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Conflict resolution education: preparing youth for the future

Donna K. Crawford and Richard J. Bodine

Adults are often out of touch with what is important to youth, who worry about things that would not even occur to adults as being problems, let alone problems to be addressed by violence. The teasing in the shower, the insults, the pressure to act a particular way—these are the problems students must live with every day and the situations that often set them off (Bodine and Crawford, 1999).

Physical aggression and intimidation are often the first responses to such situations. In his study of violence among middle and high school students, Lockwood (1997) reports three key findings, concluding that reducing the occurrence of the first move toward violence appears to be the most promising approach to preventing it:

Other research reinforces the significance of Lockwood’s findings. In a study conducted by the Search Institute, 41 percent of youth surveyed reported that when provoked, they could not control anger and would fight (Search Institute, 1997).

The excuses for violence offered by youth support the contention that youth who observe adults accepting violence as a solution to problems are apt to emulate that violence. If youth lack a supportive environment that is disdainful of violence, schools must develop effective ways to compensate.

Currently, schools rely almost exclusively on arbitration to resolve disputes between youth. In the arbitration process, an adult who is not directly involved in the dispute determines a solution, and the disputing youth are expected to comply. Students often perceive this process as coercive—someone is telling them what to do—even if they recognize that the directive may be in their best interests. Conflict resolution offers an alternative approach that brings the parties of the dispute together, provides them with the skills to resolve the dispute, and expects them to do so. In the conflict resolution process, those with ownership of the problem participate directly in crafting a solution.

The report Conflict Resolution Education: A Guide to Implementing Programs in Schools, Youth-Serving Organizations, and Community and Juvenile Justice Settings, which was published by OJJDP and the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program, identifies four basic approaches to conflict resolution education: process curriculum, mediation program, peaceable classroom, and peaceable school (Crawford and Bodine, 1996). Although the lines dividing these approaches can be difficult to draw in practice, the following descriptions outline their focus:

The authors contend that only the peaceable school approach, which incorporates the other three approaches, has the potential to effect long-term change. Whichever approach is used, however, the authors believe that schools’ ultimate mission is to prepare their students to participate fully and responsibly in society.

Components of a Conflict Resolution Education Program

An authentic conflict resolution education program—which should be taught to all students, not just those with disruptive behaviors—incorporates a set of problem-solving principles, a structured process of problem-solving strategies, and a set of foundational abilities that youth need to resolve conflicts effectively (Filner and Zimmer, 1996).

Problem-solving Principles

The problem-solving principles—or “principled negotiation elements” described in Getting To Yes (Fisher, Ury, and Patton, 1991)—provide the foundation for teaching students and adults conflict resolution strategies. These principles are requisite for any conflict resolution program.

Separate the people from the problem
Every conflict involves both a substantive problem and relationship issues. Unfortunately, the relationship between parties tends to become involved in the substance of the problem. Relationship issues fall into three categories:

Focus on interests, not positions
The focus of conflict resolution should be not on what people decide they want (their positions) but on what led to that decision (their interests). Interests, not positions, define the problem. In nearly every conflict, multiple interests must be taken into account. Only by talking about and acknowledging interests explicitly can people uncover mutual or compatible interests and resolve conflicting interests. Every interest usually has several possible satisfactory solutions, and opposing positions may actually reflect more shared and compatible interests than conflicts. Thus, focusing on interests instead of positions makes it possible to develop solutions.

Invent options for mutual gain
Before attempting to reach agreement, disputants should brainstorm to consider a wide range of options that advance shared interests and reconcile differing interests. In this process, disputing youth should strive to avoid four major obstacles: “(1) premature judgment, (2) searching for the single answer, (3) the assumptions of a fixed pie, and (4) thinking that ‘solving their problem is their problem’ ” (Fisher, Ury, and Patton, 1991:57).

Use objective criteria
The agreement should reflect a fair standard instead of the arbitrary will of either side; that is, it should be based on objective criteria. Disputing youth should frame each issue as a mutual search for objective criteria. They should reason and be open to reason as to which criteria are most suitable and how they should be applied, recalling which criterion they have used in past disputes and determining which criterion is more widely applied. In their negotiations, they should yield only to principle, not pressure (e.g., bribes, threats, manipulative appeals to trust, or simple refusal to budge).

Behavior Management
Conflict resolution education is an integral component of an effective behavior management system for a school or classroom. Much of what is perceived in schools as misbehavior is actually unresolved conflict. Because the essence of conflict resolution is planning alternate future behaviors, a noncoercive behavior management plan would be incomplete without an educational component that enables youth to resolve conflicts constructively.
Teachers, administrators, and other staff charged with managing student behavior in schools are all too aware of interpersonal and intergroup conflict. Schools do manage behavior arising from conflict, but their methods often do not resolve the conflict that created the behavior in the first place. Focusing behavior management efforts on occurrences of physical violence is merely treating a symptom. Teaching students alternatives to violence offers hope that those alternatives will become the students’ behaviors of choice. Such education demands more than telling youth to “just say no” to violence.

Many of the violence prevention efforts in schools, particularly measures enacted in response to the spate of tragic school shootings, are compliance driven, focusing on external rather than internal methods of behavior control. A compliant individual chooses to behave in a certain manner in response to external forces, conditions, or influences; a responsible individual chooses to behave according to reasonable and acceptable standards in response to internal needs and concern for self and others.

Responsible behavior—the hallmark of an emotionally intelligent individual—depends above all else on the absence of coercion. Coercive management deprives the individual of innate motivation, self-esteem, and dignity, while cultivating fear and defensiveness. Teachers need to abandon as counterproductive the inclination to exercise forceful authority over students, without abandoning the responsibility to maintain order. Because they remain ultimately responsible for promoting acceptable and successful behaviors in students, teachers need to transfer to students responsibility for choosing behaviors that fit within established acceptable standards.

Unfortunately, many youth have personal experiences and models that limit their repertoire for responding to conflict to the often dysfunctional approaches of “fight or flight.” For these youth, meeting their own basic needs often involves choosing behaviors that victimize others. Conflict resolution education provides these youth with behavioral alternatives to “fight or flight,” teaching them how to select from their past experiences those responses that are most appropriate in resolving new conflicts.

Conflict resolution education strategies provide students with the “life skills” they need to assimilate perceptions of an unknown circumstance into a framework of known responses and to generate socially acceptable behaviors.

Structured Process
Conflict resolution is based on a structured problem-solving process that uses the following steps: (1) set the stage, (2) gather perspectives, (3) identify interests, (4) create options, (5) evaluate options, and (6) generate agreement. Each of the following strategies is amenable to this process:

Foundational Abilities
In conflict resolution, particular attitudes, understandings, and skills are important. For problem solving in conflict situations to be effective, these attitudes, understandings, and skills ultimately must be translated into behaviors, which together form foundational abilities. Although considerable overlap exists, foundational abilities involve the clusters of behavior described below. Because most of these foundational abilities are also central to learning in general, they can be developed in schools through various applications and need not be limited to the context of conflict.

Abilities involving orientation encompass values, beliefs, attitudes, and propensities that can be developed through teaching activities that promote cooperation and reduce prejudicial behavior. They include the following:

Abilities involving perception enable youth to develop self-awareness, assess the limitations of their own perceptions, and work to understand each other’s points of view. They include the following:

Abilities involving emotion help youth manage anger, frustration, fear, and other strong feelings. Youth learn to acknowledge that emotions are present in conflict, understand that emotions sometimes are not expressed, and understand that emotional responses by one party may trigger problematic responses from another. These abilities, which enable youth to gain self-confidence and self-control, include the following:

Abilities involving communication allow youth to listen, speak, and exchange facts and feelings effectively:

Creative thinking
Abilities involving creative thinking enable youth to be innovative in defining problems and making decisions:

Critical thinking
Abilities involving critical thinking enable youth to analyze, hypothesize, predict, strategize, compare and contrast, and evaluate options. In the conflict resolution process, these abilities help youth to recognize and make explicit existing criteria, establish objective criteria, apply criteria as the basis for choosing options, and plan future behaviors.

Peaceable Schools Tennessee: A Case Example
by Katy Woodworth and Richard J. Bodine

The Peaceable Schools Tennessee (PST) initiative, which has been under way since 1996, is designed to put into practice conflict resolution skills in schools, grades K-12, throughout Tennessee. (1)

Project developers conducted a needs assessment among selected teachers, counselors, and administrators. Results indicated that Tennessee schools needed and wanted to address conflict in a positive way and wanted guidance in doing so. Based on assessment feedback, available research, and Tennessee Department of Education expectations, the following goals were set forth:

· Decrease the number of disciplinary office referrals.

· Enhance students’ critical thinking skills.

· Provide a safe school environment that is not authoritarian.

· Build community/school partnerships.

The Training Institute
The PST initiative is offered through a 3-day institute; most of the institute’s trainers are teachers and school administrators. Teams of school personnel, including teachers, counselors, administrators, and school resource officers, attend to learn how to teach group problem solving, mediation, and negotiation skills. Attendees practice conflict resolution skills through role-playing, learn effective classroom strategies, create action plans to implement in their schools, (2) and are provided with a forum for questions and answers. Creating the Peaceable School: A Comprehensive Program for Teaching Conflict Resolution (Bodine, Crawford, and Schrumpf, 1994), which provides a framework for noncoercive discipline and a cooperative school context, is the primary text for the institute.

After the teams attend the institute, participating schools receive onsite technical assistance and are able to attend advanced training institutes. The National Center for Conflict Resolution Education (NCCRE) provides the advanced training.

PST developers began by constructing a basic framework for the initiative. They appointed an initiative director and identified the Tennessee Legal Community Foundation (TLCF) as the organization that was to provide the training and coordination services. TLCF conducted a pilot training institute in May 1997, in which 15 middle school teams of administrators, teachers, and counselors participated.

In the summer of 1997, PST conducted nine 3-day institutes. Teams from 92 schools participated and developed action plans for use in the fall (see table below). PST staff provided followup technical assistance to all 92 teams. In addition, 45 school teams requested onsite technical assistance in conducting overview workshops for local staff, training for student peer mediators, and focus group sessions for students, staff, and parents to expand the implementation of the peaceable school concepts.

After training and technical assistance were provided to the first round of schools, the initiative was refined and PST’s infrastructure was developed. TLCF evaluated data sent in by participating schools to determine whether program objectives, as outlined by the teams in their action plans, were being met. The information provided also was used to modify the institute’s training agenda. Overall, data showed that the initial training design was workable.

During the 1997-98 school year, PST trainers conducted two 3-day institutes for whole school districts. Further, because PST planned to expand the number of summer institutes it offered, NCCRE assisted in training additional trainers in June 1998. PST also sent three trainers to NCCRE headquarters to expand their knowledge of peer mediation programs, group problem solving, and behavior management principles and to help them use this knowledge to train other PST trainers.

Schools Participating in PST Institutes

Year of training                                         Number of schools

July 1997 to June 1998                                  92

July 1998 to June 1999                                 125

July 1999 to June 2000                                100

June 2000 to present                                     150

                                                            Total           467

Since the 1998-99 school year, PST has offered advanced peaceable school training to more than 70 school teams. This advanced training has been provided in partnership with NCCRE.

Initial Assessments
Since June 1997, nearly 2,000 classroom teachers, staff members, and administrators, representing 75 percent of the State’s school districts, have attended PST’s 3-day institutes. Almost all of the school teams from the 1999 summer institute conducted an inservice presentation to introduce their colleagues to the concepts they had learned. Nearly 60 percent of the schools have requested and received technical assistance.

From 1997 to 2000, Tennessee experienced a 14-percent decrease in suspension rates overall. School districts that sent representatives from 50 percent or more of their schools to a PST institute experienced on average a 39-percent decrease in suspension rates in that same time period. Of the school districts that received technical assistance and showed a decrease in suspension rates, more than half experienced at least a 20-percent decrease in their suspension rates (the highest drop was 83 percent). Information from principals indicates that disciplinary referrals are down in PST classrooms compared with other classrooms in the same school.

The PST initiative is beginning to show positive effects on students. Teachers and counselors who have responded to recent PST surveys have indicated that students who learn peaceable skills exhibit improved cooperation and communication. They also have exhibited improved problem-solving ability and better overall academic performance as a result of enhanced critical thinking skills. These gains in social competence and other resilience skills will serve these students for a lifetime.

The Peaceable School
Schools need to pay attention—not reactively, but proactively—to developing youth’s social and emotional competencies, that is, their ability to understand, manage, and express the social and emotional aspects of their lives in ways that enable them to learn, form relationships, solve everyday problems, and adapt to the complex demands of growing up.

Creating a future generation of responsible and compassionate citizens requires a consistent, comprehensive, sustained effort. That goal will not be realized if students never or only occasionally participate in conflict resolution education during their school experience. Although the peaceable classroom is the vehicle for promoting social-emotional intelligence, all classrooms must be united in the effort. The peaceable school is a collective of peaceable classrooms united by a management system that promotes cooperation and eliminates coercion.

In peaceable schools, students and teachers approach conflicts, including those conflicts labeled misbehavior, as an opportunity for growth. In the process of creating the peaceable school, both educators and students gain life skills that benefit them not just in the school, but also at home and in the community. Peaceable schools support and expect intellectual development—emotional and cognitive (Bodine and Crawford, 1999).

School-based violence prevention programs must begin in early education to allow young students to internalize a pattern of peacemaking behaviors prior to becoming adolescents. The best programs seek to do more than reach the individual child. They attempt to improve the entire school environment—to create a safe community whose members embrace nonviolence and multicultural appreciation (DeJong, 1994).

Peace is often regarded as a goal rather than a behavior. Thus peace becomes the end and not the means of preventing violence. Safe, peaceable schools cannot be created without improving what and how teachers teach, changing how school rules are administered, and working toward a shared vision. Making schools safe will not eliminate violence in society, but that should not deter communities from carrying out the effort (Haberman and Schreiber Dill, 1995).

1. This initiative is supported through a collaborative arrangement among the Tennessee Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program, its School Safety Center, Tennessee Legal Community Foundation (TLCF), and Tennessee legal and mediation communities. The Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program provides funding support, while TLCF has been responsible for the design and implementation of this initiative. TLCF is the nonprofit arm of the Tennessee Bar Association

2. Examples of action plans that teams have implemented include providing introductory PST workshops for the entire school staff and establishing peer mediation programs.


Bodine, R.J., and Crawford, D.K. 1999. Developing Emotional Intelligence: A Guide to Behavior and Conflict Resolution in Schools. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Bodine, R.J., Crawford, D.K., and Schrumpf, F. 1994. Creating the Peaceable School: A Comprehensive Program for Teaching Conflict Resolution. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Crawford, D.K., and Bodine, R.J. 1996. Conflict Resolution Education: A Guide to Implementing Programs in Schools, Youth-Serving Organizations, and Community and Juvenile Justice Settings. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program.

DeJong, W. 1994. School-based violence prevention: From peaceable school to the peaceable neighborhood. National Institute for Dispute Resolution Forum (Spring):8-14.

Filner, J., and Zimmer, J. 1996. Understanding conflict resolution: School programs for creative cooperation. Update on Law-Related Education 20(2):4-6.

Fisher, R., Ury, W., and Patton, B. 1991. Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. New York, NY: Penguin.

Haberman, M., and Schreiber Dill, V. 1995. Commitment to violence among teenagers in poverty. Kappa Delta Pi Record (Spring):149-154.

Lockwood, D. 1997. Violence Among Middle School and High School Students: Analysis and Implications for Prevention. Research in Brief. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice.

Search Institute. 1997. The Asset Approach: Giving Kids What They Need To Succeed. Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute.

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