Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 1

The Road to Peace in Our Schools

Through a comprehensive school-based approach, the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program has taught thousands of young people and adults how to work out their differences and create peaceable learning communities.

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. asked our nation a compelling question: Where do we go from here—chaos or community? This was the same year I began teaching in a 5th grade classroom in East Harlem. The 37 children in my class had many needs, and many obstacles interfered with their learning. Yet also present in their lives was a sense of community, an unwritten code, reflected by the open doors of churches, the greetings of neighbors, that these were everybody's children. Back then, I could not have imagined that as the national director of the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program, I would one day be interviewed for a prime-time TV special with the title "Kids Killing Kids."
Times have changed. More and more, chaos seems to be replacing community. In the United States today, every 11 seconds a child is reported abused or neglected, every 4 minutes a child is arrested for a violent crime, and every 98 minutes a child is killed by a gun. On a typical school day, more than 135,000 young people bring weapons to school because they don't feel safe. And one out of every six young people in America knows someone who was seriously hurt or killed by violence (Toch et al. 1993). Kids are coming to school more frightened and angry than ever before, and their fear and anger walk right through the metal detectors at the doorways.

Transforming School Culture

Schools have always performed a vital socializing function in our society. They are now among the few places where young people of diverse backgrounds can be found in large numbers on a daily basis. Mildred Johnson, a classroom teacher from New Orleans, puts it this way: When I first started teaching almost 20 years ago, the problems of young people were vastly different. Children seemed to have more hope for the future. Too many of our children have lost hope because so many people around them have. I feel that it's one of my responsibilities to give them that sense of hope they lack.Clearly, schools today must be committed more deeply than ever before to intentionally creating community and to paying attention to young people's social and emotional lives. We need a new vision for schools—one that includes educating the heart along with the mind.
What distinguishes the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program from other violence prevention programs is our emphasis on transforming the culture of participating schools and making them nonviolent learning communities. Our "peaceable schools" model, developed by educators over many years in classrooms and communities, is unique in its problem-solving approach to daily conflicts. Our schools operate on the premise that, here, we talk about our problems; we don't shove them under the table. People tend to respect one another, value diversity, and hold fewer negative stereotypes.
There are strong sanctions against violence and bias-related incidents. And, finally, teachers, students, and staff share power; a democratic environment fosters the development of social and civic responsibility. Consider the dynamics of this classroom. Mrs. Frye sits at her desk in the back. The front right corner of the classroom bears a multicolored sign that students made, designating the area as "The Peace Corner." Several students are busily working there.Others work quietly with their groups at their tables. Suddenly, Frank, a short boy at the table near the door, breaks the silence."Hey, give me back my book, Tom, I know you took it!""I don't have your stupid book," Tom responds in a shrill voice. "This is mine."They continue to yell at each other until Sara, a student mediator, walks over and asks, "Would you like me to help?" For a brief moment the boys stop bickering.By this time, Mrs. Frye is standing behind the two angry boys. Turning to them, she says, "I'd like you both to calm down and decide whether you'd like to discuss this with me or whether you'd like a mediation."The two boys, still angry, stalk off to different sides of the room. They both know the procedure. They sit apart for a while and calm themselves down before they attempt to resolve the conflict; then they walk over to the class mediator for help.During the three or four minutes that this argument lasted, other students looked on, but continued to work at their tables.In this classroom and others like it, kids know it's their job to express and control their anger appropriately. They also have the skills needed to resolve conflicts nonviolently—both staff and students have been trained in mediation and negotiation. What's more, discipline is not just a matter of teachers' edicts: The students have taken part in the rule-making and they know what happens if the rules are broken. Not only are there strong sanctions against physical aggression, but hurtful words, including put-downs, are not tolerated.

Roots in New York City

Our program began in 1985 as a joint initiative of the New York City Board of Education and the New York chapter of Educators for Social Responsibility. We started in three schools in Brooklyn, and by 1988, the program had expanded to many more schools in New York City.
Today, under the auspices of the RCCP National Center in New York City (an initiative of the national office of Educators for Social Responsibility), we operate in eight school systems in five states. With 325 elementary, middle, and high schools (some 150,000 students) served, Resolving Conflict Creatively is one of the largest programs of its kind in the country.
Among public health experts, it is "widely regarded as one of the most promising violence-prevention programs," according to a report on school safety by the U.S. General Accounting Office (1995).
Reflecting on our program's work over the past decade, we have identified several factors that have contributed to our helping to make schools safe, caring, learning communities. Although the curriculum we advocate is skills-based, the development and promotion of social responsibility is an expected outcome. We hope to inspire everyone to play an activist role in shaping our society's future. Peaceable classrooms and schools are more than refuges from harm—they are models for the greater community.

The Peaceable Schools Model

Our primary strategy in the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program is to reach young people through the adults they're with on a daily basis—at home, in school, and in their communities. We also aim to foster young people's social and emotional development by giving them conflict resolution and mediation skills and an appreciation of cultures different from their own.
Our program is more than an add-on or a consultant's intervention; it requires a long-term commitment (at least five years) of any school system that wishes to work with us.
  • A K–12 curriculum that focuses on teaching key skills: active listening, empathy and perspective-taking, cooperation, negotiation, the expression of feelings in appropriate ways, and assertiveness (as opposed to aggressiveness or passivity). Classroom lessons include role-playing, interviewing, group discussion, brainstorming, and "teachable moments" that arise from classroom situations or world events. We also help students appreciate cultural diversity and show them ways of countering bias.
  • Professional development for teachers, which provides 24 hours of training in communication and conflict resolution skills, implementation of our curriculum, and strategies for integrating our program's concepts and skills into academic subjects such as social studies and language arts. A key to the program's success is follow-up support. Each teacher is assigned a staff developer who visits the school between 6 and 10 times during the year. That person helps with preparation, observes classes, gives demonstration lessons, and discusses general concerns.
  • Student-led mediation, part of a larger effort to work with staff and students in the classroom first. The mediation program provides a strong peer model for nonviolence and the appreciation of diversity. It also reinforces students' emerging skills in working out their own problems.

Does It Work?

In an early independent evaluation of the New York City site, Metis Associates (May 1990) reported that 87 percent of the teachers involved in Resolving Conflict Creatively found the program was having a positive effect on their students. Specifically, teachers and administrators reported less violence in the classroom; spontaneous use of conflict resolution skills by children; and increases in self-esteem, empowerment, awareness of and verbalization of feelings, caring behavior, and acceptance of differences.
Educators for Social Responsibility Metro is now completing an intensive evaluation of our program in New York City, supported by a three-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and grants from private foundations. Researchers are looking at the program's role in reducing violent behavior, as well as how students and teachers learn and practice the conflict resolution and mediation skills over time. This is the largest study currently under way in the field, with a sample of more than 8,000 students. Results will be available in the spring of 1997 (National Center for Children in Poverty, in press).
Our own experience, along with the evidence of independent evaluations, suggests that our program works. And at a time when teachers and schools are being asked to do more and more, often with fewer and fewer resources, teachers find that this approach can support other school reforms. When children feel safe, respected, and empowered, learning of all kinds—from the most practical to the most intellectual—is enhanced.
Through listening to the voices of our young people, we know that we are succeeding in teaching them a new paradigm. They are learning that they can be powerful, that what they say and do matters. Consider the experience of a 9th grader named Brandon. Held up at knifepoint when he was just nine years old, he learned early in life how to be tough and streetwise. After that, he chose to be the aggressor rather than the victim. He describes what that was like: I just bullied people around. Got my own way. Didn't have many friends. Kids were scared of me. One day I punched this kid right in the face. Broke his glasses. At first I felt good about it. My friends thought I was cool. Then I saw he was crying. This kid hadn't done anything to me. I started feeling bad. When this program began at my school, my dad wanted me to join. I thought, "Yeah, right." This wasn't for me. But soon everything started to change. I began to get my respect another way.

Metis Associates, Inc. (May 1990). The Resolving Conflict Creatively Program 1988-1989: A Summary of Significant Findings. New York: Metis Associates, Inc.

Toch, T., T. Guest, and M. Guttman. (November 8, 1993). "Violence in Schools."U.S. News and World Report.

National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University School of Public Health.(In press). The Evaluation of the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program New York. New York: Columbia University Press.

U.S. General Accounting Office. (April 1995). School Safety: Promising Initiatives for Addressing School Violence. Report to the Ranking Minority Member, Subcommittee on Children and Families, Committee on Labor and Human Resources, U.S. Senate. Washington, D.C.

Linda Lantieri has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 196243.jpg
Creating a Climate for Learning
Go To Publication