Today’s post is contributed by a fellow elementary school teacher, mom and blogger, Jill McPherson. She shares with us a process she uses regularly to help her students resolve conflicts in a peaceful way that builds emotional and social intelligence.
Whether you’ve got two or twenty kids under your charge, if you’ve struggled with helping kids resolve their day to day conflicts, I know you will find Jill’s story helpful!
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Please note: All names have been changed to protect privacy.
The Conflict Begins
“Mrs. McPherson, Jenny grabbed me at recess, and I didn’t like it!” a grade one student said this to me as I was getting ready to teach her music class.
“Oh boy,” I thought, “Here we go again, more conflicts to deal with.” Some days it is hard to get to the business of teaching when students are struggling to get along. As much as I would have liked to let on I did not hear this student’s complaint, I couldn’t.
Pausing to Teach Life Skills
I have learned the value of putting the curriculum on hold so I can teach students life skills on how to get along. After all, if students are upset and troubled in their relationships, chances are not much learning can happen anyway.
I put our “Good Morning” song on so the students could begin our music class ritual of singing and greeting each other while I spoke to the two girls who were clearly upset.
Let’s call the girl who first complained to me about her classmate “Leena.” I asked Leena to tell me again what the problem was while Jenny was standing there.
As Leena shared that she did not like it when Jenny grabbed her at recess and would not let go, Jenny started to interrupt in a need to explain her actions.
Setting the Expectations
I reminded Jenny to please listen until Leena was done explaining her experience at recess. However, it isn’t easy to sit and listen when someone else’s story doesn’t match our own. Listening is a skill we all need to work on no matter how old we are.
When Leena was done, I asked Jenny to tell me what she heard Leena say. I was surprised when this grade one student was able to repeat back everything Leena originally shared accurately.
Then Jenny said that painful word that shuts us down to listening to the other. What’s that painful word?
Anything we say that is followed by a “BUT” is the part of our story where we make excuses to the “victim” on why we did what we did. Victims don’t want to hear excuses; they want to be heard.
I stopped Jenny when I heard the “but” and said, “I know you want us to hear your story. First, let’s check with Leena to see if you heard her right.” I looked to Leena and asked if she thought Jenny heard her and she nodded her head yes.
“Ok Jenny,” I said, “It sounds like you did a great job listening. Now please tell Leena what happened for you at recess.”
Taking Turns Listening
Jenny agreed that she had grabbed Leena. Leena interrupted Jenny to remind her she needed to use her words.
I reminded Leena to please just listen. Jenny responded with, “I did use my words! I did speak nicely to you, but you wouldn’t listen! You didn’t say anything! I asked you if I could play with you, but you didn’t say anything! My heart was hurting!”
I was very impressed with what I heard Jenny say. I heard a girl who was very aware of her feelings and that she had a need to be heard.
Now the song that I had played for the other 18 six-year-olds was done. Chaos would soon prevail if I ignored them. So I asked the girls if I could share our conversation with the rest of the class? They nodded yes.
An Unexpected Group Lesson
I asked everyone to sit down on the carpet so they could hear something important about how to get along with others. I quickly told the class about why these two girls were upset. Then I turned to Leena and asked what I ask all students who tell me someone is being mean to them, verbally or physically.
“Leena, what do you think Jenny was trying to tell you when she grabbed you?”
Leena just looked down at her feet. After a few seconds, I asked her if she would be ok with me guessing? She nodded her head.
Helping Kids See Their Needs
And so I guessed, “I am wondering if Jenny had a need to be heard?”
“I heard that you did not answer her question, so when you started to walk away, she grabbed you to get you to answer her. I wonder if her hands were saying, “Please hear me, and answer me!”
Instantly Jenny’s eyes lit up, and she said, “Yes, she wouldn’t answer me!”
I told Leena that my experience is when people use their words, and they still don’t feel heard, they often then use their hands. It does not make it ok; it just seems to be what humans do.
I then shared that I was wondering why she did not answer Jenny’s question. “I am wondering if you did not want to play with her, but you didn’t want to tell her the truth? Is that right?” Leena nodded yes.
The Difficulties With Being Honest
Now we were into a new challenge that humans have – being honest with one another. Honesty is often avoided when we think we are going to upset the other person. This belief often creates more pain than it avoids.
You are likely familiar with the expression, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” It seems to have implicitly seeped into our culture.
It sounds logical enough. However, it often results in us staying silent, not expressing our feelings and needs.
At the same time, on the other end of the conversation, it does not allow us to practice hearing the other person’s truth that can be painful to hear yet extremely valuable in maintaining a healthy relationship.
We can teach our children how to be honest in a polite way and not feel guilty if the receiver did not like hearing their truth. At the same time, we can teach children how to hear another person’s truth as valuable feedback and not get caught up in being a victim and believing that the other person hurt them.
No One Can Hurt Our Feelings Without Our Permission
We can take someone else’s experience as honest feedback, or we can feel sorry for ourselves and believe they hurt us. It is our choice how we interpret the other person’s experience.
So back to Leena. I asked her, “Is it possible you did not want to play with Jenny and did not want to tell her because you did not want to hurt her feelings?” Another nod of agreement.
I assured Leena I understood that she did not want to hurt Jenny’s feelings; however, I asked her what happened when she stayed silent?
Leena looked up and said, “She grabbed me.”
Reflecting A Child’s Needs
“That’s right,” I said. “Jenny used her hands because she had a need to be heard. Your silence told her you didn’t hear her. I am also guessing that Jenny has a need for friendship and wants to be friends with you. Is that right Jenny?” Jenny nodded yes.
Now I turned my focus on the “aggressor.” I helped Jenny hear why Leena stayed silent. I asked Jenny if she understood why Leena did not answer. Jenny said in a sad voice, “Because she didn’t want to play with me.”
“Yeah,” I said, “and I see that is painful for you to hear. I hear you were upset and so you used your hands to grab her because you wanted to be heard and wanted a friend. Did I get that right?”
Asking Kids to Reflect on Their Actions
Now Jenny was fighting tears. I asked her, “When you grabbed her, do you think that made her want to be your friend more or less?”
She knew the answer right away. With my arm around her in a sideways hug, I turned to the class and asked them, “If you ask someone to play and they don’t answer and then walk away, what do you think their answer is?”
One student raised his hand and said, “They don’t want to play with you.” I agreed and said, “That is my guess too.” I told the class, “If you have to run after someone trying to get them to be your friend, then that person is likely not your friend. Friends are people who want to be with you. They are people you don’t have to try to convince to like you.”
I thought if we could only get young children to hear and live this. How many teenage girls would stop chasing after boys trying to convince them to like them? Instead, we could be teaching girls earlier on to be open to seeing the boys who are truly interested and seeing their value without needing to be chased or convinced.
Then Jenny said something very painful and honest, “But nobody wants to play with me!”
Oh, how I wish I had all the time in the world to coach the kids who struggle to make friendships. I knew I had to close up this conversation as my grade ones were getting restless and needed to move on yet here was another learning opportunity for them all.
I repeated back what I heard Jenny say so she knew I heard her. Then I asked the class to listen to Jenny and think about how they could help her with her need for friendships.
Finally, I turned to Jenny and suggested that perhaps she could stand back and notice kids at recess who seemed to have friends and wonder why? Notice what they said and what they did.
Most importantly, I asked what she thought they think about themselves.
“Do you think they like themselves?” Jenny nodded yes. I agreed.
Then I invited her to notice if she liked herself. I told her not to answer that now, just to wonder, “Are you someone you would want to play with?”
When I turned to the class I asked them to ponder this question, “If we don’t like ourselves, then how can we expect anyone else too? First, remember what a great person you are, and then you will be the person other people will want to play with.”
I turned to Jenny and said, “I know you are a kind and loving person. Do you know that?” With tears in her eyes, she nodded yes. I said, “Great, then never forget how wonderful you are, then others will see that too.”
Then I added, “And remember everyone, it is ok if some people don’t like you. You probably don’t like everyone you meet. We don’t all have to be friends and play together, we just all need to be kind to each other.” I asked each girl for a hug and thanked them for sharing their stories with us so we could all learn how to talk and listen better and how to make friends.
These conflicts in getting along is often a constant issue if you have children or are a teacher. How do we effectively deal with children’s conflicts?
Steps to Help Kids Resolve Conflicts
- Ask one child to speak and the other one to listen without interrupting.
- Ask the listener to repeat back what he heard the speaker say, without judgement or excuses. Assure the listener he will get a chance to be heard as well.
- Check with the speaker that she was heard correctly. Did the other child get your version of the story right?
- Now the roles reverse and check in with the second child to make sure she was heard.
- As the mediator, you can now check that you heard each of them correctly by identifying their feelings and needs. i.e. It sounds like you are feeling__________ because you have a need for ______. (A great resource for this is Marshall Rosenberg’s book Non-Violent Communication.)
- As much as possible, try to leave it at that. Once you feel assured they have heard one another, leave it up to them to find a solution. When children come up with solutions on their own, you increase their problem-solving skills, and the results are much more likely to be effective.
- Never make children apologize. A forced apology is never sincere. It does not make the other feel better and over time will shut children down from accepting a sincere apology when it is given freely and lovingly.
Benefits of Teaching Conflict Resolution Skills
When children learn how to hear each other’s feelings and needs, over time, they will become more compassionate and be able to find a solution on their own in a way that everyone’s needs get met. That might look like getting along more effectively, or it may seem like less time spent with one another.
In the case of my two grade one girls, they may discover ways to get along and play together, but more importantly, they needed to learn how to identify their feelings and unmet needs and communicate that in a nonviolent way.
Helping Children Build Healthy Peer Relationships
If children are in a situation or relationship that is not working for them or at least one of their needs is not being fulfilled in a relationship, then we can guide them in finding ways to meet their needs in other ways.
This does not mean they no longer have a relationship with a sibling or someone in their class. Instead, it means they can stop becoming frustrated over expecting the same person to fulfil their needs (eg. for understanding, acknowledgment, information, trust, connection etc.) This allows them to move on to find it with other people, in other circumstances, or within themselves.
It is so empowering when we teach our children how to truly listen to one another. And it is freeing when they learn how to meet their needs in many different areas of their lives, especially when they learn they can let go of believing a certain person has to “play with me” or has to do X or Y in order to be happy.
If we can help our children learn to hear one another and discover ways to get their needs met in healthy ways, what a fulfilling and happy life they will lead!
Jill is a parenting consultant, offering one to one coaching sessions, as well as hosting parenting workshops online. She enjoys blogging on parenting and mental wellness topics at JillMcpherson.com. Jill is also a part-time elementary teacher who loves teaching music, drama and mental wellness strategies to her students. She lives with her husband and four children on a farm near Toronto, Ontario.