting another, taking a classmate’s property without permission, a perceived insult, or someone giving the cold shoulder can all lead students and staff down a path towards conflict. Since conflict can quickly lead to more concerning or even violent behavior, it’s critical to address it as soon as possible.
When most of us picture conflict, we imagine a very intense and unpleasant moment. We think of two boxers in the ring, hurling punches back and forth. Or, an old west-style standoff, with both sides waiting for the other to make a move before drawing their pistol and firing. Or, we think of the webs of lies, deceit, nasty digs, and insults that are constantly hurled on insane reality tv show fights.
But the reality is conflict doesn’t have to be a big dramatic blowout. When approached correctly, stepping into a conflict can be incredibly constructive and help build a stronger relationship. Conflict isn’t a bad thing itself. It is one of the many parts of a relationship. Although conflict can be uncomfortable and scary at times, it is often crucial to helping grow a strong bond between two people.
Why Is Conflict Resolution Important On Campus?
We recognize the tremendous potential in our schools that can be unearthed from an engaged community. Yet, we all have peers, colleagues, students, administrators, and other relationships that we feel like we haven’t been able to connect with on the level we’ve wanted, despite our efforts. We’d love to connect with our coworkers. Teachers know the value of relationships and often place a great deal of importance on social interaction.
It is important to remember that everyone in the conflict is on the same team. Whether it is teacher-teacher, teacher-student, teacher-administration, or teacher-parent conflict, everyone has the same goal of providing the best education for the student body. Therefore, it is important not to assume malicious intent but rather to assume that everyone is doing their best to pursue this goal.
When relational needs are met for both parties, it can feel rewarding and easy. Alternatively, when these needs are not met, it can lead to conflict and frustration. In general, when our needs aren’t being met, we look to satisfy them elsewhere or in other ways. But what happens when a relationship can’t be severed or replaced, such as those with students, parents, administrators, other teachers, and school staff?
When it comes to conflict resolution with relationships that we can’t escape, we often have the choice of paying for them with a bit of discomfort now by addressing an issue head-on, or we can choose continuous pain that grows over time by not bringing it up.
How To Resolve School Conflicts
You won’t be able to resolve conflicts instantly. That shouldn’t be the goal. Instead, focus on identifying the issue and encouraging both parties to express their perspective on the situation. The first and often most significant step is to vocalize and articulate the conflict. You’d be surprised how much of an impact simply speaking about an issue can have on it.
Every single one of us is a social animal that has needs. Those needs inform our behavior and act as the driving forces within our relationships. Therefore, it is important to understand the motivations behind a conflict. What is the unmet need or want causing this conflict to occur? This can take time to identify and unpack.
If we cannot express our needs, it is highly unlikely that those around us will be able to support those needs. Over time, without our needs being met, we may get frustrated and blame those around us rather than understanding and resolving the true nature of the problem. That’s why the most important aspect of conflict resolution is the ability to express and articulate what we need and what is preventing us from obtaining those needs.
Common Methods of Conflict Resolution in Schools
Now that we’ve gone over why conflict resolution is crucial to a healthy school environment let’s talk about a few ways to address and resolve them before they worsen. You can implement a few core strategies to get students, staff, and even parents on the same page and work to actively resolve conflicts in a positive and approachable way.
- Support is one of the most critical needs in any organization. It is the hallmark of a strong team and the starting point for success in any collaboration. Support can be expressed with a simple, “I believe in you” or “We’re in it together, we got this.”
- Regularly practicing conflict resolution skills in a controlled setting can effectively prepare your students and staff to handle real-life problems and issues.
- Peer or Mentor-based mediation programs can provide a structured process for resolving issues.
Address The Actions And Behavior Not The Person
In a conflict, the other person’s actions may be unacceptable by your standards and need to change, but you must also remember the core assumption that the person is trying their best and has the same ultimate goal as you. Every person at their core desires happiness!
While it may feel like your anger and frustration is at the other person in the conflict, expressing it in that way will do little to resolve the issue. Instead, it is vital to focus on the behavior that is causing the conflict, not the person. This will make it more likely that the person receiving the correction will remain open to your idea and minimize the feeling of being attacked or alienated. In addition, shifting criticism away from the person makes it easier for the other party to respond openly and move together towards a more productive outcome.
Get A Small Relationship Win To Continue To Build
Discussing relationships and conflict is often a challenge because many people feel vulnerable, lost, or guilty. It may be worthwhile to create a small win first, to make both parties feel like there is momentum to build from, rather than needing to solve the core issue first. It is also important to remember to find common ground by identifying the relational needs that are being currently met.
Modeling And Practicing Conflict Resolution
Conflict can cause overwhelming feelings of anxiety, anger, frustration, and helplessness. Practicing and exposing students and staff to the proper way to resolve disputes can help prepare them ahead of time. Therefore, when conflict occurs, they will have the tools needed to fix the situation. Conflict resolution education helps students learn how to effectively and sincerely negotiate, apologize, and compromise their way out of conflict. These modeling and practicing sessions can take many forms: some teachers make it a game, while others build it into their daily curriculum to reinforce their messages.
Peer Or Mentor Mediation
Mediation programs are proven to be effective at resolving conflict soon after it occurs. There are a few different approaches to mediation that are worth considering. With peer mediations, two individuals involved in a dispute are mediated by a member of their peers, reducing some of the pressure and embarrassment from expressing vulnerability. On some occasions, however, your mediator may need some authority. In mentor mediation processes, the two arguing individuals are mediated by a ‘mentor’ figure, including professional counselors or an HR representative. In extremely challenging situations, the school principal or district superintendent may even get involved. It’s important to remember that the goal of mentor mediation is not to intimidate or threaten the disputing individuals to end their disagreement; the intent is to bring an authority figure into the discussion that can provide a definitive decision or action plan to address the problem.
The goal of on-the-spot mediation is to resolve a dispute quickly and fairly without allowing it to escalate. When students and staff are trained to mediate conflicts with others, they may jump into an argument that they notice is developing to keep it from worsening. This requires problem-solving skills and a good understanding of the mediation process. When done correctly, on-the-spot mediation does an excellent job of stopping conflict in its tracks and keeping everyone on good terms.
‘Peaceable’ Classroom Approach
The ‘Peaceable Classroom’ model is a style of classroom management that is designed to encourage an atmosphere of safety, comfort, and cooperation among students and staff. The theory states that a classroom focused on creating this atmosphere through deliberate choices and rule-setting will experience less conflict through collaboration. For example, many proponents of this approach suggest making classroom rules with students instead of imposing rules with no input from those who must follow them. By creating rules together and exploring the consequences of breaking them, more students will be on board with following them. Similarly, by regularly addressing how to communicate and interact with other students, a teacher can create a classroom focused on peace and comfort.
Categorizing Conflicts To Address
Some conflicts might have a deep and genuine issue that needs to be addressed based on conflicting views of core principles. On the other hand, some disputes arise because one or more parties just want conflict. Therefore, it is crucial to recognize whether the conflict is genuine or artificial when working on conflict resolution in schools.
Artificial conflict is usually created to gain a benefit, want, or need that isn’t really appropriate or deserved in a situation. For example, artificial conflicts can occur when we avoid a real issue and instead use a fictitious strawman argument. It can also happen when we articulate a real need in a way that isn’t clearly communicated so that the root issue is understood by everyone involved.
Expressions of “you just don’t get it” or “you’ll never understand” are outbursts that can be representative of artificial conflict. These statements don’t help anyone understand the problem and can put the message receiver in a defensive position.
It is important to identify if the conflict is caused by an internal issue or if it is a reaction to the external environment, current circumstances, or the person’s emotional state. That isn’t to say that artificial conflicts aren’t representative of needs not being met, instead it is just a reactionary outlet for frustrations that may not reflect a deeper issue with the person being attacked.
Addressing artificial conflict is like putting a band-aid on a cut. Unfortunately, that band-aid isn’t going to help a deeper issue or the root cause of the problem. But, it may make things feel better in the short term and protect things from getting messy or escalating. If we feel like we’re engaged in needless drama or endless conflict, it is a good sign that the real problem isn’t being addressed. Therefore, putting effort into resolving a conflict built on these factors may not help provide long-term growth in that relationship.
It is essential to differentiate between genuine and artificial conflict. Spending time and energy resolving artificial disputes is a dangerous trap. Devoting time and energy to one of many problems without prioritizing genuine conflicts is almost guaranteed to cause greater harm to the relationship.
In a genuine conflict, someone within the relationship feels like their core needs are not being met. This is painful but can also be a valuable warning sign. If we follow these feelings of discomfort and pain, they will help us identify which needs are not currently being met. In a genuine conflict, we have a sincere emotional investment in the outcome, even to the extent of coloring our perception of the immediate situation. The most significant risk of focusing on artificial conflicts is failing to recognize and resolve genuine conflicts.
Usually, it is easy to imagine a third party agreeing that a conflict exists with a genuine conflict. That is why asking an independent third party for perspective on an issue can be an occasional solution for discovering if it is genuine or artificial.
Once a genuine conflict is identified, it is crucial for the parties involved to articulate and express their needs within the issue. Once both parties can understand the core problem, progress can be made towards resolving the deeper genuine issue.
How Conflict Can Present With The Conflict Intensity Spectrum
When it comes to conflict, there is a wide range of intensities. It can scale from a silent grudge to an all-out yelling match in the hallways. For our purposes, we will refer to these two extremes of the spectrum as high-intensity conflict and low-intensity conflict.
Each individual has an area of comfort on the intensity spectrum, and we tend to express conflicts within that range. But the parties of a conflict may reside in different regions of the spectrum, which is why it is essential to outline, understand, and acknowledge both extremes of behavioral responses.
Understanding ourselves and recognizing our personal intensity preference (high or low) can be a huge step forward in reconciling differences and resolving conflicts with the people around us.
Dealing with Different Personalities In Schools
All of the different personalities and perspectives that make up a schools’ staff and student body can create a beautiful thing: a community of adults and children from distinct and often separate backgrounds coming together for the sake of education. However, these differences can occasionally be a hindrance. It can be challenging to get along with fellow students or teachers when you have different personalities and ways of dealing with the world around you. Something as seemingly minor as a bad joke or a unique hobby can spark a disagreement that leads to an argument.
Low-intensity conflict simmers. In this approach, you can see conversations slow down or stop altogether. Stone-walling, cold-shouldering, and cutting off communication are examples of low-intensity conflict.
A low-intensity conflict runs the risk of becoming permanently unresolved and for those needs to never be met. Another problem of low-intensity conflict is that one party may not be aware of the issue. This can result in confusion and estrangement without one party even knowing why the conflict is happening. Until the problem is articulated, the needs are likely to continue to be unmet.
For those at the low-intensity end of the conflict spectrum, it is important to ask ourselves why we’re shying away from directly discussing our unmet needs. We need to remember that countless relationships fail because issues and problems aren’t brought to light. If the other side in a conflict isn’t aware, nothing can be done to repair the issue. We must give everyone the chance to resolve conflict by addressing it head-on.
High-intensity conflict is usually obvious to everyone involved and sometimes even those nearby who may witness it. It occurs when stress has reached a level high enough that the relationship is being affected. Emotions flare up, expressing feelings of anger, shame, loss, and more.
High-intensity conflict can escalate quickly and crush a relationship. It can shut down opinions and alienate people. In cases of frequent high-intensity conflict, it is possible for one side to check out, just going through the motions.
While it may not seem like it, this passion can be a positive thing. It means that the person cares so strongly about the issue and the other person that it brings them to the level of high-intensity conflict. The intensity can be channeled into the foundation of a cooperative and caring relationship. The good side of a high-intensity conflict is that the issues tend to get addressed, even if they aren’t fully resolved. The intensity bubbling to the surface helps people to recognize that a problem exists, even if it can’t be clearly articulated in the heat of the moment.
While people who reside in the high-intensity end of the spectrum can be seen as toxic, their potential value should not be overlooked. If they can learn to articulate their needs more precisely and accurately, they can channel their intensity to bring awareness to problems and solutions in a cooperative way. A teacher, student, administrator, or school staff member who can do this effectively can be a tremendous asset in resolving conflicts on your campus quickly and efficiently.
Mediating Relationships Between Teachers, Staff, and Administrators
A solid, open, and communicative relationship between teachers and administrators is the key to running a successful school. Every single day, teachers rely on the schools’ administrative staff and vice versa. However, due to many reasons like workplace stress, poor communication, or interpersonal friction, conflict can spring up between these two groups. When disputes occur, it is critical to mediate them as quickly as possible to keep them from spreading and affecting the rest of the buildings’ students and staff. It’s essential to approach this process with the goal of remaining empathetic to both teams while striving to reach a compromise. If necessary, reaching out to your campus leadership for assistance in mediating these kinds of disputes is perfectly reasonable and even expected in some situations. Click on the links below to explore the conflict resolution dynamics for the different school staff relationships.
Differing Viewpoints on Issues
When issues or challenges face students, staff, or the school as a whole, it’s common to find a variety of viewpoints on how to best solve the problems at hand. The people who hold these viewpoints often have powerful feelings about them and may occasionally feel anger or mistrust when exposed to views different from their own. Taking the time to address opinions from both sides and make sure everyone feels heard and understood can go a long way towards reducing these feelings.
Disagreements on Structure, Schedules, etc.
Organizing and scheduling the day-to-day workings of an educational institution is no easy task. It can be complicated, time-consuming, and stressful. Often, staff members have differences of opinion regarding how their schools’ structure and schedule should be changed or implemented. These disagreements can range from minor nitpicks on smaller details to significant problems with the fundamental direction of a school’s administration. Address and, if necessary, mediate these issues to try to find a compromise that suits everyone involved before these disagreements get blown out of proportion.
Resolving Conflicts Between Students
The most common conflict in schools, disputes between students, often occurs in the halls or inside the classrooms themselves. Countless reasons may cause students to take issue with each other, and they vary wildly with age, time of year, and student workload. For example, teen students in high school may find themselves in conflict over complex interpersonal issues, young romantic relationships, or academic stress. In contrast, elementary school students may get into arguments about less complicated matters equally crucial to them. No matter the cause of the dispute, it’s essential to react empathetically and directly. Take steps to resolve the issues without belittling the problem or giving the impression that you’re pushing it aside.
Conflicts in the classroom have a visible and direct negative effect on the learning process, disturbing the individuals involved in the conflict and all of the other students who are simply present. Therefore, no matter who the conflict is between, it’s of extreme importance to limit its impact on the class and keep issues from festering and distracting the classroom if possible.
Handling Teacher and Student Disputes
There are many potential trouble spots between students and teachers, and it’s no surprise that this kind of conflict is common in many schools across the country. Discipline is part of the job as a teacher, but calling students out on poor behavior can be an easy trigger for open conflict and disagreement in the classroom. A rash response can lead to detentions, suspensions, and a troubled relationship for the remainder of the school year.
Resolving Disagreements Between Teachers and Parents
When it comes to children, there are no two parties more invested than parents and teachers. Unfortunately, these emotions can cause tensions to run high when there are any sources of conflict in the school setting. Helicopter parent situations often lead to increased anxiety for the student and the teacher, with all parties being on the alert that a misstep could be misinterpreted and grow into a more significant conflict. Knowing that these situations will arise and that parent conflicts can be tricky to navigate is essential for becoming a proactive teacher. But, when these conflicts are resolved with a positive outcome, they can build stronger and more trusting parent-teacher relationships.
Benefits of School Conflict Resolution Strategies
Drafting and implementing conflict management and resolution strategies throughout your school can result in many benefits that reach beyond helping students and staff resolve disputes. Conflict resolution training involves learning how to manage emotions, de-escalate confrontations, and find compromise in what may be a difficult situation. When students take the time to learn these skills, they tend to see that their communication, problem-solving, and social skills all improve simultaneously. Additionally, a school that practices conflict resolution is critical to creating a safe learning environment for its students and staff.
Enhance Students’ Social and Emotional Development
Tests and grades are important, but one of the main focuses of schooling is to develop students’ social and emotional skills. For many students, their days at school may be the only real-time they spend interacting with people outside of their family, and they may not have a fundamental foundation of conflict resolution skills. Therefore, building students’ social and emotional skill set by teaching key concepts like active listening and compromise is crucial for setting them up for success as they grow and mature.
Creating a Safe Learning Environment
A safe learning environment is an essential cornerstone of a functional school. If there is a real or perceived danger, from physical violence to bullying or teasing, students’ ability to focus, learn and get good grades will suffer. In addition, students who feel worried or fearful can develop symptoms of stress, depression, and anxiety, affecting their mental health and performance in the classroom. Therefore, to facilitate an environment of safe learning and education, both students and staff have to learn and implement strategies to keep conflict to a minimum and resolve it as quickly as possible when it does occur.
Decreasing Violent Incidents
School violence is as prevalent now as it ever has been. It’s an issue at the forefront of many board meetings and superintendent memos, and for a good reason. Unfortunately, there is no cure-all for eliminating the possibility of violence occurring in schools. Still, through exposure to conflict resolution strategies like de-escalation, students and staff may be able to nip more disputes in the bud before they resort to violence.
Final Thoughts on Conflict Resolution in School Environments
Building and maintaining relationships is a skill. Like any other skill, it is possible to improve with focus and practice. If you identify a conflict in relationships at your school or feel like a need isn’t being met, bring it up at the first appropriate moment. It is much healthier to bring these problems into the open rather than letting them build in silence. It is important to note that we don’t have to solve all relationship issues overnight. Incremental progress is extremely powerful, and the impact can grow over time.
Creating a Constructive Conflict Community
It is up to the school community to commit to building an environment focused on successful conflict resolution and prevention. Some school districts create mediation support groups and build conflict resolution into their curricula; others host assemblies and workshops for community members to increase their conflict resolution abilities. All of these tactics have merit because any kind of conflict education is better than none. It cannot be overstated: having the tools and knowledge of how to handle and resolve conflict is essential to building a community based on trust, understanding, and care, both for students and staff.
Conflict Resolution Programs and School Assemblies
Conflict resolution programs and focused school assemblies are a fantastic way to start the conversation and get students familiar with these concepts. In these assemblies, participants are coached and mentored in some critical areas of conflict resolution, better preparing them to handle disputes when they arise and empowering them with problem-solving, de-escalation, and social development skills. TEEN TRUTH creates this environment at assemblies by focusing on the students and tailoring the messages to a level appropriate for the age group and grades in attendance.
Contact TEEN TRUTH for More Conflict Resolution Resources
Tackling conflict resolution can seem daunting, but you’re not alone. TEEN TRUTH has an incredible amount of resources and experience in handling conflict resolution. Contact us for a new perspective if you’re struggling with implementing these concepts or need fresh ways to introduce them on your campus!
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