© 2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Confict Resolution: Four Steps Worth Taking 

Ella M. Glenn Burnett

What will you do when a conflict arises between students in the classroom or on the playground? How will you react? What are your feelings about interpersonal conflict? Can you articulate them? How will you handle your possible anger or fear? I would like to suggest ways that one can clarify one’s own responses to conflict as well as a strategy for resolving conflicts between students.


Social Norms

We have a set of learned, internal norms that tell us what is appropriate behavior in a given setting and what is not. We are not usually aware of these norms, which are formed early in our upbringing.1 We use norms to make sense out of social experiences, including conflict. Conflicts can be fueled, in part, from different norms between adults and children. For example, a teacher might require a child to look him in the eye as a way of showing that the child is listening, but a family norm for this child may be that looking directly at adults is not respectful. Conflicts can also arise from different norms between children. For example, assertive behavior may be expected in one family (especially when there is competition between siblings), whereas in another family, a quieter approach is rewarded. Indeed, some cultures value overt verbal conflict as a way of communicating, while other cultures condemn conflict and require its avoidance if at all possible. All cultures, however, have norms that help to define, limit, and channel conflict into workable solutions.

Understanding your own assumptions about conflict can help you comprehend responses from others. Try to articulate your own approach to conflict. What were you taught by your family about aggressive behavior and how to end a conflict? What did you do when adults around you were in conflict? How did your family express feelings of anger or hurt? Were you punished for showing anger when you were in conflict with peers or adults? Or were you encouraged to express your anger in certain ways and to work through the conflict? What did you learn from experiences with peers in school and in college? Do you feel comfortable disagreeing with someone who is more experienced and knowledgeable than you? Or does conflict or the potential of conflict make your heart race in dread? Do you fear conflict or even the possibility of conflict? Do you try to avoid conflict at all costs? Or do you enjoy a lively dispute?

Teachers need to bring their norms and assumptions to full awareness and subject them to careful reflection. As the arbiters of conflict, we often need to moderate our own reactions and to pay close attention to how norms, assumptions, and misunderstandings may be complicating or contributing to a conflict between students. After examining one’s own interpretation of and responses to conflict, one can begin to look at conflict from other perspectives and begin to devise an effective approach to clarifying and resolving this conflict, with these particular students. Different styles of confrontation and dispute are okay among children if the conflict is kept within reasonable, nonviolent limits and the goals of fairness and resolution are kept in sight.


When to Step In

I do not believe that teachers can shy away from conflicts that arise between students, that we can just “let them work it out themselves.” On occasion I have observed conflict among students in the classroom that at first appeared to be an insignificant carry-over from a playground incident, but that seemed to me to be—at the heart—racially or culturally motivated. I think that such tensions should not be tolerated in the classroom. Students need to feel safe to learn successfully. We teachers need to be confident in our ability to maintain that safe environment and should be proactive in confronting such disruptions. For example, students may call one another derogatory names, creating anger and fear among participants and “audience” alike. I would try to deal with such a situation immediately and seek a resolution for those involved.

On the other hand, a teacher who simply ends a conflict by quickly deciding the outcome (and maybe enforcing discipline) without any discussion at all misses an opportunity. I think it is appropriate to take class time to identify such problems, to meet with individual students or small groups privately in order to resolve a conflict. Otherwise, it might distract from the day’s learning or sow resentments that might only grow stronger. Conflict resolution is a chance to demonstrate the value of fairness, to teach communication skills, and to empower students with a sense of their own abilities and responsibilities.


Four Steps to Conflict Resolution

I would like to propose a four-step model for conflict resolution that was inspired by the research and writings of Kriedler, and Curwin and Mendler2 and many years of mentoring new and experienced teachers in elementary classrooms.

1. Identify the problem without blame.

In the following imagined—but not unrealistic—name-calling incident, the teacher focuses on the conflict without placing blame on one person for the situation.

William says that you called him a put-down name, Juanita. I was not there to hear it—but I want to ask you a question. Is it ever okay to call someone a bad name, Juanita? What do you think, William?

You could begin by modeling “I” messages when presenting your perspective on the problem. For example, point out the effects of this conflict on the learning in the classroom and talk about how you feel.

I cannot teach when I’m upset. I am upset when children are calling each other put-down names.

Listening to each child will help define the problem (even if the stories are different, as is so often the case). Active listening, giving limited verbal feedback such as “Okay, I see,” with appropriate body language, such as nodding your head and making consistent eye contact, lets each child know he or she is being respected.3 Coach the youngsters to use “I” messages, to focus on their own behavior and feelings in response to the situation. The temptation is, of course, for each child to point a finger and say, “He did this … he did that.” The teacher can help each student stay on track of describing his or her own behavior and feelings, and—while describing another person’s behavior—to avoid making assumptions about that person’s motives.

Such a three-way discussion between two angry students and a teacher is likely to be a little messy. “Letting off some steam” at the beginning of this process is okay. People need to express their frustration over the situation, and the presence of a teacher can help keep such expression within reasonable limits. You might even ask a child to continue until he or she has fully expressed himself or herself.

So Juanita, just before this happened, you had been waiting a long, long time for your turn on the swing. Have you told me everything you want to now?

Carefully rephrase what you hear each child saying, being clear that you are not agreeing or disagreeing with any specific perception, but just trying out each point of view. The teacher can be a coach or referee, making sure that all have their say without being accusatory.

I’d like to also hear what William has to say. What were you doing, William, and how were you feeling as this all happened?

Everyone is allowed to share his or her point of view and feelings about what happened. Luckily, it is not usually necessary for all to concur (or for the teacher to fully understand) the exact and detailed sequence of events before going to step two.


2. Brainstorm Alternatives Together

Students themselves are excellent sources of ideas for alternative behaviors that are appropriate for the playground or classroom. Following their descriptions of a conflicting situation and their feelings, students can often come up with their views of acceptable behavior.

William, what do you think is a good amount of time to be on a swing?

Juanita, what do you think should happen if one student has been on the swing a long time and another student has been waiting for a turn?

If students can write, they might write their solutions down on paper (or on the blackboard, if the whole class is involved or listening). You could ask students to return to their desks and invent three different scenarios that might resolve the situation. It may surprise them that you are not in a hurry to enforce a single “correct” answer.

If there were misunderstandings (a word misheard or a difference in styles of communicating), these might be brought to light during this discussion and clarified. You might be able to give voice to the common values shared by the children. For example, everyone wants to be spoken to with respect, every child needs access to the playground equipment, and everyone needs a way to fairly object when something goes wrong.


3. Agree on a Solution

Finally, students could be asked to state which possible solution they think would most likely work for all concerned.

William, what would be a fair way to share the swings when you go out on the playground?

Juanita, do you agree that five minutes is a long-enough time? I see that William has a watch that he could use. Who else might have a watch on the playground?

The teacher can restate the solution in words that appropriately include some of the alternative behaviors and consequences discussed. In the classroom, you have the final say. You should try to incorporate as many of the students suggestions as are reasonable. Even if some student ideas should not be used, the fact that you listened to all of their ideas means that power is being shared.

Juanita, what are some actions a student could take if playground equipment is not being shared?

William, do you agree that students should try to talk to each other before going to a teacher?

If the needs of each student are reflected in the solution (as summarized by the teacher), then the problem has been changed from a Win-Lose into a Win-Win situation.4 In other words, one student does not emerge from this conflict as the loser; instead, both students have participated in creating an alternative that addresses both of their concerns.


4. Evaluate the Result

Schedule a follow-up meeting for the next day, at which time everyone will review whether the suggested behaviors were followed. Hold this meeting even if no problems erupt the next day—the point is that both children are challenged to observe their own behavior, reflect on their discussion, and measure their own success.

Tomorrow, if a problem comes up, let me know. I’ll be on the playground. But I expect things to go well, because we have a plan that I think is fair. Let’s meet tomorrow after lunch to follow up our discussion.

Be clear about expectations of specific desired behavior, that is, what you want to see happening and hear said on the playground. Students need to be involved in the evaluation of the solution that is agreed on and to provide feedback for possible modifications. They might, with any luck, forget their anger and begin to see the negotiations as part of an experiment, with a question (How can we share those swings?), a laboratory (with people and equipment), and a measurable outcome (how kids interact).

Caveats and Conclusions

The four steps to conflict resolution proposed above are not a substitute for disciplinary action, they are complementary to it. For example, if I (or another teacher) had heard Juanita call William by a racist term, Juanita would have to face a consequence for this behavior such as a time out or a temporary loss of a privilege (or whatever the classroom or school rules require). Even so, before enforcing such a rule, I would lead Juanita and William through the four steps, in hopes that Juanita would be more likely to accept the discipline as fair, and so that both students might feel empowered to explore solutions (maybe even without a teacher leading the discussion) when a similar playground conflict arises.

Likewise, this four-step method is not a cure-all. One of the children may be experiencing stress from a problem that is rooted outside the school environment (such as family turmoil, economic hardship, or a psychological condition like Attention Deficit Disorder). Such a child is likely to instigate similar conflicts in an unhappy, predictable pattern. In such situations, it is often helpful to call upon outside resources: parents, administrators, school psychologists, or other mental health professionals. By walking through the four-step method of conflict resolution, a teacher may get a hint of such an underlying problem and can then seek outside help. Simply applying discipline—with no discussion with the students—is more likely to leave the teacher in the dark, and conflicts unresolved.

A teacher can make the difference between angry confrontation and productive conflict resolution. Build on these steps to develop your own personalized approach to conflict resolution. As students observe you listening, asking questions, clarifying options and values, and proposing solutions (aiming for that Win-Win solution), they might just decide to try their hand at it.



1. Rodman Webb and Robert Sherman, Schooling and Society (New York: Macmillan, 1989).

2. William J. Kriedler, Creative Conflict Resolution (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, & Company, 1984); Richard D. Curwin and Allen N. Mendler, Discipline with Dignity (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1988).

3. C. M. Charles, Building Classroom Discipline, 5th ed. (White Plains, NY Longman, 1996).

4. Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes (New York: Penguin Books, 1981).

About the Author

Ella M. Glenn Burnett is an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education in the College of Education at California State University in Long Beach.


Conflict Resolution Resources


Steven Lapham

There are many organizations, small and large, that are working to support teachers who want to promote conflict resolution skills in schools. Indeed, many school districts have developed lesson plans and curriculum guides on this topic, including those in San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, and New Mexico.* A few key organizations that have exemplary resources for elementary teachers are listed below. Ask them about their resources for elementary schools or visit their web sites.



180 Dundas St. W., Suite 1900, Toronto, Ontario, M5G 1Z8 Canada. (800) 321-1078. Fax (416) 408-2122. E-mail: voices@voices4children.org
Web: www.voices4children.org

VFC is a program of the Coalition for Children, Families, and Communities of Canada. Their web site is one of the best: it’s easy to use and has lots of information (including handouts) free for the taking. Check out the “Fact Sheets,” “Resource Guide,” “The Learning Game,” “Links to Related Sties,” and “en Français.”



Fellowship of Reconciliation, Box 271, Nyack, NY 10960. (914) 353-1796. Fax (914) 358-4924.
E-mail: ccrcnyack@aol.com

CCRC offers workshops and conflict resolution resources for teachers, parents, and others who work with young people. Themes include cooperation, communication, affirmation, problem solving, mediation, bias awareness, and conflict resolution. CCRC helped to compile this resource list.



23 Garden St., Cambridge, MA 12130. (617) 492-1764.
Fax (617) 864-5164.
E-mail: educators@esrnational.org
Web: www.esrnational.org

ESR supports educators and parents with professional development, networks, and instructional materials. ESR’s primary mission is to help young people develop convictions and skills to shape a safe, sustainable, and just world. On their web site, see the introduction to their “Resolving Conflict Creatively Program.”


1527 New Hampshire Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20036. (202) 667-9700. Fax (202) 667-8629.
E-mail: membership@crenet.org
Web: www.crenet.org

CREnet is a membership organization dedicated to making conflict resolution education universally available to all youth and adults. CREnet offers resource lists, innovative materials, networking with fellow educators, and a newsletter, The Fourth R.



U.S. Department of Education, 400 Maryland Ave., SE, Washington, DC, 20202. (202) 260-3954.
E-mail: safeschl@ed.gov
Web: www.ed.gov/offices/OESE/SDFS

DOE’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education has several books and kits of interest to elementary teachers. They sponsored a guidebook, Creating The Peaceable School: A Comprehensive Program for Teaching Conflict Resolution by Richard J. Bodine, Donna K. Crawford, and Fred Schrumpf (Champaign, Ill.: Research Press, 1994). A free version of this basic guide is available by calling toll-free 877-433-7827 or online at www.ncjrs.org/txtfiles/160935.txt. Check out the section “Elementary Programs and Curricular Materials” in Chapter 5.



1540 Market St., Suite 490, San Francisco, CA 94102.
(415) 552-1250. Fax (415) 626-0595.
E-mail: cmbrds@conflictnet.org
Web: www.communityboards.org

CBP offers extensive mediation and conflict resolution training and has many curriculum materials available. On the web site, check out “Classroom Curricula,” “Peer Mediation,” and “Información en Español.”



1900 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, FL 33132. (800) 749-8838.
Fax (305) 576-3106.
Web: www.peace-ed.org

The Peace Education Foundation offers for sale many curriculum materials for the elementary grades. Their web site is easy to navigate.



845 106th Ave N.E. Suite 109, Bellevue WA 98004.
(800) 922-1988.
E-mail: cru@cruinstitute.org
Web: www.cruinstitute.org

CRU, a nonprofit organization, offers for sale training and curricula for elementary school teachers and administrators. See “Materials en Español.”



* ERIC Digest No. 74. www.ed.gov/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed338791.html