Helping students help themselves: how to train students as Conflict Managers
By Lisa Lawmaster Hess
Part 2 of a two-part series on conflict resolution in schools.
Last month, I wrote about the student Conflict Manager program I inherited as a newly hired elementary school counselor. Teaching students a problem-solving process yielded many benefits, but, like any other program with student “employees,” it brought its challenges as well. So, this month, I wanted to move beyond descriptions and into the nuts and bolts of things. If you were intrigued by the idea of a student Conflict Manager program and are perhaps interested in getting a program like this up and running at your school, here are a few things to consider before you take the plunge.
When will you do the training? The elementary school I worked in had close to 500 students, giving me approximately 250 fourth and fifth graders in my potential Conflict Manager pool. Many of them hungered to take on the role — some for noble reasons, others for reasons of perceived power and/or prestige. Selecting students who were motivated and qualified was time-consuming — and that was just the first step in the process. Training and evaluating the students who made the cut took days and then, once the program was up and running, trouble-shooting and maintenance needed time slots of their own. All of this can be fun(ny), as well fulfilling — but it’s important to have an idea of the time commitment involved before you begin the program.
Whom will you “hire”? The problem-solving process we taught the student Conflict Managers isn’t complicated, but kids need a certain maturity level to master it and use it well. Although maturity is an edge, sometimes just being older than the kids you’re helping isn’t enough. Most of the fifth graders who volunteered to assist at third grade recess could handle the responsibilities, but some of my fourth graders (who helped the second graders) weren’t ready for the job. I imagine that this program would work really well in a small school with only one or two sections of each grade. In that setting, all of the oldest students (preferably sixth or eighth graders) could be offered the opportunity to participate. This would simplify the selection process, as well as affording all of the oldest students in the building the opportunity to develop leadership skills over the course of the school year.
How will you schedule the Conflict Managers? We used both fourth and fifth graders because it worked with our recess schedule. Even then, missed class time was sometimes an issue, particularly with students whose academic skills weren’t necessarily keeping pace with their social skills. Getting investment from school staff can remove some of the challenges inherent in schedules that don’t line up perfectly.
How will other students identify the Conflict Managers on duty? The specific uniform is is less important than how eye-catching it is. I’ve seen a wide variety of options here — hats, vests and tee shirts, to name a few. The primary factors in determining Conflict Manager uniforms are usually budget and climate. If it gets cold where you live, you’ll want to choose a uniform that doesn’t get hidden by winter gear.
What if they want to quit? They are just kids, after all — sometimes they’d rather play than work, especially when no conflicts come their way. While it’s great news to the adults when business is slow, that same lack of business is a drawback for motivated Conflict Managers who want to put their skills to use. In addition, the job that seemed fun and novel in the fall can lose its luster as the school year seems to drag on. This is especially true when nice weather — and outdoor recess — re-emerges after a cold, cruel winter. Decide at the outset if students must commit to a full year, and what consequences, if any, will result if they choose not to honor their commitment. If your students won’t need to sign on for a full school year, when and how will you train their replacements?
How will you keep things running smoothly? One of the responsibilities of the student Conflict Managers was filling in a report template for any conflict they helped to solve. This kept school staff apprised of playground problems and helped ensure that the Conflict Managers were actually using the process they’d been taught. In addition, once the program got going, we held monthly meetings of all of the students who’d been trained. This allowed us to troubleshoot and head off problems at the pass. Conflict Managers could ask questions and express frustrations, and the adults in charge could gently remind the Conflict Managers of any policies or procedures they might have forgotten.
Ready to create a convincing argument for bringing a Conflict Manager program to your school? Here are a few program benefits to include in your sales pitch.
Conflict Managers can de-escalate bullying. While Conflict Managers aren’t a replacement for a comprehensive anti-bullying program, they can be an important part of a bigger plan. Often, bullying begins as small-scale behaviors that can be managed. If these behaviors go unchecked and unresolved, they can escalate. When Conflict Managers help kids solve the small-scale issues, they play a role in keeping the small stuff from turning into big stuff.
A Conflict Manager Program empowers kids, both those who are trained in the conflict resolution process and those who take advantage of it. Those who learn the process not only begin to internalize a peaceful method of problem solving, but also feel as though they’re doing something useful. Students who work with the Conflict Managers discover that they can work through problems on their own. As such, the process becomes a developmental stepping stone from tattling to student-led compromise.
A Conflict Manager Program provides an opportunity for kids to take on a leadership role. When Conflict Managers do their jobs well, they provide a service to the school community. In addition, every time they go on duty, they get a chance to exercise their leadership skills. While some elementary school students handle the role graciously, others need to be taught to do so, and perhaps given reminders along the way. Helping students to find the sweet spot between being a helper in name only and being large and in charge is perhaps the place in the program where the advisor needs to intervene the most (aside from the initial training). Providing the Conflict Managers with guidelines (see sidebar) during their training makes it easier to reference specific issues as they arise.
Last month, I jokingly said that some years, I needed Conflict Managers for the Conflict Managers. Then again, since my program was staffed with volunteers between the ages of nine and eleven who were giving up recess time, this is hardly surprising. A Conflict Manager program, no matter how amazing, can never replace adult supervision on the playground. Keeping in mind the reality of what kids this age can and can’t do is perhaps the biggest consideration of all. As we help the Conflict Managers along the road from student to role model, to leader, we need to keep in mind that they will need role models of their own. If you’re up for the task, this program can be as rewarding for you as it is for your students.
Conflict Manager Guidelines
- Be visible. Walk around the playground so that students in all areas can find you if they need you.
- Follow the process you’ve been taught for all conflicts that are brought to you. This includes remaining neutral and facilitating a solution, not forcing one.
- Conflict Managers are helpers, not policemen. They may not issue punishments and, if there is physical fighting of any kind, the Conflict Managers must refer the disputants to the playground aides.
- When you are on duty, you are working and cannot play with your friends or your partner.
- Remember that talking to the Conflict Managers is the students’ choice. No fair drumming up business.
Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor.
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