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There are many ways that you can encourage a safe learning place for your students, and resolving conflict in your classroom is one of the most important tools you have. Through conflict management techniques, you can ensure your classroom remains a positive environment focused on learning, regardless of the differences your students face in socio-economic status, race, cultural background, individual personalities, and academic performance.

All it takes is a look at current news and world events to see that conflict resolution is a lifelong skill that many adults have not yet mastered. Learning the fundamentals of conflict resolution early will help your students thrive from the classroom, to the office, to their home setting…to ultimately the boardroom.

Here are some tools that we’ve found to be useful in achieving conflict resolution in the classroom:

  • Take a Breath

In any environment, a conflict will escalate when people are upset. If you are emotional you cannot grasp a logical view of the situation. With these emotional conflicts, encourage students to hit the “pause button”, so they can take a breath. Even if you have to move students to opposite sides of the room, allow them to have a couple of moments apart to diffuse the situation. You can also encourage students to take part in a 5-minute Meditation before attempting to create a solution.

  • Define the Issue

Some problems you encounter are worth discussing and others should be let go. You, as the educator, you are responsible for deciding when it’s appropriate to smooth over a situation or tackle it head on. It is important that every step of the resolution process is focused on the student. They need to have a voice, feel heard, and be able to move forward past the incident.

  • Journaling Feelings

Many students are not comfortable speaking about their problems, but they are okay with drawing or writing about their issues. Giving students journals to document their feelings gives them a safe space to understand their thoughts. You can even have students journal online in a Google Doc.

  • Brainstorm a Solution

Encourage students to own the process and create their own resolutions to problems. Instead of telling students what to do, ask students how they would resolve their conflict. This type of reasoning also helps develop students’ critical thinking skills. You can use brainstorming techniques, like drawing diagrams, or students can use you as an impartial third party.

  • Check on Progress

Once a solution has been decided upon, have students shake hands to acknowledge the disagreement is over. It is important to have a shared gesture between involved parties to agree to move forward. Your final step in conflict resolution is to monitor the involved students.

By correctly handling conflicts in your class, you strengthen bonds between students and lay the foundation to teach them how to handle issues in the future. This open communication will limit conflicts and allows you to focus on teaching students rather than refereeing situations.

Daily, we are faced with emotional issues in our lives that can be negatively escalated by mishandling situations. Your classroom is no exception, and you can handle conflicts effectively with the right tools. These methods will assist you in retaining healthy control of your classroom, ensuring that your students feel safe and comfortable in their learning environment.

General Strategies for Handling Conflict in Classrooms

  • Rather than avoid potentially charged course content, anticipate conflict and be prepared to respond.
  • SOAR (stop, observe, assess, react).
  • Acknowledge emotions (“I see that you’re upset,” or “I understand that this is a powerful topic for you”).
  • Think of the moment as a learning opportunity and present it as such to students.
  • Focus dialogue on academic concepts rather than personal opinions.
  • Give students a few minutes to write a personal response to the situation. Collect these and prepare a response in the next class.
  • Listen and restate perspectives, especially if one student is receiving all of the heat (“What I think ____ is trying to say is…”).
  • Meet individually with students if necessary.

If Students are Behaving in a Disruptive Manner

  • Observe and control your emotional reaction to feelings of being challenged or threatened.
  • Be aware of your body language and what you are communicating through your actions.
  • Address behaviors, not people.
  • Uphold class norms. Address issues that arise each and every time and remain consistent in how you deal with students. Refer to your own class guidelines.
  • Ask to speak to student(s) in private.

When Meeting Privately with Students

The following strategies are adapted from Meyers (2003):

  • Ask students to explain what occurred.
  • Listen empathetically. Acknowledge emotions by repeating what you understand their issues to be.
  • With student(s), brainstorm possible solutions.
  • Help students evaluate these solutions through comprehensive problem solving.

Create a Safe & Effective Learning Environment

  • Get to know students’ names and interests and be open to telling them a bit about yourself.
  • Be available for office hours.
  • Take a few minutes before and after class to interact with students.
  • Dedicate time for community building and peer learning opportunities (i.e., ice breakers, group work).
  • Have students create their own goals for the class.
  • Make your course relevant by connecting course content to the “real world.”
  • Include a non-discrimination policy in your syllabus.
  • Use your syllabus as a “class contract” and include guidelines for group work and classroom interactions.
  • Share authority by getting students’ feedback about classroom guidelines and incorporate their contributions.

Use Inclusive Teaching Practices

  • Communicate clear expectations.
  • Incorporate diversity in choosing what texts, films, etc. students will encounter during the course.
  • Use a variety of teaching strategies that reach different learning modalities.
  • Provide various methods for students to demonstrate learning.
  • Learn about/reflect upon the various social identities that make up your class. Monitor how these dynamics play out in your classroom setting.
  • Critically reflect on your teaching practice.
  • Assess classroom climate periodically. Have students respond to prompts anonymously on index cards that you can collect easily for review. Some sample prompts:
    • I feel comfortable participating in class: Yes; Always; Sometimes; Never
    • One thing that would help me be more comfortable is: ___________.

Setting up & Managing Group Work

  • Arrange groups with intention (mix of skills, identities, and personalities). In large classes, assign randomly.
  • Create tasks that encourage interdependence.
  • Have groups create their own plans for approaching the task and dealing with potential conflict.
  • Include self and peer assessment as a small part of the evaluation (ratings for group work effectiveness).
  • Assign roles within the group and switch roles throughout.

Some Thoughts on Preventing & Managing Difficult Classroom Situations

“This study indicates that the consequences of ignoring classroom incivilities can have deleterious effects on students, as the findings support that classroom incivilities harm the classroom climate. Further, the effects of classroom incivilities extend beyond the confines of the classroom and can damage students’ efforts to succeed at their institutions” (Hirschy & Braxton, 2004, p. 72).

“Conflict is inevitable in a classroom, and if not channeled appropriately conflict can damage relationships. Inclusive faculty did not attempt to minimize conflict; rather, they strived for academic conflict and disagreement (Osei-Kofi, Richards, & Smith, 2004). Conflict, if channeled correctly, allowed for more ideas to enter the sphere of learning. Inclusive faculty embraced conflict by preparing ahead for conflict resolution (Chesler et al., 2005); encouraging, if not demanding, students to respect and appreciate those who disagreed with them (Elenes, 2006); acknowledging that learning through a crisis can be beneficial (Kumashiro, 2003); challenging students’ resistance to learning (Tuitt, 2003); recognizing and engaging both overt and covert forms of conflict (Sfeir- Younis, 1993); and physically reorganizing the classroom to deal with negative intergroup dynamics (Chesler et al.)” (Stone Norton, 2008, p. 37).

Preventing conflicts

  • Be credible. Credibility is built from the first day of class and is continually judged throughout the term. On the first day, establish your credibility by providing some background information about your experience with the subject matter, your experience as a student, your research, etc. Show that you are focused and prepared. Keep this up throughout the term by coming to lectures prepared and sharing your lecture goals with your students. Organization, enthusiasm, solid knowledge of the content, and fairness all help to build and maintain credibility. Finally, you do not need to be perfect to be credible. If you make a mistake or don’t know the answer to a question, acknowledge the situation and focus on ensuring that the students get access to the required information as soon as possible. Defensive reactions tend to build conflict instead of preventing it.
  • Set clear expectations. Provide expectations from the start, both by writing them in your course outline and stating them in class. You can describe the goals of the course and outline roles for you and your students. You can also clearly emphasize your expectations for student behaviour and the consequences for prohibited behaviour, stressing mutual respect as a rationale for any ground rules. You can also include University policies towards certain behaviours (e.g., plagiarism) in your course outline.
  • Develop rapport. Students work better when they feel that their instructors care about them; therefore, try to reduce anonymity and use students’ names whenever possible (e.g., in lectures and when grading assignments or papers). Be present a few minutes before and after class to answer questions and chat with the students informally.
  • Use a dynamic teaching style. Good presentation and facilitation skills as well as enthusiasm for your teaching are assets that will keep students’ attention focused and help prevent distracting classroom behaviour such as lateness, talking, sleeping, etc. Using interactive teaching methods also helps to prevent distracting behaviours by involving students in the lecture.

Responding to conflict situations

Not all conflicts can be avoided with proactive measures. The following six steps describe a flexible response to many conflict situations. To practice implementing these steps, remember a conflict you have experienced and think about how these steps could be adapted to help you respond to that situation.

  1. Don’t take it personally

    Conflict situations can make the participants feel upset, threatened, frustrated, and/or angry. These emotional reactions are unpleasant and they can interfere with your ability to respond constructively. Help to control your emotional responses to challenging situations by changing your perceptions of them. Rather than angrily thinking, “That student is a jerk” or feeling miserable because “I’m being attacked”, you could think to yourself, “That student is really upset – I wonder what the problem is?”, or “This is a distraction that needs to be addressed.” By not taking the situation personally, you control your own emotional reaction, which allows you to respond in a calm manner.

  2. Choose when and where to deal with the situation

    Responding immediately to student concerns, distress and inappropriate behaviour demonstrates that you are attentive to your students’ needs and reinforces your expectations for student behaviour. For example, if students are noisy in class you can respond immediately by pausing until you regain the students’ attention, making eye contact with the disruptive students, or asking if there is a problem you can help resolve. Some situations can not be fully addressed immediately. For example, addressing a serious disagreement in class can distract the students, undermine your authority and take time away from the planned learning activities. The best response can be to note that there is a situation that needs to be resolved and suggest when and where it might be further investigated. Try to be attentive to both your needs and the student’s situation when picking the time and place. If you sense that a student is intimidated by authority, you may want to meet in a neutral location, like a conference room, rather than in your office. By meeting at an appropriate time and place, you can facilitate open communication between yourself and the students.

  3. Listen to the student

    When you meet with students, indicate that you are interested in hearing their perspectives by keeping a positive tone, and asking them open-ended questions, like “What part of the marking do you see as unfair?” When the students explain their situation, really listen: focus on their communication, don’t interrupt, and let them finish.

  4. Check your perception

    It’s very easy to misinterpret someone, especially if they are at all emotional. To ensure that you understand your students, you can check your perception of their accounts by describing your understanding and asking them to correct any misinterpretations or elaborate on anything that you find unclear. When describing your understanding, reframe their points as positive comments using non-blaming words. For example, “If my group members think they can do this to me again, they’re mistaken!” can be rephrased as “It’s important to you that your rights are respected.” Rephrasing the problem reassures the students that you are listening to them and it ensures that all the parties understand the problem. You can also ask lots of open-ended questions until you have enough information to understand the problem. Ideally, the feedback process would end when the students’ comments and body language confirm that they are sure that you have completely understood their message.

  5. Select and explain your position

    Now that you understand the students, you are in a good position to select a course of action. Be sure to choose an action that is in line with your teaching goals for the course. Tell the students what you have decided and give them your rationale for your decision. For example, when responding to a mark dispute, you might choose to review the assignment with the student by making reference to the marking criteria. In explaining your position, you might want to show an example of an assignment that better meets your expectations.

  6. Discuss next steps and document your decision

    When you have explained what you have decided to do, you can discuss possible next steps with the students:

    Finally, in many cases, you will want to document your decisions and, where appropriate, the information upon which you have based your decision.

    • If your plan of action requires follow-up on your part, you may want to briefly explain the process. For example, if you agree to review an assignment, you might want to indicate when they can expect to receive your comments.
    • You may want to direct students to other resources on campus, including counseling or health services, to get support and/or documentation.
    • If the students are not satisfied with your decision, it is good practice to direct them to an appropriate avenue for appeal (e.g., department chair).

Responding to highly emotional students

  • Schedule an appointment. If a student is too emotional to communicate his or her situation, it may help to schedule an appointment for a later time. This delay gives both parties a chance to calm down and to review the problem.
  • Open your door. This gives a chance for neutral, outside observers to witness the event. Leaving the door open protects both the student and the instructor.
  • Acknowledge behaviours and emotions. You may want to recognize the student’s emotional state at the beginning of your meeting. For example, you could say, “I can see that you are really upset. Can you tell me what you find especially frustrating?” If a student’s behaviour becomes inappropriate, point it out to the student.
  • Get assistance. If you don’t know how to approach a conflict situation, get assistance from a colleague or the Conflict Management and Human Rights Office (CMAHRO). If a student becomes very aggressive or threatening, contact the University of Waterloo police.
  • Keep others informed. If you are concerned that a difficult situation is developing, consider notifying others immediately. For example, if you are a teaching assistant, you could notify the instructor, the department chair, and CMAHRO.

Ineffective ways to deal with conflicts

  • Conquest. Trying to win an argument will turn a disagreement into a battle for dominance. Intimidation tactics can cause students to challenge you further and discourage their participation.
  • Avoidance. Ignoring problems does not make them go away.
  • Bargaining. Compromise can be a laudable way to resolve a conflict, but not when your teaching objectives get subverted by the resolution process. For example, asking a student to be less disruptive in class in exchange for a better grade on an assignment rewards unacceptable behaviour, harms your credibility, and is unfair to your other students. Make sure that your response to conflict situations is consistent with your teaching and assessment goals and is equitable to all in your course.

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