Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 8

Changing the Way Kids Settle Conflicts

By using the Students Against Violence program, teachers can help children deal with their own—and others'—disagreements in positive ways.

Someone takes your parking space—what do you do? Someone cuts ahead of you in line at the football game—what do you say? A man bumps into your cart in the grocery store and keeps going. How does that make you feel?
These adult conflicts are similar to the issues that children face every day. Missing pencils, line cutting, and being pushed or shoved are real concerns to elementary school children. Whether they are prepared and confident enough to handle them depends on whether they possess certain skills—the ability to negotiate, to compromise, and to resolve conflicts peacefully.
As a 2nd grade teacher in Pittsburgh, I have a growing concern for students who are exposed to violence or who are displaying more violent behavior. Increasingly, children who learn good conflict management skills find themselves trying to negotiate with kids who would rather fight—even over minor matters like cutting into line, taking a pencil, and touching a classmate's desk.
Many kids are unable to share or to negotiate for what they want; they are unable to consider the other person's point of view. They assume hostile intent; they believe the other person is intentionally causing them shame, embarrassment, or ridicule. Many of these children have witnessed adults handling problems by shouting or hitting.
I was in the hallway when some 3rd graders were walking downstairs from a second-floor class. All the way down, one child was loudly protesting, "He cut in, he cut in!" The alarm in his voice prompted me to investigate. I found that both youngsters were vying for second place in line. The one who wasn't succeeding was red-faced, flushed, and crying profusely. His face reflected pure rage. I touched his shoulder, and he was shaking. Only by talking quietly to him and getting him to take deep breaths was I able to calm him down. He was ready to fight. This was a power play and he was losing.
Although the problem of violence exists in elementary school, we usually don't attempt to fix it until middle school or high school. Tragically, "without intervention, 40 percent of childhood bullies become adult felons," according to a recent study (Brendtro and Long 1995).
We clearly need a curriculum to help these kids. But as Johnson and Johnson (1995) point out,Teaching students the procedures and skills they need to resolve conflicts constructively has been relatively ignored . . . despite considerable research evidence indicating that the constructive management of conflict increases classroom productivity.
When I first decided to teach my 2nd graders about conflict management, antiviolence strategies, drug avoidance, and safety, I could find no materials suitable for elementary school children. So I created my own. I wrote a program called "Students Against Violence" (Holden 1990) that is geared for grades 1-5.

Creating a Refuge

Children also have a sense of helplessness and fear about the violence and terror that surrounds them. "What may appear to be a nonchalant gun-toting mentality—even habit—among school youth is as often the result of terror, the need for safety, and a perceived lack of options," say Haberman and Dill (1995).
Students in my classroom have expressed their fear of gunshots in the night. One child talked about the bloodstains on her street from a gang fight the day before. She had to look at them as she walked to her school bus. I've seen these children's faces mirroring the horror of what is becoming an everyday occurrence.
In addition, more and more children are the victims of violent crimes committed by adults. Teachers and parents cannot watch their children 24 hours a day, so we must teach them how to get help and how to help themselves.
As an antidote to the environment these children face, I attempt to create a classroom that looks and feels physically and emotionally safe. I place peace posters around the room. I use stuffed animals. I display signs and banners about love, respect, and kindness. The atmosphere says "We do not fight here. We are calm here. We are secure and protected here."
Each morning, the children begin class by reciting their class motto: "We are smart.We are important. We can learn. We care and share. Our teacher loves us." Students then read the brief "newsroom message" that I write on the chalkboard each day. I call them "Star Students" and provide a short, positive message. Next, the children recite their class rules. They know them by heart and they may recite them in any order they like. The rules are short and direct: "Show respect," "No pushing or fighting," "Smile," and "Always do your best," for example.
Finally, the children recite their rap song, "Hugs Not Slugs": <POEM><POEMLINE>Hugs not slugs is what we say,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>We are kind in every way.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>We do our best.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>We are good.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>We solve our problems like we should.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>We never fight.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>We never bite.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>We always share.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>We do what's right.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>So if you want to join our club,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Just remember,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Hugs Not Slugs!</POEMLINE></POEM>

Integrating the Message

Children need to feel a part of something; they need to belong. Therefore, we have a Students Against Violence club. The children receive membership cards and stickers or stars just for being members in good standing. They must sign a contract promising to avoid violence.
I infuse all of the program's lessons into my curriculum. (My 2nd grade class is self-contained; the children remain together for every subject but gymnasium, music, and art.) For one reading session, I read The Berenstain Bears Get into a Fight. Right after I teach vocabulary and comprehension, we apply what we've learned in discussing questions such as "What do the cubs do when they get angry?" "How do the cubs finally solve their problems?" "Is it normal for people to argue?"
I particularly enjoy a lesson called "Year of the Child," included in a social studies or health class. It addresses young people's concerns under four major themes: "I'm Home Alone But Acting Grown," "I Know How to Handle Stranger Danger," "I Can Cope, I Don't Need Dope!" and "Get A Grip! Gangs Aren't Hip." Under "Stranger Danger," for example, I have students complete sentences such as "If someone I do not know offers me candy, I will . . ." Under "Gangs Aren't Hip," students answer questions like "What does it mean to be violent?" "Is it a good idea to join a gang?" and "Is it okay to hit someone because you are angry?"
Another lesson, "Make a Better World," follows a map skills lesson. We create an imaginary country called SAV—the acronym for my program. We name cities and streets (Peaceful Avenue in Love Land, for example). We draw a map of our cities that includes the names of buildings and stores (Friendship Builders is a business that helps people make friends). We write a history of the country. We even design a flag and postage stamps.

You Can't Do It All

  • Teachers can't do it all. You may have one or two children you just can't reach. They may have severe behavior problems that go beyond the scope of your classroom.
  • It takes time for behavior to change; learning takes place only through repetition. Don't get frustrated—or lose hope—if you do not see immediate changes in your students. I always say that perhaps my difficult student will be the 3rd grade teacher's success story.
  • The ability to see the other person's point of view is difficult for adults as well as children. In fact, this is really a grown-up skill that many of us adults are not so good at.
  • Violent behavior may have any of a number of causes, and in a specific incident, we may not know what the student is thinking. Children do not walk into our classrooms and announce that they are angry and so plan to hit their classmates. They do not necessarily tell us that they are sad or worried or afraid. Having a good student-centered program helps alleviate the stress this ambivalence causes teachers.
  • Conflict is unavoidable. You will not rid your classrooms of all disagreements, nor should you try. Conflict is a normal part of life. I have finally come to accept that some days are just bad days for kids. They can be just as cranky and irritable as any adult and therefore more prone to conflicts and arguments.
  • Remember that every conflict is not serious, so don't overreact. You want to eliminate the violent conflict and teach your kids how to manage the rest.
  • Adults must model ways of handling conflicts peacefully and compliment children who are doing so as well. I never pass up opportunities to point out when children are settling their problems appropriately.

Watching New Habits Unfold

Once I've taught my students what to do, I can step out of the way and allow them to help one another. And they do. For example, one day when I was demonstrating my program to a visiting teacher, I noticed that a young boy was angry at a classmate. Apparently, he had been sent to the principal's office after the two of them got into a fight in another classroom. Before I began my lesson, I acknowledged the problem and said I hoped they would work it out.
After the lesson, I told the children to work in their groups. As my guest and I watched, two other students immediately went to the child who was upset and attempted to help him work out his problem with his classmate. They cared about him and they now had the skills to help him resolve his problem peacefully. Although he resisted at first, he eventually expressed his anger, got over it, and made up with his pal.
This was the program in action. Without adult supervision, these 7-year-olds were able to help one another solve their problems. And they also got their classwork done—very well, in fact. They did what Johnson and Johnson (1995) said successful anti-violence programs must do: help students change their habits, attitudes, and values, and replace violent behavior with nonviolent or positive behavior.
I hope this happens on a larger scale. Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I've grown weary of it, and I am offended by it. We must all join forces to combat the epidemic that is destroying our young. We have to start—the kids will do the rest.

Brendtro, L., and N. Long. (February 1995). "Breaking the Cycle of Conflict." Educational Leadership 52, 5: 52-56.

Haberman, M., and V.S. Dill. (Summer 1995). "Commitment to Violence Among Teenagers in Poverty." Kappa Delta Pi Record, p. 148.

Holden, G. (1990). Students Against Violence. Westminster, Calif.: Teacher Created Materials.

Johnson, D.W., and R.T. Johnson. (1995). Reducing School Violence Through Conflict Resolution. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.

Gerri Holden 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 197006.jpg
Social and Emotional Learning
Go To Publication