5 Ways We Help Students Grow in Their Ability to Resolve Differences

“The answer is not the main event, the attempt to understand is.”

Kim John Payne M.Ed.

Coping with the stress of conflict is becoming an increasingly common yet difficult challenge for children, and one that our teachers see as an important focus of our work with the students. Like all complicated issues, there are many answers, some highly contextualized to each individual circumstance, and some more global in nature. In each case our approach and response to student conflict is based on observation, listening carefully to what the students are telling us, providing a safe environment for working through problems, and letting a student who has behaved poorly know that it was their behavior that is in question, not who they are as a person. The age of the child(ren) is also essential in determining an effective response.

At Ashwood, we try to help students understand that every member of the involved group plays a role in the given situation, sometimes multiple roles, whether it is as aggressor, victim, or witness, and every participant also has  the potential to influence the outcome.

Basic stages of the process may include giving each student a chance to uninterruptedly express themselves, checking to see if the other students heard them, providing space for dialogue and interaction, and providing time for reflection and an articulation of what the children would do differently next time. Sometimes the role of forgiveness is the final step, and sometimes this process requires hours, days, weeks, or longer. When possible, some restorative justice intervention is given. This can take as  many forms as there are conflicts, but often includes community service, working together on a joint task, making proposals, mutually articulating rules (to be approved in every case by the faculty), and taking ownership of agreements. 

I can point to five key factors in how our teachers generally work with students’ growth in learning to resolve differences and in striving to hold a warm and evolving empathy towards one another. 

1. Playing together and resolving differences is not necessarily an innate skill; it takes time and practice to learn. We provide this time, both in the classrooms and on the playground.

2. The curriculum itself is an essential and effective tool in developing social harmony and awareness.

3. We take the long-term view that healthy social interactions must be self-motivated, and we work to develop this inner capacity rather than reacting punitively, whenever possible.

4. We provide firm boundaries and break down behaviors in order to teach the students a working vocabulary of how to understand and mediate conflicts.

5. Ashwood’s faculty and staff strive to provide a model for the students of collaborative work and positive feedback. Our horizontal governance structure, which in part defines us as a Waldorf school, provides an example of how this is possible. We strive to model this with our students daily. 

Little of this work is easy. It is always dynamic, and none of it is formulaic. We, as teachers, also must become aware of and then able to regulate our own emotions when confronted with student conflicts. This requires daily practice both in the moment with our students and meditatively, in whatever form that is meaningful to each adult. Knowing what “pushes our buttons” is but one factor that helps us to be nonreactive and provide a compassionate response. It is also helpful to remember that, in any given conflict situation, the story we hear from the one child, who may be furious or weeping uncontrollably, is not likely to be the story experienced or told by the other child. Another important aspect for adults is becoming aware that our desire to comfort, to “make the pain go away,” can ultimately be less helpful than warmly, but objectively, responding to a child in distress. 

“If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Jody Spanglet, Ashwood’s School Director, has completed a week-long course on consensus-based facilitation through AWSNA and completed a 40-hour certificate course in Introduction to Mediation though the Mediation and Facilitation Resource Center in Augusta, Maine. This spring she will facilitate a workshop at the Northeast regional AWSNA conference on creating a Waldorf social-emotional curriculum by grade.