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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 1

Solving Conflicts: Not Just for Children

Adults are the essential link. They must master the skills of solving conflict peaceably in order to teach these skills to children.

It is a beautiful summer day and the New York high school teachers and counselors are sitting around the table waiting for their conflict resolution training to begin. A participant in one small group has not yet arrived, and there's a dollar bet that she will not show up. Why not? Because the role play last session where half the group played administrators and the other half teachers—had turned ugly. The now-absent teacher had told a colleague she thought he was acting like “a typical administrator.” He had responded by telling her she had “a weak personality” and was unused to thinking on her feet.
Personal putdowns are not an unusual way for adults to respond to conflict, according to Ellen Raider, training director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Teachers College, Columbia University. Raider, who has trained thousands of teachers and managers in negotiation skills, says that adults often tend to confuse negotiation with debate. Afraid of being taken advantage of, they tend to either lash out or back away from conflict. (See “Typical Responses to Conflict,” p. 16).
“When children don't know how to handle conflict, they fight,” Raider says. “Adults are 'civilized' and typically respond with verbal attacks.” Children or adults who behave in these ways find it increasingly difficult to arrive at cooperative agreement because their conflict festers or escalates.
All of this is borne out when the teacher in question arrives. (“I never thought of not coming; I need this training,” she says.) Her antagonist of the previous session elaborately offers her a chair. The tension between them has now gone underground, and they will avoid each other for the rest of the day.
One of the purposes of this training is to instill humility in the adults who will soon be teaching negotiation skills to students, Raider notes. Without practice in using such skills as “opening” (getting information about the needs and values of the other side) or “informing” (stating your own needs), procedures can sound pat and simplistic. “You think it's easy to teach these strategies to kids, but if you haven't mastered the techniques yourself, the kids will think you're patronizing them,” she says. In reality, as the teachers at this workshop agree, learning these skills, then teaching them to others, is an immense task.

Basic Negotiation Skills

  • Check whether you understand the other person correctly and whether he or she understands you.

  • Tell the other person what you think: don't try to read another's mind or tell others what you think they think.

  • Talk about needs, feelings, and interests, instead of restating opposing positions.

  • Recognize negotiable conflicts and avoid non-negotiable ones.

  • Know how you tend to deal with most conflicts and recognize others' styles.

  • Put yourself in the other's shoes.

  • Understand how anger affects your ability to handle conflict and learn how to avoid violence even when you're angry.

  • Reframe the issues; talk about them in other ways to find more common ground between yourself and the other person.

  • Criticize what people say rather than who or what they are.

  • Seek win-win solutions, not compromises; find solutions where all parties get what they need, rather than solutions where all get some of what they need.


Conflicts in the Schools

A tragedy last February in a Brooklyn high school made the need to prevent conflicts from escalating even more compelling. Just a few hours before the mayor of New York was scheduled to visit their school, two teens were shot dead by a classmate.
In the wake of one of the worst incidents of violence in a New York City school building, Mayor Dinkins and Chancellor Fernandez allocated money from the Safe Streets, Safe Schools initiative to broaden the schools' ongoing conflict resolution program. The Board of Education mandated—and allocated funds for—10 days of training each for 2 educators from each of the district's 140 high schools.
The training—to take place over a year's time—includes 7 days of training in negotiation skills for an educator designated to begin a pilot curriculum, 7 days in mediation techniques for an educator who will open a mediation center in the high school, plus 6 one-half day sessions for each, to take place while they are implementing the programs with students. In addition, trainers will be “on call” to participants during the training and afterwards.
On the whole, teachers who are being trained or who are already using the conflict resolution model with students believe in the need for the program and see its potential in the schools.
“I'm looking for a better way to deal with student discipline problems,” Al Kalaydjian, an administrator from Brooklyn, says, “Kids are getting violent with one another for rolling their eyes. They're knifing each other for sucking their teeth. In the old days, when kids fought, you separated them and threatened them with suspension. Now kids say, 'Go ahead and suspend me.' Suspension doesn't mean much anymore.” He adds, “I have faith in the process of getting students to talk with one another. It's the only method I've seen work.”
“The tensions of the cities play themselves out in schools,” says Stanley Denton, director of Multicultural Education for Pittsburgh Public Schools, whose district has invested in the same kind of training being offered in New York. The traditional way of dealing with conflict is the power play, he says. “Teachers intervene in students' conflicts, telling them how to solve the problem rather than helping them solve the problem themselves. Parents come to school to solve students' problems and go over the teacher's head to the principal to yell about the teacher. Nobody practices negotiation because we haven't been taught to negotiate. We practice conflict. It's the typical American way. When we want to solve a problem, we got to court.”
Pittsburgh staff members decided to first train teachers and administrators in the techniques and then to teach students negotiation skills in all health classes. Their rationale was that in addition to being of daily use in settling disputes, negotiation skills could help students achieve academically.
“Often the level of learning is keyed to how the students feel about the teachers,” Denton says. A typical case might be that of a student who refuses to do anything in class. His belief that “the teacher is prejudiced toward me” is manifested in a certain work style. When he and the teacher, who has repeatedly warned the student that he will fail if he doesn't start working, consent to a negotiation process, they both agree to participate as equal players, first stating their position, then probing for the underlying needs of the other.
This second part of the procedure is the hardest, says New York staff development trainer Harriet Lenk, because participants will state their needs directly only if they trust one another. It is doubly difficult because they might not know exactly what their needs are. A subtle questioning technique, rather than demanding “Why do you feel that way?”, is much more likely to lead to insight.
For instance, the teacher might ask, “What would you like me to do to improve things between us?” Especially in the case of younger students, the teacher is often surprised that the solution the student most wants is not that difficult to achieve. Denton gives the example of a student who asked to be called by name and to “let me take the roll book to the principal.” The teacher's reply: “I can do that.” In return, the teacher was able to negotiate with the child “not to call me or other students names and to cooperate in class.” Both teacher and student were relieved because they could each back off from the old relationship and begin to forge a new one.

Overcoming Resistance

While teachers can gain as much as students from practicing conflict resolution procedures, it is difficult to sell them on the benefits until they actually try them, says Carole Grau, who with Principal Allen Leibowitz opened a Mediation Center in New Utrecht High School in New York in 1987 after the murder of local youth Yusuf Hawkins rocked the community.
“When we began this, teachers thought conflict resolution was a panacea and suspected it could be detrimental to their classroom management techniques,” Grau says. “They didn't want to be perceived as not being able to handle discipline problems.” Observing students participating in “facilitated negotiations”— that is, those mediated by an objective peer representative for each side— began to convince them of the benefits to students.
New Utrecht trained a crew of student volunteers to be mediators, thereby helping two groups: the disputants and the mediators. “What makes it attractive to students is that it's an empowerment. They are so used to relinquishing their power to authority figures. They desperately want to be listened to, and not just be provided an answer,” Grau says. “Teachers see the value of just two humans telling each other about the issues, attempting to come to resolution. They see that they do not give up their status in the classroom just because they agree to negotiate a specific issue.”
The results convince them the process works. In three years New Utrecht High School saw the number of suspensions go down from 51 to 20 per year. Mediator has become a term of respect, and more and more students refer themselves to the Mediation Center for help in resolving problems.

From Conflict, Collaboration

The need for conflict resolution training is increasing with the emphasis today on site-based management. Those engaged in collaborative decision making note that the process often breaks down as soon as conflicts break out.
Such was the case in Beach Channel High School in Queens, described by Principal Sandra Hassan as “a community school, open 24 hours a day.” Yet while middle-class lifestyle seems to predominate, the school community is diverse—41 percent black, 35 percent white, and 24 percent Hispanic, with the various groups tending to stay separate from one another.
When site-based management was proposed, it almost didn't get off the ground, Hassan relates. Two sides emerged: One group felt that the team composition should be based on academic departments and not on race or ethnicity. The other side insisted that any site-based management team must reflect the cultural diversity of the student body.
What had begun as an effort to create a more participative community became a racial conflict. The predominantly white group thought that those insisting on racial representation were telling them they could not possibly represent all students, that in effect they were not good teachers. The predominantly black group thought that shared decision making would be a sham if the group that held power did not represent all races and cultures.
In the face of this deadlock, both sides agreed to bring in a professional mediator who would help them understand conflict and work through their own discord. An ad hoc committee made up of an equal number of representatives from each side met, first venting opinions and misconceptions, gradually seeing the situation through the other's lens, then brainstorming possible solutions.
The group's eventual decision was to create a Multicultural Task Force of seven teachers appointed by the principal, reflective of the cultural diversity of students. In addition to its own work, this task force has two permanent seats on the Site-Based Management team.
It took a whole year, says Ellen Raider, who acted as mediator, before the opposing groups heard what each other was saying. Meanwhile, the naysayers of site-based management called the whole process a waste of money. “It was a very interesting and complex situation,” she says.
But the solution is working, Hassan reports. The Site-Based Management team has written a constitution and makes all decisions by consensus, with each of its 27 members having equal veto power. Together the team has tackled such issues as how to computerize the school to best integrate the curriculum. Its next endeavor will be to solve the discipline problem created by the fact that the school has 54 exits. (It is shaped like a star and situated on the tip of Jamaica Bay.) “We don't just want to promulgate rules. We want students to learn self-control,” Hassan says. She's quite sure there will be dissenting opinions about what should be done.
“Some say collaborative negotiation is a waste of time,” Hassan says, “but it's interesting, when some issue is of particular interest to them, they do want to participate in the decision. As a principal, the hardest thing for me is to take a back seat. My instinct is to take over. But if collaboration is to work, you must learn to hear different sides. It's funny—when there are many minds in the room, sometimes you do get convinced.”
Dissension is part of the the collaborative process, and conflict, an everyday event. Adults—and children—need to learn how to deal with both effectively. “We are social mobilizers,” Ellen Raider tells fellow trainers. “Ten days of training is not enough, but it's a beginning. We teach the skills to teachers; they take it back to others.”

Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School's Student Mediation Program. John Silva, Coordinator, Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, 459 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02138 (617) 349-6772

Educators for Social Responsibility (New York), 475 Riverside Dr., Room 450, New York, NY 10115, (212) 870-3318

Educators for Social Responsibility (National Office), 23 Garden St., Cambridge, MA 02138, (617) 492-1764

Ellen Raider International, 1 Millbrook Rd., New Paltz, NY 12561, (914) 255-5174

International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, Box 53, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027, (212) 678-3402

National Association for Mediation in Education (NAME), 425 Amity St., Amherst, MA 01002, (413) 545-2462

School Initiatives Program Community Board Center for Policy and Training, 1540 Market St., Suite 490, San Francisco, CA 94102, (415) 552-1250

End Notes

1 The ICCCR also offers a 20-day program over a two-year period. The program includes 5 sessions on negotiation, 5 on mediation, 5 lessons during which participants learn how to train colleagues, and 5 days of clinical supervision when trainers help participants implement the program with students. A certificate program to train specialists in conflict resolution, negotiation, mediation, and collaborative process skills is in the proposal stage.

Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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