Breaking it right

Gita Krenek

Gita-Krenek Some time ago I attended a workshop for teachers, on conflict resolution. During the programme, several typical conflict situations – such as one child trying to snatch a toy from another, or two children pushing and shoving over who should go first – were acted out, with adults playing the parts of children. Participants were then asked to deal with the situation. What was noticeable was that in every case, the teacher simply stepped in and, in a loud voice, began issuing arbitrary instructions and commands. (“You will go first.”) While this may be quick and easy, it serves the interests of the teacher more than those of the children.

When to intervene.
You don’t want children running to you to solve every little thing for them. It’s good to let them sort out their own issues – up to a point.

You may want to intervene if:

  • They are obviously not solving the problem and someone is getting upset.
  • There is an element of bullying.
  • They are using a certain behaviour to solve a problem, which you don’t want to allow (eg violence).
  • It is becoming a pattern (e.g. exclusion of one child.)

Imposing a solution doesn’t teach them how to solve conflicts. It makes them feel disempowered. Usually one person will feel wronged by your solution and will be resentful. Another consequence can be that, later, when the children have become adults, they will still look to someone else (eg. the government) to solve all their problems for them.

Some strategies:

  • Keep an eye out in class for little opportunities to teach children how to express needs and wants, rather than grabbing and snatching things, or pushing in.
    “Can I please have it when you are finished?”
    “Please can I sit next to Pushpa?”

    They also need to know how to politely turn down a request:
    “No, sorry, I am using it now, but you can have it when I’ve finished”.

  • Find a way with the child/children to heal the situation, but not with guilt (making one or both feel bad).Talk it through. The children need to learn the vocabulary and language, as well as strategies, for resolving conflict. Make it look as though they are resolving the situation themselves, by the way you steer the conversation. Eventually – we hope – they will be able, through imitating your language, to actually solve their differences without your help.

(To first child, who has hit the second when he tried to snatch a toy) “What’s the problem? Why did you do that?”
(To second child) “How did that make you feel?”
(To first child) “How can we solve this? Do you think you could let Siva have a turn?”
(To second child) “Maybe if you ask nicely, Mohan will give you a turn. What could you say? How about if you said …? Would that be OK?”
(To first child) “Would that be OK?”

By this time both have said ‘OK’, they cannot help agreeing. They have both now become part of the solution.

  • Most conflicts will need to be resolved with a compromise. This is a very important lesson for life learning – nobody ever gets everything they want. But you can negotiate for what you want. You give a little and he gives a little. Teach the children the words/language they can use to negotiate.
  • Make children aware of the consequences of their actions. “Because you did that, it made Johnny sad and angry. That’s why he hit you”.
  • Distract by finding something different that both parties can do together.
  • If something is becoming a pattern: “You are going to have a holiday from each other today.” What is the reason for the pattern? Replace a pattern with another (more desirable) pattern.
  • If one child is being excluded from the group: take the single child and do something nice together. The others may come and want to do it too. Better to make a bridge than to interfere and try to force inclusion.
  • Children who are particularly prone to conflict are often given the feeling they are bad – so they live up to expectations and keep behaving in the same way.

Children will copy your example. How do you resolve conflict, whether in the classroom or outside? Do you shout? Do you demand? Do you continue to insist that your way is right without listening to the other’s point of view? Or do you pay attention to what the other is saying, negotiate, compromise, give in gracefully to their request?

Solving interpersonal conflict is important not just because it makes your classroom or playground more peaceful. On every level – from friends, to the married couple, to the family, to the community, to the nation, to the world – the ability to resolve conflict peacefully and amicably is crucial to harmony. What greater gift can we give our children than to teach them how to do it?

The author has taught English to school children in Austria and Ecuador and to young adults in India. At present she is working as a volunteer in a small NGO-run primary school for rural children in the foothills of the Himalayas. She can be reached at

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