Conflict Resolution in the Classroom: An Interview with Emily Huff

1. Why focus on conflict resolution in the classroom? I began my research on conflict resolution in the late 1990’s, and I did a qualitative study with first graders for my master’s thesis on the effectiveness of teaching conflict resolution skills in the classroom. Over the last 20 years, we have seen devastating violence that just does not seem to stop. I cannot think of a more compelling curriculum than one that equips students to engage with others, to talk and listen respectfully, to see other perspectives, and to brainstorm ways to solve problems.

Coleman McCarthy, founder for the Center for Teaching Peace, suggested that it is hard to deal with conflict in schools through mediation, collaboration and other non-violent means, because those skills have not been taught there. “We don’t know because we weren’t taught” and the result of this neglect in our society is “peace illiteracy…a land awash in violence.”

2. What changes did you observe after teaching this skill? We all began to see that conflict is natural rather than it being a bad thing to be avoided at all costs, and we learned together that how we respond to conflict results in either negative or positive outcomes. I was no longer the judge and jury in all the disputes in the classroom, and I was able to empower my students to solve problems on their own.  I worked hard to give my students new language to use to talk and listen to one another, and it was powerful to hear first graders expressing feelings with “I statements” and figuring out win-win solutions. Students used this process in pairs and also we used the same protocol with class meetings. While not all the problems disappeared, we had ways to deal with them in constructive ways and our community was stronger because of it. 

3. What tips can you offer teachers who may be new to teaching conflict resolution? I would recommend that teachers start small. Find a conflict resolution protocol and teach students those basic steps. Some great resources for this are Barbara Porro’s book Talk it Out and William Kreidler’s books Adventures in Peacemaking and Creative Conflict Resolution. In the first week of school, teach mini-lessons through the week to establish routines and procedures for what to do when conflict arises. Have a place in your classroom (such as a peace table) where students can go to resolve problems. Read books and play games to encourage creative thinking and cooperative group dynamics. It will take some planning at the beginning, but you'll establish a community of students who are learning to promote peace. What else could be more important? As Gandhi said, “If we are to obtain real peace in the world, we shall have to begin with children.”

Emily Huff is part of the Clinical Faculty and and is a University Supervisor at SPU's School of Education. For further resources, consider the SPU courses Advanced Classroom Management: Children as Change Agents and Building Resiliency: Engage Youth Exposed to Trauma.

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