Conflict is a daily ritual for nearly any K-12 student, ranging from minor playground squabbles to vicious bullying. Schools often write policies and make decisions that suppress conflict because they perceive it as purely destructive. Researchers in the field of conflict management take quite a different stance, and several promising studies demonstrate the power of treating conflict for what it is: inevitable, and potentially constructive.
Conflict management theory can be very complex, but at its heart is the importance of establishing “interests”. Interests are what truly matter to people. They are the underlying reasons for their “position”, which is something they claim to want. For instance, a student insists she needs to work in a group for an in-class assignment. This is her position. The teacher’s response is refusal: it is strictly an individual assignment. This is the teacher’s position. The moment is ripe for escalation: the child gets upset and acts out, forcing the teacher to discipline her. All the while, neither party ever understood the interests behind the other’s position. Perhaps the child did not understand the material and felt her classmate could explain it in a way she would understand. Had the teacher known this then she could have responded appropriately. In the chaos of the school day, it all too often occurs that neither of them will have the opportunity to sit and discuss their interests, which would lead to greater mutual understanding and a stronger relationship. Instead, the student will probably be reprimanded for talking back.
The art of teaching others to expose the interests behind positions is one component of conflict resolution training (CRT). Education researchers at the University of Minnesota have successfully blended CRT with social studies and English curricula, allowing teachers to bring CRT to students without displacing any time spent on required course material, a huge concern for teachers grappling with standardized tests.
One of their studies at a California high school randomly divided students in a World Civilization class into two groups: one that would receive the standard curriculum and another that would get the CRT interwoven with the required content. The results showed that students in the CRT hybrid course improved their conflict management skills at school and at home, in addition to showing more positive attitudes about conflict in general. But what was truly astounding was their significantly superior academic performance: they scored far better on the unit test than their counterparts who had no CRT. Furthermore, these students retained the World Civilization content much longer than their counterparts, outscoring them by a significant margin when they retook the test seven months later.
This study suggests that there is clearly a place for CRT in our schools, especially given the recent attention to the horrific consequences of bullying and disturbingly high suspension rates for minority students and students in poverty. Though the cost of training teachers in this new approach could be high, the potential benefit is enormous, and will more than compensate in the form of stronger relationships, healthier school climate, and more productive time spent on instruction.
Image Credit: Class of 1997 via Wikimedia Commons