Cooperative Learning and
Conflict Management in the Second Grade


Patty Foncault

While I have long been an advocate of cooperative learning, my early attempts at putting it into practice in my second grade social studies classroom met with mixed results. Annoying complaints would inevitably crop up, robbing the groups of progress toward completion of an assigned project. So I decided to teach conflict management skills and to use exercises that would allow students to practice these skills. I also designed a research project to determine whether the direct teaching of conflict management skills would reduce the frequency of disruptions that result from conflict between group members.


Student Survey

In this research project, I used a student survey (administered at the beginning and end of the year), journal entries, behavior logs, and direct teacher observation to measure whether students were benefiting from the lessons. According to the initial student survey, fewer than half of my thirty-two second grade students had worked together in groups previously. By the end of the year, there was a unanimous opinion that working in groups was something that students enjoyed and would like to do more often. At the beginning of the school year, only four students responded that they felt they would know how to handle a problem that might arise while working in a group situation. At the end of the year, this number had increased to eighteen. (Conversely, at the beginning of the year, nineteen students responded that they would not know how to handle a conflict in a group situation. At the end of the year, this number had decreased to ten.)

What I found most interesting was an apparent shift in the way the students related to each other. I asked them specifically what it was that they didn’t like about working in a group. There were eight different reasons that were given by the students. Two of these reasons changed significantly over the year. Initially, twenty-two students responded that one of the things they didn’t like about working in groups was that a partner might get them into trouble by continuing to do something after they had been asked to stop. At the end of the year, the number of students with this as a concern dropped to thirteen. Another reason given for not liking group work was that “other students can take your ideas.” At the beginning of the year, twenty-two of the students felt this way; at the end, the number fell to fourteen.

These figures represent a definite, and positive, change in attitude. The students developed less of an individualistic schema and more of a group, or team, mentality. They began to see cooperative, group settings as less of a threat and more as an opportunity to share and help each other accomplish a task.


Gradual Beginnings

One of the goals of any social studies curriculum should be to prepare our students to collaborate with people of divergent views. Giving them the opportunity to work in cooperative groups, while at the same time teaching them conflict management skills, seems to be an effective way to reach that goal.

I do not start off the year with students working in cooperative groups, but rather we build up slowly toward that goal. At the beginning, students’ desks are arranged in rows of two. After the first week of school, and when it is appropriate to the lesson, I ask students to work side-by-side as pairs (or to discuss questions). As the autumn progresses, I occasionally ask these pairs to turn around to the pairs behind and work as a foursome.



Teaching Conflict Management Skills

My conflict resolution program begins at the very start of the school year. Two twenty-minute periods each week are devoted to learning conflict management skills. We begin by discussing topics such as what characteristics a good friend should have, how they can be a friend to someone, and the way people can make us feel when they are kind versus unkind. Children’s literature can be an effective tool for exploring various positive and negative characteristics, and we use it extensively as a springboard for discussions about how our actions affect those around us.

We move on to a series of lessons on communication skills, including active listening skills, that involve posturing oneself attentively, paraphrasing what one hears, and asking clarifying questions. All of these lessons are given before students are ever put into a cooperative group setting. I frequently remind students that when they do begin working together, there will be times when problems between group members will arise. My goal is to help them realize that the skills they are learning will enable them to solve these problems peacefully and can be valuable throughout their lives.


Trying It Out

When the students return from winter break, their desks are arranged in groups of four, and our cooperative group learning begins on a regular basis. At the beginning of any cooperative activity, I remind students of the guidelines for group work. First, I go from group to group asking each student to repeat back to me what the assigned project is, so that I can be sure that they understand what they are being asked to do. Then I discuss with each group how the responsibilities might be broken down. For example, one student might be responsible for dictation, another for writing, while others might do the artwork. We finish up by talking about possible problems that might come up and how members of the group could go about solving them. I might ask, “What could you do if there were someone in your group who wasn’t participating?” or “What if you had an idea but the others in your group wanted to do it differently?” I have found these steps to be effective in establishing a problem-solving attitude within the groups.

When problems do arise within groups, we use the steps that are common to most conflict management programs.1 Each student is asked to state the problem as he or she sees it, without any interruptions allowed from other parties. Students are also encouraged to verbalize their feelings, using “I” messages as opposed to being accusatory. Then, possible solutions are brainstormed until a satisfactory outcome is agreed to by all. The specific solutions vary: students might decide to take turns using a resource, vote between options, or ask for the teacher’s advice. Sometimes just talking about a problem leads to an unforeseen solution. As time goes on and the students become more adept at the process, I find that less and less teacher intervention is needed. It is rewarding to see a group of students encounter a problem and reach a peaceful solution on their own!


An Atmosphere of Cooperation

There are also things I do as a teacher to limit the possibility of conflict within the group and to help foster a sense of cooperation. Many of these are ideas that I have gleaned from reading the work of experts in the field, such as Johnson and Johnson, and Spencer Kagan.2 For example, every student gets a turn having a specific job related to class management and maintenance: Every Monday, job responsibilities are rotated so that each student has an opportunity to try each job (see box).

Twice each week, students engage in a team-building activity that helps build a spirit of cooperation and cohesiveness within each group. This activity can be something as simple as sequencing sentence strips, or solving an applied math problem for which each member of the group has a different piece of information, or putting together the pieces of a puzzle (see the box on page 25).


Variety and Change

Each cooperative learning group stays together for about six to eight weeks. Beyond that length of time, I often notice an increase in restlessness among students. So I tell them that I will soon reform the groups, and I lead them in a closure activity. A favorite activity is for each student to tell something positive about the person sitting to his or her left, explaining to the whole class why that person would be a great group member to have. This activity gives the students an opportunity to practice giving compliments and public speaking. Everyone anticipates joining a new group, but feels appreciative of the old one.

On the days that new groups are assigned, I plan activities that complement the curriculum. For example, when we are studying time, I pass out slips of paper to the students with an hour of the day (for example, 6:00 AM) written on each. Students find their new group members by locating the three other people holding the same time slip. When students are situated in their new groups, they do a team-building activity—drawing a team picture showing what each of them is usually doing at that time of day. When we begin our study of community, I pass out slips of paper with notable, local addresses written on them (like that of the library). Students find their new group members by matching addresses. The corresponding team-building activity is the production of a neighborhood mural.


“Constructing” Community

Our end-of-the-year project reveals the value of combining conflict management training with cooperative group learning. Having just finished a unit of study on communities and economics, the students work together in their groups to construct a rural, suburban, or urban community. Materials include empty milk cartons, boxes, bases (that are 3x3-foot pieces of cardboard), construction paper, and other art supplies. For two full days, the class works in a room that has been cleared of desks. The only disruption encountered has been a minor disagreement that was quickly solved by a teacher-directed discussion. The final model communities are presented to the principal and parents at a classroom open house. Each student explains something about producers and consumers as well as goods and services in the community.



Is the development of cooperative groups worth the effort? Most definitely! Cooperative learning can be a rewarding experience, but it doesn’t just happen. A lot of thought and careful preparation must occur. Implementing cooperative learning groups gradually, directly teaching conflict management skills, assigning specific roles, and varying group membership over time are all tactics that help ensure success. Learning to work in cooperative groups, and solving the problems that may arise, makes social studies more interesting. It’s good practice for citizenship in a democratic society.



1. Ella M. Glenn Burnett, “Conflict Resolution: Four Steps Worth Taking” Social Studies and the Young Learner 12, no. 3 (January/February 2000): 20-23.

2. D. W. Johnson and R. T. Johnson, Practical Guide to Cooperative Learning (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1995); S. Kagan, L. Kagan, and M. Kagan, Teambuilding (San Clemente, CA: Kagan Cooperative Learning, 1997).


About the Author

Patty Foncault is a second grade teacher at Nancy Gomes Elementary School in Reno, Nevada. She recently completed studies for a Master’s degree at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona, and has advocated cooperative group learning for several years.



Job Assignments

Student jobs rotate each week. The Materials Major passes out and collects papers within the group and obtains any supplies that might be needed for projects such as glue and scissors. Having one person assume this duty cuts down on traffic and keeps things organized. The Quiet Captain keeps the noise coming from his or her group at an acceptable decibel level. He or she does this by reminding everyone to use “quiet” voices. The Speed Sergeant brings activities to a close when time is running out. I will give a signal when we need to get ready to move on, and the Speed Sergeant gets the members of the group to finish up in the allotted time and gathers things up to be put away. The Encouraging Ensign facilitates full participation by each group member by saying things such as “Good idea!” or “I like that!” Making this an “official job” helps students think about deliberately giving positive reinforcement to their peers.


Cooperative Activities

These activities can be used to help students learn social studies content and to build cooperation within the groups

> Venn Diagram. After a unit of study on great leaders, students make lists of facts concerning Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Each group draws a Venn diagram to show which facts were common to both men and which were unique to one individual or the other.

> Acrostic. Students brainstorm words and phrases that begin with each letter of the name of a person they have studied. One acrostic about LINCOLN read, “Liked to read; Important; Never gave up; Compassionate; Outstanding; Lived in Washington, DC; and No daughters.”

> Map Quest. Students study a map or atlas to answer questions provided by the teacher. Several maps might be made available, such as one in a textbook and one large classroom wall map or atlas.

> Search Engine. This exercise can involve the whole class. Students are given worksheets on a topic that they recently studied, and they are instructed to walk around the room to find someone who can answer each question. Only one question can be asked of any person. Students write down each correct answer and the name of the person who provided it. (“If time runs out before your worksheet is completed, that’s okay—another member of your team may have bumped into the answer you need.”)