Teaching Conflict Management

Last year when we surveyed teachers on the topics they would like to look into as part of the Professional Development for the 2016-2017 school year, some of you chose to “write-in” a topic that you would like to learn more about.  One of the write-ins was:

“Problem solving social situations, especially with friends, recess, lunchtime, specials, etc.”

Learn Like a PirateWhile there are ways that we could probably take that idea and turn it into a PD Topic, I thought that I would give some tools that you might be able to use in the classroom the first time that you see a situation of conflict develop – my goal here is to provide you with a right now strategy.  I can’t claim this idea – the majority of this post is based on ideas from the book Learn Like a Pirate by Paul Salarz (@PaulSalarz).  Mr. Solarz is a fifth grade teacher in the Chicago area and runs a student-led classroom.  There are so many tips in the book to help guide students to collaborate, be empowered, and take leadership in their own learning.  I highly recommend it!!!  The following ideas come from the Teaching Strategies for Dealing with Conflict section on page 56.

In a classroom where you are integrating student voice and student choice and allowing opportunities for students to collaborate there will invariably be some type of disagreement.  We’ve all seen it happen – Tommy and Jeff partner up.  Everyone (including them) knows this is a bad idea.  One strategy would be to break them up before they even have a chance to start working.  However, in a collaborative community, everyone needs to learn how to work with everyone.  Not only will it help your classroom run more smoothly, it’s an important lifelong skill!

We all know what happens next…  If you allow them to work, before long there’s a disagreement.  Our reaction can make or break this situation.  Instead of saying that this is what you knew would happen, and separate them, what if you gave them the tools to find a solution on their own?  What an awesome opportunity to turn this situation into a teachable moment – not just for Tommy and Jeff, but for the whole class.  Here’s what you could do:

  1. Get the entire class’s attention – “Give me five!”, hands up, or whatever strategy you use in your classroom.
  2. With a sincere smile on your face, look at Tommy and Jeff and thank them for having a little bit of trouble because it gives you the opportunity to teach everyone how simple it can be to get through conflicts.
  3. Ask the boys to describe what happened, then teach the whole class the following strategies (you might even consider making an anchor chart for this skill to post in the room – or even better, have the students make the anchor chart!):

Lets settle thisRock-Paper-Scissors: Do you know how many arguments my friends and I have avoided with a simple game of rock-paper-scissors?  When your students can’t decide who gets what job, or what color the background should be on a poster, a single round of rock-paper-scissors can be just the perfect way to find a solution!

Compromise: Take a portion of each person’s idea and combine them together.  (“I want to watch the video clip first.” “But I think we need to plan our poster design.” “Why don’t we plan our poster design right after we watch the video!?”).  Hopefully they can find a solution that makes them both happy!

Choose Kind: Sometimes the best solution to conflict is just to do what the other person wants because it’s also a good idea!  As the quote from Dr. Wayne Dwyer goes: “When given a choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”  Winning an argument while also hurting a classmate does not help the class win.  This summer I began using the phrase Choose Kind with my children (7 and 4 years old). It’s amazing to see how often they have been choosing kind to solve their disagreements.

The earlier you can teach these strategies to your class, the sooner they can begin to implement them.  Once students understand the process, these steps can be used even when you aren’t there – the lunch room, hallways, recess, etc.  If you don’t run into a conflict after a few days, then you might want to role play a scenario.  The sooner these strategies are introduced, the better!

As with any other strategy, we have to be ready to reinforce the use.  You can’t just introduce it once and then assume they all know it and will be successful.  Every time you notice a conflict, make sure students know you are aware (proximity, a concerned smile, etc.), but don’t just jump in and solve the problem.  Give them a little time to see if they will come to a resolution on their own.  For this strategy to truly be effective, the students have to come to use it on their own.

After you witness students come to a resolution, let them know how proud you are of how they handled it, and see if they would be willing to share their experience with the class.  If they are, have them act it out so the whole class can learn from the situation.  If students don’t want to share, that’s ok too!  They may be shy or embarrassed by what happened.

If students can’t get past the conflict on their own, then you might have to gently remind them of the conflict-management strategies to help them move on (this is where that anchor chart could be really handy!).  It’s also ok if another student steps in to help with finding a solution.  What a sign of good collaboration!

Continue the conversation in the comments below.  Could these strategies work in your room?  What else have you done that’s been successful?  Conflict can be such a distraction and sticking point that we can all use some good new ideas!

What our students see

Today I was walking the around our school thinking about the fact that in less than 2 weeks the halls will be full of almost a thousand 5th and 6th grade students.  Many of the classrooms that I walk past are still in various stages of preparation for all of those students.  Thinking about those students got me excited!  But as I walked through the halls today, I tried to look around with a different perspective.  Instead of walking around with the eyes of an adult, an educator, or an administrator, I tried to look around and see what our students might notice.  What do the things that are posted on the walls say to the 10, 11, and 12 year old students who will be walking these halls?

Many times as educators, we put things up in the hallway or our classroom because we like them.  We might intend to share something of ourselves with a student, we might intend to be funny, or we might intend to set up expectations that we have for our class and our students.  Unfortunately, our students can’t read our mind and know our intentions.  Sometimes your students may see that sign that you think is setting expectations, and instead see it as harsh, judgmental, or possibly even confrontational.  Think about what you have hanging up both outside and inside your classroom. How will it make your students feel when they walk into the room?  Are they going to feel welcome, or are they going to feel intimidated?  Does your room encourage them to be a part of the learning process, or does your room discourage their participation?

From The Thinker Builder: http://www.thethinkerbuilder.com/
From The Thinker Builder: http://www.thethinkerbuilder.com/

I saw a recent post on the blog The Thinker Builder that had a pretty cool idea (at least I thought so).  Instead of covering his bulletin boards with amazing decorations to set up a classroom, the author begins his year with a blank bulletin board and puts a reserved sign on it (I have a screenshot of the sign to the right).  If you’d like to see his post, or be able to download the sign, check out this post – “Reserved” Signs: A Bulletin Board Stress Reliever.  What does a sign like this say to the students and parents that walk into your room?  To me, it shows that you value the thoughts and opinions of the students who will be in your classroom.

Remember, your students will notice what you have posted on the walls both inside and outside of your classroom before you have said one word to them.  Based on what they notice, they are going to form opinions about you.  They will create expectations about what this school year is going to be like.  They will also decide whether they feel that the classroom is a place that they are safe to express themselves and become part of the learning community.

One of my takeaways from the book Mindset by Carol Dweck was that a person’s environment can play a role in what mindset they take.  Posters that use terms that make us think in a fixed way, or make us think that we don’t have any choice or control will generally lead us to behave in a manner that shows a fixed mindset.  On the other hand, things we display that show phrases that encourage a growth mindset will lead us to behave in a manner that shows a growth mindset.

Kids Deserve ItThis year, as you are preparing your classroom, take a few moments to take stock of what kids will see in the hallway outside of your room, as well as when they walk into your room.  Do the words on those posters have a positive connotation, or are they negative?  Are they giving your students an idea of what they will be doing, or of what they will not be allowed to do?  We only get one chance to make a first impression!  Make sure that the impression that you make sets the students up for their best possible year!

Continue the conversation in the comments below.  What are some things you are planning to do to help your students feel welcome in your classroom?  How will they know that they are a valued member of the learning community?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!


Teachers vs. Students

It’s the beginning of class, and you are checking to see what students came to class prepared, and you get to “that” student (admit it, a name just came to your mind!), and of course, they are not prepared for class today.  This is the third time this week, and who knows how many times this month…

All of us have been there at one time or another.  It can be so hard not to take it personally.  In your mind you may think about the amount of time you have invested in that student, or the help that you provided yesterday to make sure that student was organized and prepared to be able to finish the homework, or maybe you think of the assurances you had from the parents who told you they would help make sure work was being completed.  How can we not take it personally?

Of course, the reality is that for the vast majority of our students, they are not doing this purposely (although on the day I am writing this, I did see a student with a t-shirt that said “I’m just here to annoy you!”).  In fact, you are probably the furthest thing from their mind when a student does not complete his work.  Instead, the lack of completion could be for a lot of reasons (maybe they didn’t understand how to do the assignment, maybe they didn’t want to do it, maybe they thought it was boring, or maybe there was nobody at home to make sure they did it – you get the idea, there are lots of possible reasons).  I think logically all of us understand that students are not intentionally coming to class unprepared in an effort to drive us crazy, and yet we can’t help but feel that way.

no significant learningOne of the great beliefs I have about education is that relationships are one of the keys to success for our students.  I know that many of you feel the same way.  We take the time to build relationships with all our students.  We feel invested in each of them.  We can’t help but believe that the feeling is mutual.  Unfortunately, our students don’t always feel the same way.  Sometimes even with our best effort, it is hard to help all our students to feel connected here at school.

When “that” student comes to class unprepared, the simple solution is often to get angry or frustrated.  It is much more difficult to figure out the answer to the key question – why?

Finding the answer to the question of why is not easy.  The answers that students will give run the gamut – I forgot, I had a basketball game last night, my parents couldn’t help me, etc.  A lot of time we see these answers as excuses.  Instead, maybe we should look at them as clues.  If they say they forgot, are they disorganized?  Do they need additional support so that they won’t forget in the future?  Could you help them set an alert on the iPad or phone to go off in the evening to remind them of the work they have to do tonight?  If they say that they had another activity, can we assess what they do have done to see if they understood the concept?  Do they need more work time here at school?  We can’t control how their time is scheduled outside of school hours, but we can help control how that student uses their time here at school.  If they say they didn’t have a parent to help them, then do they need to have the concept retaught to them?  If a student needs a parent’s help to be able to complete a homework assignment, then they don’t really understand the material.

In last week’s post we discussed growth mindset in teachers.  An argument could be made that situations like the one described at the beginning of this post could be the perfect opportunity to use some of what we learned about having a growth mindset.  Instead of taking it personally when a student isn’t prepared for class, look at it as a puzzle to be solved.  Try to understand why the student isn’t prepared.  Once you understand the why, it will be much more likely that we can approach a solution.  If you don’t have an idea of how to help the student, talk to your colleagues, counselors, or administrators to see what ideas they may have (collaboration = more opportunities for growth!).

If you’re still struggling to come up with a way to motivate the student, come at the problem from a PBIS perspective.  Most of our kids who struggle simply want attention of some kind.  Getting negative attention is easy, but when given a choice between a positive and a negative consequence, most kids will choose the positive (it’s amazing what I used to get kids to do for a sticker or a jolly rancher!).  And if you show them that it is possible to earn that positive consequence, then they find success.  Once they show a pattern of success, you can make it more difficult to earn that positive feedback, and hopefully the student will begin to learn that the feeling of success from a job well done is a good enough reward (I know that this process takes longer than we like, but it does work!).

Instead of looking at the unprepared student as the enemy, spend some time thinking about them as a puzzle.  If you don’t know what will motivate him, spend some time to get to know him (2 for 10 strategy).  Look back on one of our earlier posts: Know your kids – Love you kids for a little more on how a 2 minute conversation can help you learn about your kids.

What success have you had in motivating the unmotivated or reaching the unreachable?  Spread the wealth!  Share some of your experiences in the comments below.

Know your kids – Love your kids

Growing up, the mother of one of my closest friends was an elementary school teacher.  When I graduated from college with a brand new teacher’s license in hand, she gave me a couple of books and some unsolicited advice.  One of the books was The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong.  The advice was “don’t smile until at least Thanksgiving.”

From Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-First-Days-School-Effective/dp/0962936022
From Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-First-Days-School-Effective/dp/0962936022

The First Days of School was a great resource in setting up my first classroom, and knowing that this person was a great teacher, I tried to follow that advice.  The only problem…  I really like kids!  I couldn’t not smile at them.  They were curious, they were funny, and most of all, I knew they were going to be with me for a whole year.  Building a relationship with them was really hard if I couldn’t smile!

Some of you may be of the opinion that if you are a good teacher, it doesn’t matter whether or not the kids like you, as long as they respect you.  Let me ask you this…  How many people that you don’t like do you truly respect?  Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.  Kids will learn from people they feel a strong relationship with.

Matt Miller: https://www.flickr.com/photos/126588706@N08/14726101996/in/album-72157645530010989/
Matt Miller: https://www.flickr.com/photos/126588706@N08/14726101996/in/album-72157645530010989/

Going back to our belief statements, building positive relationships is one of our top priorities.  It’s easy to have a relationship with the kids who do really well in your class and seem motivated to learn.  Those are the kids who know how to play school and probably have the most positive relationships.  Those kids are probably the ones who need you the least because they can build relationships easily.  The ones who need you the most are the ones who seem to not be motivated, or seem to not do well.  What have you done to build relationships with those students who don’t play school well?

The next time you look at your class, see who it is that you know the least about.  Seek out an opportunity to learn something about them.  Have a 2 minute conversation that has nothing to do with school or your class.  What are their interests?  What do they like to eat?  What did they do last night?  What do you know about their family?  Do this as often as possible until you know a few new things about each of your kids, then start again!

Remember the first day of school this year.  I asked you to do 2 things – Know your kids, and love your kids for who they are.  What steps have you taken this year to be able to know your student better?  Share in the comments below some of your successes.

Matt Miller: https://www.flickr.com/photos/126588706@N08/14746751544/in/album-72157645530010989/
Matt Miller: https://www.flickr.com/photos/126588706@N08/14746751544/in/album-72157645530010989/

Make it fun

What makes one professional development opportunity great, while another may be bland and boring?  Some of the best PD that I’ve had felt that way because the presenter somehow made things fun.  In your classroom, the students are the audience, and while making sure they are having fun is not your primary goal, we all know they are going to pay a lot more attention if the activities that we are doing are more fun.  What are some ways we can incorporate fun into our classrooms?

Kevin Jarret - https://www.flickr.com/photos/kjarrett/7070563247
Kevin Jarret – https://www.flickr.com/photos/kjarrett/7070563247
Scott West
Scott West
  • STICKERS – I am continually amazed by what a fifth or sixth grader will do for a sticker (haven’t you noticed the Ham & Cheese stickers that end up on our students foreheads?). Want some more participation?  Pull our the foil stars, ask a question, and give out a star for good answers, or to integrate tech, give a foil star to the best response or question on Today’s Meet (see the post on Getting ALL our students to participate in the classroom).
  • Make it silly – before students hand in a paper, have them do something silly, make a sound like a pirate, do a little dance, etc. Adding a little silliness will up the fun factor by at least 10% (and even more important – if you are being silly with them, they will be even more engaged!).
  • In a content area, retell a story and make your students the stars of the story (think about last week’s post on titled Put your students into your materials).

When kids walk out of this building, the fun they want is pretty much on demand.  Between social media, streaming video and music, video games, and more, our students have tons of ways to do something fun.  If we want them to be as engaged in our room as they are with their Minecraft world, we have to be willing to bring in some of the fun.

Matt Miller: https://www.flickr.com/photos/126588706@N08/14562457739/in/album-72157645530010989/
Matt Miller: https://www.flickr.com/photos/126588706@N08/14562457739/in/album-72157645530010989/

Think of some lesson you have done in the past that was a bust (even the best of us have had one!).  How could you add some fun and silliness to help the students be more engaged?  What things have you included that were fun and did help students remain engaged?  Share some of your ideas in the comments section below.

Student Behaviors

Robert Temple Ayers - https://www.flickr.com/photos/42787780@N04/4975296555
Robert Temple Ayers – https://www.flickr.com/photos/42787780@N04/4975296555

I have recently been reading the book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell.  I’m not sure if any of you have ever read anything by him, but he often picks a story to share, and then spends the rest of the book talking about the psychology behind what “really” happened.  He does a ton of research, interviews a wide variety of people on a wide variety of topics, and then puts it all together in a way that ties back to his original message.

If you remember the story of David and Goliath from ancient Palestine, you will remember that David miraculously felled a mighty warrior with nothing more than a pebble and a sling.  Now, any rivalry game where one team is hugely favored and the underdog wins is often referred to as a battle of David and Goliath.  What I have taken away as one theme of the book is that sometimes there are times that the win by David is not as improbable as you might have suspected.

Let's hope your class doesn't look like this!!! http://gatheringbooks.org/2011/05/10/miss-nelson-is-missing/
Let’s hope your class doesn’t look like this!!!

In one portion of the book, Gladwell is talking about classroom management skills.  He describes walking into a classroom that appears to be absolutely in chaos.  The teacher is at the front of the room doing a read aloud.  One student is standing next to her and they are taking turns reading from the story.  Kids are making faces, one girl is doing cartwheels, and several students have turned their back on the teacher.  The situation is unpacked a little more greatly in the book, and it becomes obvious that the teacher in this situation is using some very poor classroom engagement strategies which lead to the classroom management issues, but something that Gladwell said struck a chord with me:

“We often think of authority as a response to disobedience: a child acts up, so a teacher cracks down.  Stella’s classroom, however, suggests something different: disobedience can also be a response to authority.  If the teacher doesn’t do her job properly, then the child will become disobedient.” (Gladwell, pg 339)

A view of some of the projects in Brownsville - https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/22/Qbridgenycha.JPG
A view of some of the projects in Brownsville – https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/22/Qbridgenycha.JPG

In the same chapter, Gladwell then shifts to a story about a program based in Brownsville, a residential neighborhood in eastern Brooklyn, NYC.  If you were to visit, you might be inclined to refer to this area as the projects.  In 2003, a police officer took charge of the city’s Housing Bureau, and their primary responsibility was the Brownsville projects.  In an effort to try something new, they started trying to help the troubled youth in the area.  They identified all the juveniles in Brownsville who had been arrested in the previous year.  They reached out to those kids and their families.  Kids who were brought into the program were told that the cops in this group (called the Juvenile Robbery Intervention Program – J-RIP) would do everything in their power to help.  They would get them back in school to get a diploma, bring them needed services for their family, find out what’s needed in their household, provide job opportunities, educational opportunities, medical – everything they could.  The program would work with the kids, but there was one circumstance.  The criminal conduct had to stop.  Kids were told that if they got arrested for anything, the cops would do all they could to keep them in jail.

The cops in the J-RIP program seemed to be everywhere these 106 kids went.  They’d show up at their home, find them hanging out in other parts of the city, walk up to Facebook friends and talk to them about what they’ve been up to.  These cops lived in the world of these kids.  Initially things did not go well.  The kids didn’t want to interact, the families didn’t want to interact.  The cops had the best of intentions, but they weren’t getting anywhere.  Finally they had a breakthrough one November.  One of the cops decided it would be a great idea to help out one of the kids they were most worried about losing.  One the Wednesday before Thanksgiving this officer went out and bought a Thanksgiving dinner for the kid’s family and delivered it.  They knew they might not be able to get through to the main target, but maybe they’d have a breakthrough with the kid’s seven siblings.  That year, through the efforts of the commander of the unit, they were able to get funds to be able to deliver a turkey to the home of every kid that was on their list for Thanksgiving.

The reason they were so persistent in trying to meet the families was because police in Brownsville were not seen as legitimate.  A large percentage of the families in Brownsville had only had negative interactions with the police, and multiple people in most families had spent time behind bars.  By taking turkeys to the families of the J-RIP kids, the cops were saying to the families “we really do care about you and your family, and we want to help you make the most of yourself, and most important, we want you to have a good Thanksgiving.”

After this, things in Brownsville began to turn around.  The trend line on all crime in Brownsville dropped significantly in the following 5 years.  Kids who were in the J-RIP program went from a total of over 350 arrests in the year before being added to the program, to less than 40 arrests.  Gladwell argues that what this proves is that

“the powerful have to worry about how others think of them – that those who give orders are acutely vulnerable to the opinions of those whom they are ordering about.” (Gladwell, pg. 356)

As teachers, we are clearly in a role of power.  Some of our parents are scared to be involved in school because they may have had bad experiences when they were in school, or maybe their child has had bad experiences in the past.  Some of our students are nervous in the classroom because of things beyond our control, maybe a bad experience in another class, or their perception of the teacher.  As people in power, what actually matters are the hundreds of small things that we as the powerful do – or don’t do – to establish legitimacy.  When power is not seen as legitimate, it can often have the opposite of the intended effect.


We are dealing with the minds of 10, 11, and 12 year olds.  Sometimes they struggle to understand the things we say, the jokes we make, or the ways we interact with them.  Things like sarcasm and a sense of humor that may make perfect sense to the adults in our building will fly right over the heads of our kids, and instead they will feel that you are actually being serious, or possibly making fun of them.  For some of our kids, the direct approach doesn’t work because it only leads to a shutdown.

Think about what you do to build legitimacy with our students.  Keep in mind that what works with one kid may not work with another.  Also keep in mind that without legitimacy, our students may not see us as people who care for them, but rather as the person who’s trying to keep them down.  If you want to build better legitimacy with your kids, give them a voice.  Also, give them the time to talk about their interests.  Think about the J-RIP program – they took a small group of kids living in Brownsville and truly showed those kids that the cops cared about them, and many of them changed their ways.  It also had a larger effect of changing the culture of crime in the entire neighborhood.  Who are the kids that you would identify as needing to know you care?  How can you show them that you care?  How can you build greater legitimacy so that your power has the intended effect, and doesn’t lead to unintended consequences?