The Three Cs of Safe Schools - ASCD
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October 1, 1997

The Three Cs of Safe Schools

Cooperation, conflict resolution, and civic values combine to make school a safe haven for kids in Edina, Minnesota.

  • A multi-age class (1st-3rd graders) sits in a community circle engaged in a class meeting on respect.

  • Fifth graders in a self-contained classroom work cooperatively to create mind maps on cultures around the world while 3rd-5th graders in the multi-age class next door work in small groups, researching and preparing presentations on energy.

  • After explaining both academic and social skill objectives for a cooperative lesson, the music teacher challenges pairs of students to create and perform a rhythmical composition by taking turns arranging musical note cards. She provides feedback to students on helpful ways they can assist and support each other.

  • Meanwhile, 2nd graders in a self-contained class continue their integrated thematic unit on the rainforest. Their classroom is transformed into a jungle with desks clustered around life-size paper palm trees webbed with vines of yarn from which monkeys, snakes, birds, and other stuffed animals peer. When the lunch bell rings, most of the students do not notice. They remain engaged, fascinated by their environment, and determined to find more information on the Internet as they cluster around computers.

  • Students who are serving as peer mediators for the day quickly respond to the bell. It is their signal to put on a mediator jacket, pick up a conflict resolution clipboard, then pair up on the playground to assist classmates in constructively resolving any conflicts that occur.

Teaching teams. Multi-age classrooms next door to same-grade classrooms. Conflict resolution. Cooperative groups. Peer mediators. A fascinating curriculum. Engaged students, facilitative teachers. This is Highlands Elementary School in Edina, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. The Highlands community shows that schools can be safe havens from the stresses and adversity of family and neighborhood life.

Even in a state like Minnesota, regardless of whether the school is urban, suburban, or rural and whether the school is public or private, students report frequent problems involving physical aggression (being punched and kicked and seeing teachers being slapped or hit by students), property damage (bathroom wastebaskets being set afire, and lavatory sinks being beaten off the wall with baseball bats), and incivility (profanity in the hallways and vulgar words thrown at teachers in classrooms). 1 Problems such as these disrupt learning and may reflect the aggression and self-centeredness found in our society.

Highlands Elementary nurtures its students physically and psychologically and promotes the well-being of faculty and staff members. This healthy community is based on the three Cs: cooperative community, constructive conflict management, and civic values. During the 1996-97 academic year, we conducted a study of the Three Cs Program and its impact on Highlands.

Highlands Elementary School

  • Continuous Progress. Students attend multi-age classes of about 27 students each. Fifty-four 1st-5th grade students are assigned to an educational family, which is divided into two classes (1st-3rd and 3rd-5th, with the 3rd grade group split about equally between the two classes). Each family has two teachers. Each day for some activities the classes meet separately; for some activities the family meets together. The family stays together for the five years of elementary school. Thematic instruction with integrated curriculums are prominent components of the cooperative learning being used in each family.

  • Discovery. Students are in single-grade, self-contained classes with one teacher. Student-centered, thematic instruction is a focus at each grade level. Partnerships across grade levels exist in targeted curriculum areas, such as literature-based reading. Each year students advance to the next grade level and work with different classmates and teachers.

From its founding, Highlands has implemented cooperative learning and conflict resolution (through the Peacemaker Program). The civic values program was added in 1992.

Peacemaker Conflict Resolution

The problem-solving and mediation procedures used by teachers and students at Highlands include the following:

  • Negotiation: Stating what disputants want, how they feel, the reasons underlying their wants and feelings, their understanding of the other person's wants, feelings, and reasons; suggesting three possible agreements that maximize joint outcomes; and choosing the agreement that seems most beneficial to both disputants.

  • Mediation: End hostilities, ensure commitment to mediation, facilitate negotiations, formalize the agreement.

  • Role-playing: Practice negotiation and mediation steps.

The steps are posted in every room (often by colorful illustrations of each step drawn by students), and most classrooms have a special table or corner designated for peer mediation. Although all students are trained to be mediators, not all students actually serve as mediators throughout the year. Each trimester a pair of students from each 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade is selected to serve as peer mediators on the playground during lunch. The pairs rotate daily. Approximately 20 students serve the school as mediators each trimester, for a total of 60 throughout the academic year.

The First C: Cooperative Community

Cooperation is structured at every organizational level of Highlands. Every teacher uses cooperative learning; the school staff structures daily classwide, interclass, and schoolwide cooperative activities. Teachers participate on teaching teams and regular study groups, and faculty members systematically exchange ideas and resources (see Resources, p. 13).

  • School interdependence. The Highlands mission statement emphasizes the school's commitment "to educate each child in a safe, cooperative, and innovative environment to be a responsible lifelong learner. . . ." The mission appears on the agenda of every faculty meeting. School interdependence is highlighted in the weekly telecast (facilitated by the media specialist), special activities organized by the student council, all-school projects, and regular school assemblies.

  • School-parent interdependence. Highlands involves almost 100 percent of the students' parents in establishing mutual goals, participating in a division of labor, and sharing resources. The school's strategic plan was created with strong parent involvement, and parents and faculty regularly review it. Parents produce the school's newsletter and yearbook, and some parents volunteer in classrooms daily. Parents serve on all school committees, the site council, and the PTA. They organize field trips and raise money for technology.

  • Interclass interdependence. Cross-class cooperation is a feature of the school, through the "families" of the Continuous Progress classes, the cross-grade "reading buddies" of the Discovery classes, and special schoolwide social skills projects.

  • Cooperative learning and classwide interdependence. Cooperative learning goals permeate Highlands. Here's a geography example: The ceiling was turned into a large grid, giving latitude and longitude. The class worked in eight cooperative groups. The teacher assigned each group a geographical location on which to do a report. They summarized the essential information about the location on a placard, determined where on the ceiling to place it, and placed it there. The class then planned an itinerary for a trip to visit all eight places. They used yarn to mark their journey. As they arrived at each spot, the appropriate group presented its report on the location, including its latitude and longitude.

Cooperative learning is evident in every classroom. Desks are clustered, group name placards designate teamwork stations, posters celebrate the benefits of teamwork, and bulletin boards both inside and outside of classrooms display the products of students' cooperative efforts. Students huddle in their groups, coordinate roles and resources, and celebrate mutual accomplishments with high fives, smiles, and handshakes.

In addition, teachers involve students in informal cooperative experiences: "To prepare for this game, ask the person next to you to give an example of what it means to be a good sport," "Make sure your neighbor understands the directions," "Ask if anyone at your table needs help," "Turn to your neighbor and find out what he or she predicts," or "Let's give a round of applause to show our appreciation."

At frequent class meetings, children discuss how well the class is functioning and make plans on how to improve the quality of classroom life. Classwide academic projects highlight that the class as a whole is a learning community.

In our yearlong assessment of Highlands, we have documented important outcomes of the emphasis on cooperation among students. Cooperative learning ensures that all students are meaningfully and actively involved in learning, are achieving up to their potential, and are establishing friendships at all levels. The school has developed a strong sense of community in which all members actively seek to resolve conflicts and solve problems together.

The Second C: Conflict Resolution

With cooperation comes conflict. Two teachers, for example, may be committed to teaching students to read, but may disagree on which method to use (phonics or whole language) or what books students should read. The more committed the collaborators are to their goals, and the more closely they work together, the more frequent and intense the conflicts they may have. (We tend not to fight with strangers over issues we do not care about.) But the successful resolution of conflict reestablishes effective cooperation—and provides a source of creativity, excitement, motivation, energy, insight, synergy, synthesis, fun, and renewed support and caring, for both teachers and students.

  • Academic controversies. Teachers often involve students in academic controversies. A 3rd-5th grade class, for example, grappled with the issue of school uniforms. Pairs of students in groups of four considered the issue. One pair advocated uniforms, and the other pair in each group took a stand against them. The pairs researched and prepared arguments to support their respective positions and held formal debates—including reversing their positions and finally synthesizing all sides of the argument and reaching consensus on the issue.Students benefit in many ways—academically and socially—from structured controversies. Learning research and critical thinking skills is complemented by learning about different perspectives, learning to listen, and learning to work cooperatively to reach solutions.

  • Problem-solving negotiations and peer mediation. All students—even kindergartners—learn how to engage in problem-solving negotiations and how to mediate schoolmates' conflicts. Here's a playground example: A ball rolls out of bounds during a soccer game. A cluster of students walking by laugh as one of them kicks the ball away from the player trying to retrieve it. An argument ensues. A pair of peer mediators with clipboards in hand quickly approach the two disputants. "Would you like some help resolving your conflict?" So begins the mediation process through which the disputants arrive at a mutually agreeable solution that makes both happy. They shake hands as friends and return to their activities while the peer mediators make a note of the resolution, then continue to be available for other schoolmates.

The school supports negotiation and mediation in many ways, such as the telecasts mentioned previously. Mr. Mediator Man (one of the teachers in a peacemaking superhero costume) makes periodic appearances on the telecasts, in classrooms, and at assemblies. Teachers are working to integrate the problem-solving negotiation and peer mediation procedures into language arts and social studies lessons; and they are planning to include restitution in the process. As students comment: We just don't fight or hit at this school. For me, the (negotiation) steps are foolproof. It's kind of fun to use them to solve a conflict. The conflict steps work. You can rely on them. Talking it out gets rid of the anger and helps you solve your problems without using your fists. What's really good is there are no put-downs. I like it when after you solve a conflict, you're friends again.

People at Highlands see many benefits of teaching students specific conflict-resolution procedures. Students share a common vocabulary, they are all eager to be mediators, and they readily participate in conflict resolution sessions. Teachers reflected at the end of the year: Discipline problems are nil as far as I'm concerned. We don't do a lot of disciplining per se. When a conflict occurs on the playground, they resolve it there and do not bring it back to the classroom. So there is a lot less that I have to deal with in the classroom. It's so great to be able to say, "These people are having a conflict; is there someone who can help them resolve it?" Twenty hands go up and everybody wants to help them. And I choose someone and say, "All right, take these people back to the mediation table and solve the conflict and let me know how it goes." Sometimes it will take 2 minutes; sometimes, 15 minutes. As a teacher, I immensely appreciate that students can do that for themselves. It enables everybody in the class, including me, to focus on what we're learning.

Both cooperation and constructive conflict resolution are based on a set of civic values aimed at ensuring the fruitful continuation of the community. Concern for others, respect for diversity, devotion to the common good, and self-respect—these are values everyone needs.

The Third C: Civic Values

Students are sitting in a circle on the carpet. A class meeting is in progress. Today the issue is respect. One of the students risked telling her classmates that she felt hurt during recess the day before because she was trying to tell kids the rules to a new game, but nobody would listen. So began a discussion on what it means to be respectful, why that is important, and the sharing of everyone's personal experiences of times they felt respected versus not respected.

To create the culture that defines a community, members must have a set of common goals and values that help define appropriate behavior. A community cannot exist if members have a variety of different value systems, believe only in their own self-interests, or have no values at all. Too many schools fit this last description.

Caring, respect, responsibility, and a set of core values are themes that run throughout Highlands. The Edina Public Schools Ethical Values Program calls these civic virtues the ICCCAR (pronounced "I CARE") values: integrity, courage, compassion, commitment, appreciation of diversity, and responsibility.

The values are posted in every classroom; and they are reflected in the school's cooperation and constructive conflict resolution programs, as well as in the curriculum. For example, teachers select children's literature to connect with the core values that Highlands adheres to. The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson is a catalyst for discussing compassion, and The River by Gary Paulson exemplifies responsibility. Frequent class meetings provide a safe forum for talking about the values and how they affect people's lives.

Faculty and students at Highlands report that teaching civic values takes the guesswork out of knowing what the school stands for. The values guide decision making about the curriculum, instruction, and resources. The values provide a structure for every teacher to talk about what is important and why—to parents, students, visitors, and among themselves.

Creating Nourishing Schools

The three Cs—cooperation, conflict resolution, and civic values—represent a gestalt in which each component enhances and promotes the other two. Cooperation creates a structure within which faculty, students, and parents work together to educate the students. When conflicts inevitably arise, the skillful use of problem-solving negotiations leads people to develop higher-level reasoning; high-quality and novel solutions; and trusting, supportive, and caring relationships.

Civic values are the glue that hold the school together. Together the three Cs are a complete management program for creating safe, nourishing schools.

End Notes

1 M. Snow, "Mindworks: Disbehavior," Minneapolis Tribune, Section E, 1-2, 14 (March 6, 1997).

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