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Conflict Resolution in the Classroom: The Empowered Way

I used to tell my students what to do in a conflict. “You do this. You do that. That is enough of that.” They didn’t have much of a say, nor did they learn anything from the challenge except that I, the adult, was in control and had the answers. After I took care of a challenge, I would just wait for “it” to happen again and I found myself thinking about what I might do next time “it” happened. Then again, I would come into the challenge, separate the kids, tell them what to do, and give them some kind of punitive action. “Move your clip down on the behavior chart”, I would disappointedly say to the “bad” kids. This way of teaching was exhausting and no fun for me. Most days I dreaded coming to school.

When I became involved with i.b.mee. and started learning about Empowerment Education, teaching started to change for me. I began to love school more because I could show up feeling relaxed, and I was confident that the students had everything they needed inside of themselves to learn and figure out challenges. They simply just needed to learn the Empowered Partnership™ skills.

As I practiced these skills myself, they allowed me to step aside and let my students express themselves, feel heard, and come up with solutions without an adult taking over. This allows all of us to experience each moment. It is empowerment in action, no one has to control or decide. These negotiating skills are the foundation for being resilient and developing positive assets. The ability for kids to be able to handle disagreements, challenges, and mistakes which are all a part of life is critical and did not happen in my old teaching paradigm. We can’t keep kids from having challenges, but we have been keeping them from learning how to deal with them. Kids can only do this if they are allowed to make mistakes without judgment and then taught the skills of empowerment and conflict resolution through modeling.

Have you ever seen kids work out a conflict peacefully with minimal adult support? It happens regularly in my empowerment classroom!

There was a conflict during play in which four boys differed in their opinions about how the activity should proceed.  I walked over to their raised voices and asked, “Support Station?” (When you are in the Empowerment Framework, it is not always necessary to ask the students every detail of the challenge.) Without hesitation, the three boys pulled up chairs in a circle and began their own Support Station*.

As I walked slowly away, giving them space to express themselves, but staying close enough to monitor their process, I added,  “I am here to support you if you need me.” Because I have practiced these skills for the past three years, and I felt no internal reaction or judgment to their previously raised voices, the boys began their process confidently and without hesitation.

As I watched, I was so proud of what I saw unfold. I witnessed a model Support Station. While 6-year-old John was stating what he wanted, 8 year old Peter became defensive and interrupted John.  (When kids are in fight, flight, or freeze, it is a challenge to allow another to express their feelings. The child can feel shame and then defend himself.) John’s face scrunched up in anger and he stood up, and shot his fist up towards the sky.  (This was John’s way of allowing his anger to be expressed without hurting Peter.) Then John took a deep breath, sat down, and said with slight tension,  “You are supposed to ask me if I am complete!”  I watched Peter also take a breath before replying, “You’re right!”  (Because Peter had been asked himself if he was complete many times before, he could feel in his body what it felt like to be respected and be able to finish his thoughts. This gave Peter the ability to be respectful and allow John to be able to do this now. This is all kids really need to move out of fight, flight or freeze.)

Peter then sat back and listened.  John, having practiced this also knew he was allowed to really state what he wanted in the game, so he did. Then John stopped speaking, and Peter asked, “Are you complete?” After the yes response, Peter then stated what he wanted with the activity.  The other two boys listened to Peter. Then the other two 6-year-olds, Sam and Mark, were given turns to express their feelings and what they wanted.  Each child made suggestions until they came upon a solution that they all could agree upon.  They each left the Support Station with smiles and camaraderie after asking the last question to each other…

Do you feel SEEN, HEARD, and VALUED? They all said “YES!” And they went back to playing, able to make the changes that they all wanted.

When young students can trust a process that allows them to be able to speak up for what they want without judgment, they experience resiliency and the ability to self-reflect, two of the biggest gifts they will ever experience. They become a part of a community that cares about what they think and feel, who they are matters. This will give them the confidence to create respectful, caring relationships in the future with their friends, coworkers, and family members. Research shows that reflection, relationships, and resilience are just as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic (Siegel, Daniel. Huffington Post, 4/25/2014).

As I drove home that afternoon, I couldn’t help but pat myself on the back for all the hard work, determination, and breaking of old patterns that I had been practicing. I envisioned that someday, when all students and teachers know how to treat each other with respect and empathy, there will be no room in the world for anything except peace.

*A Support Station is where a child or many children gather with or without a teacher, to allow their feelings and thoughts to be heard without judgment and work through them. Kids need to do this in a safe place to truly become self-regulated, resilient, confident and respectful. Because I see this happening every day in my Empowered Classroom, I get a lot of practice in conflict resolution in the Empowerment Education Paradigm. Sometimes I need to participate more to guide and model the process of empowerment communication with the goal that the students learn to do the process on their own.

Nancy Miller – Lead Teacher at the Light of Wisdom School, Asheville NC