Teaching Students to Disagree Respectfully

5 steps for working through differences of opinion

By Rachel Wilser

If you read or watch the news at all, you’ve likely read about how divided our country is right now, and how the divisions are deepening. In an era of deepening divisions, it’s more important than ever that we’re teaching our students to disagree respectfully with one another, both academically and socially.

Today I’m sharing 5 tips on how to teach your students how to disagree. This is generally a conversation that would take place over several days in an early elementary classroom; older students (third grade and up) might be able to condense the conversation into one or two days.

  1. What does it mean to disagree?

Generally, I open our conversation with this question because it helps get an idea of what my students already think about disagreeing. I’ll give students a few minutes to share ideas of what it means to disagree to collect some ideas to guide our conversation. Ultimately, I’m guiding them towards a dispassionate definition of disagreeing; for the purpose of our conversation, I say that disagreeing is when you have two or more different ideas. Sometimes, one idea might be right (I usually give a math based example here: 2+2 isn’t 5), but sometimes you’ll just have different ideas.

  1. Talk about situations when you might disagree.

In early elementary classrooms, I start this portion of the lesson by asking students to name people you could disagree with, and we make a list. I want them to know that they really can disagree with almost anyone — their teachers, friends, classmates, siblings, parents — and that disagreeing isn’t bad, on its face. Then, we make another list of times you might disagree, and I put almost everything they say one here — they usually suggest lots of disagreements over favorites in  grades K-2 (favorite book, favorite team, favorite game, and the like) but I usually also guide them toward other types of disagreements, such as how to figure who should go first, how to take turns with a popular book, or how to share different ideas about a math problem.

  1. How do you disagree without being rude?

This is obviously the real heart of the issue, and we spend a significant amount of time here. Because I taught in K-2 classrooms, I usually created a chart of sentence stems that came out of this conversation. You may or may not want to do that as well. We talk about how really what we want to do when we disagree is just state or share a different idea. Sometimes this might just sound like a normal phrase (“My favorite team is the Nationals”), but other times we might need to add some additional details, such as, “I have a different idea, …”, or “I’d really like to read that book, too,” or “I got a different answer when I solved the problem.” We just generate some ways you can state your problem.

Then we talk about how we can respond to a disagreement. Sometimes, we can just state our disagreement (“My favorite team is different; my favorite team is the Reds”), but sometimes we’ll need some actual back-and-forth to solve the problem. What I want to make 100% clear during this time is that we would never disagree by insulting another person or calling that person names; it’s really okay for other people to have different ideas. Diversity of thought is not a problem, and we don’t need to act like it is. We can share differences without coming to a agreement; we can obviously have different favorite teams, games, books, and the like.

  1. Do you need to change the other person’s mind?

This is a sticky point in early elementary school; they believe they need to make others think their way, but we talk about how it’s not really important to change the other person’s mind. We can show them our thinking and give them our ideas, but that’s really all we can do. We don’t need to make others think like us, and we shouldn’t let that become our goal, because likely it will just frustrate everyone. Even in a scenario with one clear outcome, I emphasize that all we can do is clearly show our thinking and then move on.

  1. When do you need an adult?

This is also important, because sometimes kids are stubborn or having a bad day, or just they’re just digging in on something and don’t want to move beyond their disagreement. Sometimes, even with all the work, you will have to intervene. So we always wrap up this conversation by brainstorming some times we might need an adult to settle a disagreement. Generally, these end up being conflicts around sharing or turn taking in K-2, but could also easily involve standing up to a friend, sharing a secret, or solving another type of problem in older grades.

If we don’t proactively teach students how to disagree with respect, then they’ll fill in the gaps with ways that may or may not fit in with our classroom community. It’s worth the time to teach disagreeing respectfully (if you use Responsive Classroom, you could easily drop these conversations into Morning Meeting or your afternoon wrap-up).

Rachel Wilser has spent the better part of a decade in classrooms around the country — in private, public, charter, elementary, and middle schools. Now, she chases twins and drinks coffee while planning her return to the classroom.

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