Strategies for Curriculum Change and Development
Dr. Joanne Jasmine
November 28, 2001
Mahatma Gandhi felt teaching real peace in the world needs to start with children. "If they will grow up in their natural innocence, we won’t have to struggle… until at last all the corners of the world are covered with that peace and love." (Gandhi, 11/19/31)
Critical thinking skills and being able to handle conflict peacefully are necessary skills for the 21st century. Helping students to understand and manage the conflicts that are a natural part of their lives prepares them to become productive adults. Too often, teachers are quick to punish students for misbehaving instead of showing students alternatives to their behavior. Life-long skills taught in a conflict resolution program help children to establish caring relationships and enable them to function effectively in today’s culture where many diversities blend (Tyrell, Scully and Halligan, 1998).
Much research on our education system has focused mainly on academic achievement. Less attention has been given to the development of the social and problem solving skills. Yet, our society needs strong citizens with good interpersonal skills as much as we need gifted children that are successful academically.
Conflict Resolution is sometimes referred to as the "fourth R" in the public school classroom (Michlowski, 1999). Violence in our society and schools has increased. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, (1991) violence is an everyday experience in their neighborhood for the 20% of all children and adolescents who live below the poverty line. If students witness verbal and physical aggression in their neighborhoods and homes, this is what they will model as solutions to their problems. Besides the actual experience of violence, all children are exposed to graphic violence in the news and entertainment media. The blame for school violence, disrespect and moral decline among young people can be placed on any number of reasons. Blame does not eliminate the problem.
Schools can address this dilemma and work to correct it. They can offer students positive methods of resolving conflicts. Conflict resolution programs can be integrated into the school curriculum. In today’s world, educating students how to resolve conflicts is a necessity. Teachers can implement and model ways to change the climate in their classrooms. According to Martorella, (1994) teachers need to help children to understand the causes of conflict, to use various methods of resolving it, and to solve their own conflicts constructively. Children need to realize conflicts will occur and there are benefits from solving conflicts peacefully. We want students behavior to be intrinsically motivated, not children who behave because of beans in jars, stickers, warnings, or detention. Tangible behavior rewards may work, but it is more meaningful if students are behaving appropriately because it is part of their intrinsic nature.
Schools have an obligation to teach students pro-social behavior so they can grow up to become informed responsible, and caring citizens. According to Goleman (1996) intelligences, namely emotional can be trained and strengthened. Emotional intelligence is necessary for children to grow up to be responsible adults. Emotional intelligence is described by Goleman (1996) as, "getting along well with other people, managing emotions in relationships, being able to persuade or lead others" (p. 6). In addition, Goleman (1996) feels a relationship exists between emotional skills and academic success.
The teaching and reinforcing of emotional intelligence and social skills by the schools are vital. Schools today "must be committed more deeply than ever before to intentionally creating community and paying attention to young people’s social and emotional lives. We need a new vision for schools-one that includes educating the heart along with the mind" (Lantieri and Patti 1996 p.29).
This paper will take a look at conflict and its impact in schools and the learning environment.
Conflict and Violence in SchoolsConflict is a natural part of life that happens when two or more people interact (Michlowski, 1999). Conflict is neither positive nor negative. How a person chooses to handle the situation can turn the conflict into either a negative or a positive experience. Destructive conflict hurts relationships, causes bad feelings and leads to future problems. Constructive conflicts let us learn, grow and change for the better. We see things from a different point of view, become more open minded, tolerant and accepting. Children who constructively resolve disagreements without adult intervention acquire lifelong problem-solving behaviors and attitudes. Unresolved or poorly handled conflict has been shown to be detrimental to the educational process and success in life. According to Hartup’s study, as cited in McClellan and Katz, 1999 p.1, the single best childhood predictor of adult adaptation is not IQ, not school grades, and not classroom behavior but, rather the adequacy with which the child gets along with other children. Children who are generally disliked, who are aggressive and disruptive, who are unable to sustain close relationships with other children, and who cannot establish a place for themselves in the peer culture are seriously "at risk."
Behaviors that disrupt education in schools and life can range from minor disagreements to outright violence. Violence in our schools is at an all time high. It is not a problem limited to the inner cities or low-income areas. It is an issue that touches everyone. Violence or threat of violence has a large impact on the quality of education a school provides. The learning environment and ability to learn are influenced by a student’s attitude toward school and ability to focus on schoolwork. Children cannot learn and teachers cannot effectively teach in a school faced with discipline problems and violent behavior. We cannot ignore violence in schools and its implications for society. Although violence is not a new concern, a major difference in school violence today is the presence and use of weapons, including guns. Lanteri and Patti (1996) state children are coming to school more frightened and angry than ever before, and their fear and anger walk right through the metal detectors at the doorways.
Violence and disrespect is associated with societal, cultural and individual factors (Coleman, Deutsche 2000). A major factor in the problem of youth violence is the impact of exposure to violence. Children are exposed to graphic violence in the news and entertainment media. Some children witness violence in their communities and some in their own homes. Some youth grow up in an environment where they have to fight to survive. Even those who have not grown up in a hostile environment can be involved in acts of violence.
Another factor contributing to violence in schools is the lack of parental supervision at home and the lack of family involvement in schools. Today’s family is not the "traditional" family of the 1950’s. Today many children come from single parent, dual working parents, or no-parent homes. Busy parents sometimes lack the time for modeling, teaching, supporting and correcting social skills, which are critical for our children. "The state of the economy now demands that parents work much harder and longer, so they have less discretionary time to spend with their kids than their own parents had with them." (O’Neil, 1995, p. 11) Television and computers seem to fill up children’s time. Unfortunately, television shows are not stressing values such as cooperation, kindness and positive ways of solving conflicts. Increased computer time also hinders the development of social skills. According to O’Neil (1995) time spent watching television or on computers do not allow children to learn emotional skills that are learned by interaction with other children and adults.
Inadequate or abusive parenting practices are especially detrimental to a child’s social development. For many children growing up in poverty, physical punishment is the norm. Parents teach their children to hit back. Some parents are inconsistent or over permissive.
Management of Behavior Attributed to Conflict and Violence
Poverty, racism, unemployment, substance abuse, and inadequate or abusive parenting practices are all considered factors contributing to anti-social behavior in children.
Traditionally, schools have addressed and handled the violence, but not the cause with limited effectiveness. Behavior management techniques have included referrals to the Principal’s office, detention, or suspension. Today, there exists a national concern over the negative impact of anti-social behavior. Trevaskis (1994) states the rush toward conflict resolution programs in schools is also mirrored in society by a move away from the traditional behavior management strategies.
Traditional behavior management techniques teach students that conflicts need adults for resolutions. The teacher is viewed as an authoritarian figure. Interventions focus on rewards and punishments, which is an external means of controlling behavior. This approach does not empower students. When adults control the students, children do not learn the procedures, skills, and attitudes required to resolve conflicts in school, at home or in the community.
In the traditional approach, teachers attempt to avoid conflicts or suppress them. This only makes the conflicts worse when they do erupt (Johnson and Johnson, 1995).
According to Vatalaro, (1999) conflict resolution programs seek to teach students to respond to conflict through communication. They foster a cooperative interaction between pupils in which the two sides first try to understand and then try to be understood, resulting in a win-win situation. Students learn strategies for decision-making and solving problems on their own. Conflict resolution programs empower the students. They learn to make good decisions and solve conflicts. They develop their problem-solving skills, social competence, and their personal resiliency. (Bernard, 1993)
Teachers are faced with a large number of conflicts everyday whether overt, subtle, big, small, racial or cultural.
According to Michlowski, (1999) there are three types of conflict:
·Conflict of goals-when students have incompatible ideas or opinions and only one can be realized
·Conflict of needs-when students want different things but only one can be met
·Conflict over resources-wanting the same thing, but only one can have it.
Conflicts can escalate or deescalate depending on classroom climate. A highly competitive classroom and/or an authoritarian teacher tend to foster a "win-lose" situation rather than a "win-win" outcome. Implementing a conflict resolution program lets a teacher establish a caring classroom climate.
Research and data on conflict resolution programs have shown that programs addressing conflict resolution strategies do work.
An objective of conflict resolution curriculum is to make students and teachers aware of alternative ways to handle conflict, such as cooperation and affirmation, and improve communication and problem solving skills. Korn (1994) found ten out of ten possible teachers developed an understanding of constructive conflict and forty-five out of fifty students used conflict-resolution strategies. In addition, third graders became aware of their options and learned better communication skills (Moreau, 1993).
In teaching students to deal with conflicts in positive, nonviolent ways and replacing behaviors such as blaming, bossing, tattling, and pushing with pro-social behaviors such as listening and talking, Bastianello (1989) found conflict-resolution strategies taught to twenty second and third grade students resulted in a decline in conflict time and pro-social skill usage increased. Satchel, (1992) found students involved in conflict resolution curriculum resulted in a decrease in discipline referrals, students got along with their peers and had a positive attitude about school. According to De Masters and King (1993) Kindergartners were able to transfer and apply newly taught problem solving skills at home.
Conflict resolution programs have some disadvantages. Youngsters from impoverished, dysfunctional families, living in violent neighborhoods, and influenced by a peer culture that admires violence will not easily learn pro-social skills from a conflict resolution curriculum, despite the efforts of dedicated educators. Schools are only one piece of the puzzle. The family, the neighborhood and peer groups are the other critical pieces that influence a child’s life. Students who live in poverty and violent neighborhoods learn aggression and belligerence as a way of life. Peer groups have a great deal of power over children. Until you involve everybody who touches the life of a child, you can only have limited success with a conflict resolution program. Changing students’ behavior requires more than a course in conflict resolution. Conflict resolution programs in schools may give the illusion of dealing with the problem of violence, but in fact, are doing little to change students’ views of life. Outside of the classroom, the children will continue to defend themselves in ways they have learned in their homes and neighborhood. Most training in cooperation and conflict resolution programs focuses solely on the children. "This focus denies the reality that most adults working in school systems have had little preparation, training, or encouragement to work collaboratively themselves or manage their own conflicts constructively, let alone teach these skills to others." (Coleman, Deutsche p.7) All staff involved with the children must be trained in Conflict Resolution strategies for the program to be effective. Changes can then come about through adult modeling of attitudes and behaviors, demonstration of the value of such approaches, encouragement of the development of new language, norms, and expectations throughout the school. (Coleman, Deutsch) Conflict resolution training cannot be limited to only the schools. Many conflicts, in fact, originate outside of school. A partnership must be established between parents, law enforcement, local community organization, etc. so that everyone can be involved in the prevention of destructive conflict among children.
Conflict resolution programs require lots of patience. Learning problem-solving skills takes a great deal of time, practice, and modeling across the school setting. Results are not seen immediately. Teachers’ attitudes toward any program will impact the program. Some teachers feel they lack the time necessary to implement a Conflict Resolution program in their classroom or that it is ineffective. If teachers do not buy into the program with enthusiasm and support, the program will not be successful. Conflict resolution programs are fairly new and their success has not been tested overtime. Problems should not be perceived as failures but rather as opportunities for growth.
Implications for Education
Today’s youth are faced with a challenging social environment. The recent events in our country and in many of our nation’s schools indicate a need for a more peaceful society. Today, schools are finding it necessary to incorporate curriculum addressing hostility, whether character education, conflict resolution, peace programs, etc. As a result of the Columbine high School shootings, the state of Colorado passed legislation mandating an anti-bullying program. Other states are considering doing the same. Teaching and modeling pro-social behavior will hopefully educate children that they must work cooperatively with one another and establish schools, which can give children opportunities to experience fairness, tolerance and learning.
ConclusionConflict Resolution programs are relatively new and the assessment tools to evaluate its impact are still being developed and refined. Conflict resolution is certainly not a panacea for the problems in society that spill over into the schools. However, teachers must work to establish caring environments and classroom climates that are conducive to learning. All educators share the responsibility of building good character in students through modeling and providing an appropriate environment and experiences for children. Schools can make a difference.
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