Conflict Resolution for Students with Special Needs

By Benjamin Farrey-Latz, author of I Can Learn Social Skills! Poems About Getting Along, Being a Good Friend, and Growing Up

Conflict Resolution for Students with Special NeedsConflicts are an expected part of life. All children need tools to help them resolve the conflicts they experience. The tools teachers use to help students learn this skill will vary based on the needs of the children in their classrooms. A format for helping students with behavior concerns in general is “Prevent, Teach, Reinforce.” Conflicts are not, in and of themselves, a behavior concern, but the way students handle conflicts can become a concern.

Here are basic guidelines and activities for helping students with special needs resolve conflicts.

We cannot always prevent conflicts, but there are things you can do. Start by thinking about what situations lend themselves to conflicts: recess, lunch, transitions within the classroom and from classroom to classroom, and so on. Take time to observe students in these different situations. Are there ways the environment could be modified to assist students in making this a time for fewer conflicts? For example, I have brought students to lunch a minute or two early so they don’t have to go through the line when it is too busy and when there is too much stimulation and sensory input from being in the middle of a crowd. Practice and review expectations for these times of day. For students with more significant needs, use visuals (pictures of expected behaviors) and frequent reminders of expectations. For students who have the verbal abilities, check in after lunch, recess, and other trying situations daily to see how things went and what could be done differently next time.

Something that can be very difficult for children with special needs, particularly those with autism, is the unpredictability of unstructured social situations. Their anxiety may already be higher in these situations because of all the unknowns. Role-play conflicts students may encounter and how they can handle them. For example, have students pretend someone takes their ball at recess, someone won’t include them in a game, someone “budges” in front of them in line, or someone bumps into them and they don’t know if it was on purpose. Students with more significant needs may need to watch models of kids demonstrating appropriate behaviors, for example, peers role-playing or a video. You may even make videos of students themselves demonstrating appropriate behaviors. (If you use video modeling, make sure you have the appropriate permissions from parents.)

Teaching general education peers about differences in needs or abilities can also be helpful. For example, some students are better or worse in math or reading; the same is true with friendship skills. Some students need more help with how to be a friend. Explaining this can help prevent some conflicts with students in the general education setting. Do not single out the child with special needs. If there is a serious concern about how general education students are treating students with special needs, you may get parental permission to have a more specific discussion with the class about that student. Confidentiality is important, so do not disclose a student’s specific disability without permission from parents.

Students may need a sensory break before an activity that could lead to conflicts. Helpful sensory breaks include playing with putty or modeling clay, swinging in a net swing, building with blocks, and using a weighted vest or blanket.

Social skills lessons should include lessons on conflict resolution. This includes lessons on accepting responsibility and sincerely apologizing for our part in conflicts. This can be very difficult for some students. Some students with autism have a very hard time seeing the other person’s perspective in a conflict. They may also misinterpret another person’s behaviors or intentions. This will require a lot of practice and processing of conflicts. Remember to always wait until the student is calm to do this processing.

Building on the role plays in the “Prevent” section, continue to practice the conversations or reactions that are expected in each situation. It is also important to help students understand the size of the problem. For example, someone budging in line is not nearly as serious as someone punching another student in the face. Review multiple situations and have students place each problem on a continuum for a visual of the seriousness of various problems.

Here are some other “Teach” activities that can be effective.

  • Teach students that it is okay to ask for help. It is not tattling if you need help resolving a conflict peacefully and don’t know how to do it.
  • Teach students calming strategies: taking deep breaths, counting to ten, taking a walk (if appropriate and can be done in a safe and acceptable place), using a fidget.
  • Teach students to self-monitor so they can recognize signs that they are getting angry or upset. Discuss with students how their bodies feel when they are getting angry. Write down some of these signs on a chart: body shakes, head feels hot, and so on. Students can make a mark when they feel one of these signs. Pair this with teaching calming strategies.
  • Teach students to reflect on conflicts—what they handled well, what they could have handled better. One format includes writing or drawing pictures about what happened: How did I feel? How did the other person feel? What did I do? What could I have done differently?

Give students specific praise for resolving conflicts by themselves or asking for help when needed. Be sure to consistently give positive feedback for this. Some students may need a sticker chart or other concrete reinforcement system (working for specific rewards) if they are frequently involved in or instigating conflicts.

Conflicts are going to happen. The above techniques are ways to help children with special needs prepare for and handle conflicts in an appropriate way. This will be a lot harder for some students than for others. Helping build up students’ “tools” is a big part of helping them know what to expect in conflicts and how they can stay calm and resolve conflicts peacefully.

Benjamin Farrey-Latz is a special education teacher at Jefferson Community School (grades 2–6) in the Minneapolis School District. He has worked in education since 1996 in private, public, and charter schools as both a general and special education teacher. After working several years at the elementary level, Benjamin completed his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota. His thesis focused on methods of teaching social skills to children with special needs.

I Can Learn Social Skills! Benjamin is the author of I Can Learn Social Skills! Poems About Getting Along, Being a Good Friend, and Growing Up.

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