My students are often young parents, young teachers-in-training, or just students frustrated that they are just beginning to learn something about constructive conflict management as they take college courses. They want to know exactly how to teach nonviolent conflict management to children.
There are an enormous number of articles, workshops, trainings, curricula, activities books and both academic and trade books on this topic. I am only going to touch on one recent scholarly study that shows some research into one strand of this, how we can predict and affect children's abilities to respond to conflict in a nonviolent fashion meant to de-escalate it. The researchers looked at 364 urban 4th, 5th and 6th graders.
What they found, basically, was that when students are taught two skills that then seems to correlate with this ability.
One, strong narrative communication. They need to be able to listen to stories and tell their own stories with skill.
Two, they need to be able to specifically communicate to others about their own internal states.
The direct quote from their research findings:
"Qualitative analyses revealed a relationship between children’s response to conflict and their narrative skills, moral evaluations, and descriptions of emotion, intentions, and mental states. Children who reported the use of communication in response to conflict wrote stories containing very low levels of violence and also displayed attentiveness to others’ internal states and strong narrative form. In contrast, children whose narratives reported the use of retaliation in response to conflict were unlikely to report about internal states or to display strong narrative form."
What does this mean?
First, it's important to keep it all in perspective. Again, from the discussion of their specific research:
"Nine percent of the conflicts children chose to write about included acts of criminal or life-threatening violence. It is appalling, of course, to have such violence be a part of any childhood. However, it is important to note that the vast majority of the stories in our corpus described ordinary peer and sibling conflicts—the kinds of conflicts that have long been recognized as critical to moral and social-cognitive development (Piaget 1932; Shantz 1987; Shantz and Hartup 1992). Although these children lived in the middle of a city that was then third in the nation in violent crime (according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report), in neighborhoods where a majority of adults were afraid to walk outside (Kirby 2001), their lives did not appear to be defined or dominated by violence. For the most part, these children found good resources in their families and schools to help them understand and learn from interpersonal conflict."
That's the good news.
The bad news is the adults' role in many of the stories (these were true stories from the children's lives, according to the children). The response when kids did as they had been told, which was to seek adult help:
"There were relatively few stories describing the seeking of adult help, and they gave us a disquieting glimpse of how children assess the effectiveness of adult assistance. Several children reported being ignored when they sought adult help. (One-sixth grader attempted to tell the principal about being sexually harassed by a classmate in the haunted house, but ‘‘the principal was too busy.’’) In the large majority of stories that involved adult intervention, the adult role was to mete out punishment or to separate the antagonists. There were only five stories like the one in Example 5, in which an adult served as a consultant to help children solve interpersonal problems."
Some of these unresponsive adults were in the school system, some in the home. We have much work to do in both environments and we should do that work wherever we can.
The authors looked at the literature on this and at their own study and certainly recommend some measures for our educational system:
"Chen (2001, 2003) suggested to teachers of young children that although the first reaction to peer conflict in the classroom may be to squelch it, teachers should try to see conflict as an opportunity for social and moral development. When teachers view conflict as a manageable and important part of childhood, rather than as a threat, conflict can become a part of the learning that goes on within schools. When peer conflict threatens to disrupt ongoing instruction, teachers need to have an established classroom practice that allows them to postpone the conflict without suppressing it. By third grade, most students have learned enough self-control to be able to cooperate with a teacher’s instruction to ‘‘hold that dispute until we finish this lesson, and then you can take it up in the dispute center.’’ This can most reliably be successful if teachers have the support of a second adult in the classroom. Peer Mediation is a good example of a program that has given teachers support in implementing this kind of practice. Peer Mediation programs have been successful in helping schools to manage conflict not by attempting to suppress it, but by giving students the time, space, and assistance to talk through their conflicts with other peers (Johnson and Johnson 2001; Bell et al. 2000, Lupton-Smith et al. 1996)."
Finally, they had one last specific recommendation: teach children to be able to communicate about conflict:
"Conflict resolution interventions tend to encourage communication, sometimes with the use of a mediator (Johnson and Johnson 2001; Bell et al. 2000; Lupton-Smith et al. 1996). These programs, however, do not necessarily stress the development of children’s ability to communicate effectively. In the stories that children wrote for this research, they often reported unsuccessful attempts at communication as a response to conflict. Many of the children who described violence in their stories did not seem to recognize that the thoughts, feelings, emotions, and motives of the actors were relevant. We believe that children with strong narrative skills are well-equipped to solve interpersonal problems. They are likely to exercise social perspective taking skills and to make moral evaluations of conflict situations. Good storytellers will be able to explain their own motives and goals in ways that will be acceptable to their peers. Narrative is a site where meaning is constructed according to social and cultural expectations. Personal narrative writing and storytelling tasks can be used to facilitate the development of critical peacemaking skills."
One of the proven ways to enhance that set of skills is to work with children on keeping a journal. I'd recommend both Freedom Writers and Precious, two films that really show the power of the journal as both therapy and competency development.
Harris, Alexis; Walton, Marsha. “Thank You for Making Me Write This.” Narrative Skills and the Management of Conflict in Urban Schools. Urban Review, Nov2009, Vol. 41 Issue 4, p287-311.
So, while this doesn't answer all our questions about teaching children to handle conflict in constructive ways, it does offer some researched guidance that can inform us as parents and teachers who hope that our children will grow up with more advanced abilities to manage conflict than those we were guided toward in many of our personal histories.