Conflict Resolution

The following article about conflict resolution is taken from the curriculum of the NHE schools in Romania. It was just published in a Romanian journal about Mediation in schools, called “Social Economic Debates: Domains of research – education and educational policies, economic politics, social economy, management/marketing, mediation.” by the Association for Promoting Entrepreneurial spirit and published by the publishing house “Rosetti International” volume 1/2013. The paper was also presented to about 100 professors, lawyers, mediators, etc. on April 4th at the National Conference on School Mediation which was held at the Faculty of International Economic Relations through its Master program of Integration and European Business together with the Faculty of Juridical science and Administration through its Master program in Mediation. The event was held at the Christian University “Dimitrie Cantemir” in Bucharest, Romania.

In most educational settings, conflict between children is considered an unwelcome, bothersome interruption to the educational process. By contrast, in Neohumanist Education, conflicts are seen as excellent, spontaneous opportunities for coaching children’s socio-emotional skills. While pro-social communication skills can be pro-actively encouraged through story-telling, discussion and role playing, the most important “teachable moments” are those that arise naturally in daily situations. Neohumanist teacher training spends a great deal of time providing teachers with skills in mediation, problem solving and positive communication techniques. The few minutes needed to solve a conflict between children, not as a judge of a court, but as a facilitator, involving children in the process and teaching them to understand and recognize their own feelings and the feelings of the other are invaluable opportunities for important life lessons.

Neohumanist philosophy has a fundamentally positive approach to obstacles, reframing them as “helping forces” rather than hindrances. Teachers are guided to reframe their perceptions of children as “bad,” “naughty,” “hyper-active,” etc. and to seek to understand the cause of the behavior, not just its symptoms. Difficult behaviors are often signs of dysregulation, a state which has surpassed the child’s level of stress tolerance. Dysregulation is usually caused by fear, stress or overwhelm. Difficult behaviors often serve a functional purpose for the child in modulating their dysregulation. Bolting away from the classroom, for example can be a sign that the child is overwhelmed on a sensorial level or that he is feeling threatened. Attention seeking behaviors are a sign that the child actually needs soothing adult attention to return to a regulated state. If these behaviors are correctly interpreted, the adult can then respond in a compassionate, appropriate and effective way, rather than just reacting to the behavior out of their own stress, fear and overwhelm and thus increasing the level of dysregulation. Once the underlying purpose of the behavior is understood, then the teacher can find ways to increase the child’s self-awareness by reflecting back to him what she is understanding through her empathy and validation. For example if a child tries to grab a toy car from another child, the teacher can accept her feelings by saying “I can see how much you want to play with the car, but right now it is with Vlad. Let’s ask him if you can play with it when he is finished.” By, contrast, when teachers attempt to ignore, judge or invalidate feelings, and solve the problem directly themselves, they tend to leave the child feeling frustrated, blocked and disempowered. For example, the teacher could have said “That isn’t nice, Emma – give the car back to Vlad right now and wait your turn.” The child may obey, but she is not likely to have gained skills that will help her to learn how to avoid the same problem in the future.

In Neohumanist Education, the “correct” interpretation of the child’s behavior is one that creates compassion, rather than judgment. Once the teacher is convinced of her own judgmental evaluation of a child’s behavior, it tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the teacher believes for example “he doesn’t want to listen”, indeed the child will no longer want to listen. Children are very sensitive to the positive or negative attitudes of those around them. Judgments create a barrier and tend to cement negative behaviors in place, while understanding creates a bridge and open up new possibilities for change and transformation. Children have a deep desire to please the adults around them, and when adults have positive expectations and communicate empathically even when children are dysregulated, they are motivated to meet those expectations. On the other hand, when a child feels that an adult has already labeled them, they often accept the adult’s evaluation as true and stop trying to be any different.

Teachers learn the art of positive communication putting greater emphasis on clearly expressing desired behaviors rather than constantly reactively correcting negative behaviors with “don’t do that”, “no” etc. Similarly, it is important to look for opportunities to validate and reinforce positive qualities by looking for opportunities to clearly describe them to children. An example for a child that tends to be restless but is standing in line the teacher may say, “It isn’t easy to wait your turn quietly – you are really trying hard to be patient today!” Describing such a behavior is much more effective than simply praising a child for being “good,” as it offers clear information about what the adult is noticing, and thus encourages the child to repeat the behavior.

As only a regulated adult can soothe a dysregulated child, the teacher’s own self-development of the ability to manage and cope with stress is essential. For this reason, teachers are provided with training in stress management techniques such as deep breathing, relaxation, yoga exercises and self-awareness. Often children may easily become very wound up and agitated if they sense that the teacher is stressed out. The teacher’s level of stress can create a sense of insecurity in the classroom environment, increasing the likelihood of children becoming dysregulated. Just as safety, connection and empathy help to regulate children, insecurity, judgment and disconnection tend to aggravate dysregulation. Self-reflection is also necessary to understand whether difficult behaviors may be a sign of boredom, indicating that the curriculum pace is too slow or not providing enough challenge for more active learners. It may be a sign that the learning styles of all learners are not being met, and thus methodology may need to be enriched for multiple intelligence learning. It may also be a sign that the teacher is not listening and understanding the children attentively. Often children will express their needs, and if the behavior is not given a positive outlet, it tends to boil over into misbehavior. Difficult behaviors provide a useful mirror for the teacher to better understand herself and improve teaching strategies. In addition, when a teacher is successfully able to regulate a dysregulated child in the classroom, this provides an important modeling of compassionate behavior that helps the other children to understand how to communicate responsibly and effectively.