By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of The Survival Guide for Making and Being Friends
As kids mature, the importance of friendship groups increases. Kids with close friends tend to be better adjusted. The support that comes from friends can have a protective effect against the stresses kids deal with, both in and outside of school. So when conflicts arise in friendship groups, they can create significant emotional problems for kids. Unresolved disagreements can lead to being rejected or ostracized. Bullying can also result. Left unresolved, social conflicts at school can lead to a drop in academic performance.
Since many problems with friends arise in school, educators are in a unique position not only to intervene when needed, but also to teach kids conflict resolution skills that will be useful long after they leave school.
Causes of Disagreements
According to The Kids’ Guide to Working Out Conflicts by Naomi Drew, boys and girls tend to have different causes for disagreements among peers. For girls, these include gossip or rumors, secrets, feeling jealous or left out, saying mean things about someone to others, and boyfriends. For boys, common conflict starters include who is right or wrong, bragging, the rules of games, and insults or name-calling. The common theme in these triggers is hurt feelings. This is why it is so important that each child feels heard when working through a conflict. Being listened to often reduces defensiveness and can make kids more open to resolving conflicts. Automatically blaming one child without addressing underlying causes tends to breed more resentment.
Social media contribute to these conflicts. If one person in a friend group sees that the group has gotten together but was not invited or included, hurt feelings result. Being criticized or made fun of can be worse when social media are involved, since many more people can see or comment on postings. The immediacy of social media also makes it harder to stop the conflict from spreading quickly.
One way to prevent problems from developing in the first place is to teach appropriate conflict resolution skills as part of the school curriculum. The Ophelia Project offers a friendship curriculum for second and third graders that includes a section on conflict resolution.
School counselors can give lessons to each classroom, presenting possible scenarios for when conflict may occur and seeking the input of students on what things lead to conflict and how they might resolve the problem. Lessons on building empathy can also help disagreements from becoming more hurtful and leading to longer-lasting problems.
Sometimes we need to more closely monitor student interactions. For example, during recess, lunch, and locker room times, adults should mingle among students and observe how they are getting along. Be prepared to intervene as needed. Proximity can be a good deterrent to inappropriate behavior. Simply walking closer to the students involved in a disagreement can remind them to behave appropriately. Spending time with students also allows staff to identify instigators more easily rather than relying on students to report problems, which they are often hesitant to do.
As much as possible, give students leeway to resolve problems on their own. Often, disagreements are minor, and even though feelings are hurt in the short term, most kids return to being friends fairly quickly. Learning to resolve conflicts in this way is an important skill to master. When problems persist, however, give students the option to request a meeting with a school counselor to address the problem.
When educators intervene, the first step is to ask the students how they have tried in order to solve the problem, whether or not that worked, and what else they could do to solve the problem. This promotes a sense of mastery and competence. Helping students brainstorm solutions not only empowers them, but also makes it more likely that they will actually try the solutions rather than simply nod when yet another adult tells them what to do. Think of it as an opportunity to teach a skill rather than simply solve the problem for them. You are coaching them by asking them to think differently about the problem and possible solutions.
Some schools have trained peer mediators who are available to help. This gives kids a sense of importance and emphasizes student-led solutions to problems. A number of online resources are available to help schools develop peer mediation programs. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development provides information on training and using peer mediators. School Mediation Associates is a private group involved in providing support and training in peer mediation. Their site includes a free quick guide to implementing a peer mediation program. And IREX is an international organization that provides a Conflict Resolution and Peer Mediation Toolkit.
Ideally, all students should receive training in peer mediation. The better equipped students are to manage their conflicts on their own, the more time and resources can be spent on instruction. Teaching basic communication skills is another way to facilitate conflict resolution. For example, teaching kids to use “I-messages” when expressing their frustrations rather than blaming others for a problem can be very useful. Examples: “I feel excluded when you don’t make room for me at lunch.” “I felt hurt when you made fun of me in front of everyone.”
While most kid conflicts do not necessitate a call or an email home to parents, in some cases, contacting parents may be necessary. For example, if you believe bullying is involved, this is a more serious issue, and contacting parents is wise. It’s often helpful to encourage kids to share with their parents.
Learning to handle conflict is a life skill that everyone needs to learn. By teaching students these skills early on, and assisting them when they need extra support, school can be a more positive environment for students as well as educators.
Dr. James J. Crist is a psychologist specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. He is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults. Visit his website at jamesjcrist.com.
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