Managing Playground Conflicts

Keys to implementing a student conflict-management program in your school

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

Twenty-five years ago, I changed districts and grade levels, moving from a K-3 building to one housing students in grades two through five. In the process, I inherited a Student Conflict Manager program in which fourth- and fifth-graders gave up their lunch recess time once every few weeks to help the second and third graders solve playground problems.

Built on the notion that older students could help younger students work their way through playground scuffles, the program had, at its foundation, a basic process that we taught to student volunteers. Disputants, assisted by the conflict managers, moved from agreeing to ground rules to discussion of each person’s side of the story to brainstorming solutions.

At the conclusion of the training, we tested the older students on their proficiency in implementing the process. Then, we introduced the program to the student body via an assembly where two pairs of our new conflict managers modeled the process, one pair playing the role of conflict managers, the others as (scripted) disputants. Finally, we let our problem-solvers loose on the playground in pairs to help peace reign.

Some years, it was a success. Other years, I wished I had Conflict Managers for the Conflict Managers.

Overall, though, it was a great concept. Since the Conflict Managers were taught to facilitate problem-solving rather than offering solutions, the disputants quickly learned that they were the ones in charge of finding a solution to their scuffles. Training the older students to model the process for the younger students allowed us to effectively introduce the entire student body to a problem-solving process. For their own safety, Conflict Managers were not allowed to intervene in physical disputes and were to help only those who approached them and could tackle the process calmly.

Each year, I tweaked the program a little, but I never messed with the process because it did a great job of introducing students to basic problem-solving concepts. Here are a few of them.

Even upsetting problems can have peaceful solutions. Conflict Managers possessed neither magic wands nor a bag of problem-solving tricks. Instead, by using the process they’d been taught, Conflict Managers walked the disputants through the concepts of problem ownership and compromise using real life disputes. The very presence of the Conflict Managers on the playground sent the message that problems could be resolved in more ways than just yelling at each other or running to the adults in charge to try to get someone in trouble.

Stay calm and attack the problem, not the person. When people are yelling, blaming, or calling each other names, the problem gets worse instead of better. For safety reasons, Conflict Managers were taught not to engage with students who were unable to calm themselves before beginning the process; disputants who wanted help needed to agree to ground rules, which included staying calm and not resorting to name calling. If the disputants refused to agree to the ground rules, they were referred to one of the playground aides for assistance.

Talk when it’s your turn, listen when it’s the other person’s turn. Each conflict manager and each disputant gets a turn to talk, and no interrupting is allowed. Conflict Managers were trained in active listening, in which they were to maintain eye contact and repeat back each person’s side of the story. Disputants who forgot and interrupted were reminded of the ground rules to which they had agreed.

Ditch the past and focus on the future. In guiding the disputants to a resolution, the Conflict Managers asked each person what they could have done differently and what they could do here and now. Phrasing was important here; in training, the Conflict Managers needed to be reminded to ask “what could you have done differently?” rather than “what did you do wrong?” By encouraging reflection instead of recrimination, these inquiries led disputants who were serious about the process into a logical resolution beyond “say I’m sorry and never do it again.” (Because we all know how well that works).

Think your school is ready for student Conflict Managers? Next month, we’ll look at some of the challenges and benefits that come with the program. In the meantime, if you’d like to do some more reading, the Rutgers University Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution is a great resource for further information.

The Conflict Resolution Process

Each fourth or fifth grade Conflict Manager is first trained in a problem-solving process:

  1. Conflict Managers introduce themselves and ask the disputants if they want to solve their problem. If the disputants agree to solve the problem, the Conflict Managers ask the disputants for their names. If necessary, they move to a different area to talk.
  2. Disputants agree to four rules:
  •           Agree to solve the problem.
  •           Tell the truth.
  •           No name-calling.
  •           Do not interrupt.
  1. Each person tells his or her side of the story, and a Conflict Manager repeats back what he or she heard to be sure they understand the situation.
  2. Conflict Managers ask each disputant what they could have done differently.
  3. Conflict Managers ask each disputant what they can do here and now.
  4. Together, the disputants agree to a resolution, facilitated by the Conflict Managers. 


Image credit: Pixabay (2018), CC0 Public Domain


Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor.

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