Kids squabble, that's nothing new. Trying to prevent all childhood conflicts would be about as futile as trying to stop the Earth from rotating. But teaching students how to resolve conflicts can be a productive endeavor for all involved, to the point of reducing the amount of squabbles that come up, even if not eradicating them altogether.
At Tustumena Elementary School, kindergarten through third-grade students are gaining skills for resolving conflicts, and they're learning it from a source that knows a lot about the subject -- other students.
Since 2008 the school has operated a conflict manager program, where teams of fourth- through sixth-grade students spend lunchtime recess helping younger students smooth out disputes. It not only reduces the amount of adult supervision needed at recess, but also teaches and reinforces mediation skills to all ages of kids involved.
"We have kids who don't know how to handle conflict -- to negotiate and listen and find solutions. This is really a nice way to teach them those skills. The older kids lead the younger ones through the resolution process, so they're firming those skills up within themselves and are also teaching the little guys how to deal with conflict," said Camille Hill, a Kenai Peninsula Borough School District psychologist who serves Tustumena Elementary.
"The need (for conflict management) wasn't huge. Tustumena is a very well-behaved school overall, but the skills that they are learning, if they carry these skills with them wherever they go, that would be a great result," Hill said.
Hill runs the program with JoEllen Fowler, a teacher at the school. In the fall they accept applications from upper-grade students who want to serve as conflict managers. Five students and one alternate are chosen from each grade level and go through an extensive, three-day training session.
"They learn about the different types of conflict and both negative and positive ways of dealing with conflict. They role play and practice with each other in addition to performing skits which show examples of typical conflicts they would see on the playground," Hill said.
A few managers go to the kindergarten classes in the fall to introduce themselves and explain what they do to the new students, and the first-, second- and third-grade students are already aware of the program. The managers work in teams during lunch recess, donning orange vests and carrying clipboards to write up solution contracts, and each team is "on duty" one week out of six-week rotations.
Conflicts involving physical aggression are referred to the teacher on duty, but most everything else is dealt with by the mediators. The younger students are familiar with the process and not hesitant to have their older peers help them navigate disputes, but even the rare problem of students not wanting to work with the mediators is a conflict the mediators are trained to resolve.
"Occasionally a student says, 'I don't want to talk to you.' The managers ask, 'What would happen if you don't talk to us?' And they say, 'Oh, I'd have to go to the principal or a teacher.' Then they'll change their mind and go ahead and do the resolution with the conflict managers," Hill said.
The process follows specific steps, employs responsive listening and follows some ground rules -- those having the dispute need to agree to mediation, and can't interrupt or use name-calling, for instance. Everyone involved brainstorms solutions. If the dispute is over a jump rope, solutions may be to trade off use of the rope or play a game that could involve more students.
"All ideas are accepted, and then the conflict managers lead them into one that works for both of them so that both are satisfied, and they sign a contract with solution on there," Hill said.
The next time a conflict arises, the students already have experience in solving it. But if they need a little extra help, the managers are there.
"I can't say the same kids aren't ever involved in another problem. One week it's a jump rope, the next week it's a ball. It's a learning process, and it's a good one. There is less conflict every year, so I think it has been successful," Hill said.
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