Conflict Resolution, And School Violence: A Systems Approach
is a mistake to assume that causes of school violence reside only
or primarily in the school. Child abuse and neglect, a culture of
violence, economic and social injustice, and the easy availability
of weapons, for example, contribute to the occurrence of violence
but are largely not under school control. Nevertheless, there is
much that schools can do to prevent violence and counteract harmful
International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution,
Teachers College, Columbia University
by Peter T. Coleman and Morton Deutsche
is now apparent that schools have to change in basic ways in order
to educate children that they are for rather than against one
another, to equip them with the skills to resolve their conflicts
constructively rather than destructively, and to provide them
with an orientation to problems and a set of norms and skills
that enables them to fulfill their needs in a nonviolent manner.
Teaching and modeling these processes prevents violence and establishes
a culture of peace and caring within schools which provides students
with experiences of safety, inclusion, fairness, and hope. This
brief presents the assumptions underlying our approach to creating
a nonviolent school and then provides specific program components
that schools can implement.
Some Assumptions to Guide Prevention
approach of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict
Resolution, Teachers College, Columbia University, is based on
several elements related to the causes and prevention of violence.
is a function of the interplay between personal and social factors.
Violent behavior is the result of the confluence of specific characteristics
of the perpetrator (i.e., needs, expectations, impulse control,
knowledge, attitudes, and skills) and the situation (i.e., the
norms, roles, history of relations, task and reward structures,
culture, availability of weapons).
is a naturally occurring phenomenon with both constructive and
destructive potential. Engaging in conflict can generate anxiety
in people who associate it with negative or violent outcomes (i.e.,
fight or flight). In fact, successfully handling a conflict can
be a positive experience, as doing so provides an opportunity
for participants to learn about themselves and others, to make
necessary changes in the status quo, to challenge obsolete ways
of thinking, and to foster new ways of relating and working.
and cooperation between people and groups produce profoundly different
consequences. Too often, schools are structured so that students
compete against one another: for the teachers attention,
grades, status, and admission to prestigious schools. Such competition
induces the use of coercion, threat, or deception; fosters attempts
to enhance power differences between students; encourages poor
communication; heightens sensitivity to opposed interests while
minimizing the awareness of similarities; generates suspicion
and hostility; and increases the importance, rigidity, and size
of conflicts. In contrast, cooperation induces a perceived similarity
in beliefs and attitudes; a readiness to be helpful; openness
in communication; trusting and friendly attitudes; sensitivity
to, and emphasis on, common interests; and an orientation toward
enhancing mutual power (Deutsch, 1973; Johnson & Johnson,
constructive process of conflict resolution is similar to an effective,
cooperative problem-solving process. Perceiving a conflict as
a mutual problem to be solved greatly increases the possibility
of satisfying, constructive outcomes for all concerned. There
is frequently a two-way relationship between effective cooperation
and constructive conflict resolution. Good cooperative relations
facilitate the constructive management of conflict; the ability
to handle constructively the inevitable conflicts that occur during
cooperation facilitates the survival and deepening of cooperative
begets competition, cooperation begets cooperation. A win-lose
approach tends to escalate conflict and harden opposing positions,
leading to destructive processes and outcomes and negative expectations
for future interactions. A win-win approach fosters exploration
of the root causes of the conflict and leads to constructive,
sustainable solutions with positive expectations for future encounters
is an intimate connection between conflict and justice. Injustice
breeds conflict and destructive conflict gives rise to injustice.
Therefore, schools and communities must model inclusion, respect,
and a commitment to social justice, and must openly and effectively
address societal issues such as racism, sexism, and poverty.
systemic approach toward conflict resolution can facilitate a
change in the competitive culture of schools. Systemic approaches
to conceptualizing conflict processes and intervention strategies
have been gaining increasing attention at the interpersonal level
(Pruitt & Olczak, 1995), in schools (Crawford & Bodine,
1997; Louis & Miles, 1990; Raider, 1995), at the organizational
level (Costantino & Merchant, 1996; Ury, Brett, & Goldberg,
1988), and at the transnational level (Lederach, 1997; Rouhana
& Kelman, 1994). For schools, a systems approach renders a
conflict management program an integral component of the schools
overall functioning (Costantino & Merchant, 1996). It synthesizes
various strategies for violence prevention and targets a transformation
in the cultures of schools.
for a Nonviolent School Culture
schools from a systems perspective can facilitate change in the
culture of school systems at four levels: the disciplinary, the
curricular, the pedagogical, and the cultural (Raider, 1995).
Interventions at these levels concern students and adults alike,
are aimed at both individuals and systems, and promote empowerment,
positive social interdependence, nonviolence, and social justice.
1. The Student Discipline System: Peer Mediation Programs
difficult conflicts that the disputing parties are unable to resolve
themselves, it is useful to turn to third parties such as mediators.
We consider peer mediation programs a first-level intervention
because they are typically what schools are most eager for and
tend to be the easiest and least expensive program to implement;
indeed, school mediation programs have been widely established.
Their implementation is often a response to an increase in student
disciplinary problems, incidents of violence, or the threat of
violence in schools, but mediation is usually used to enhance
the overall disciplinary system of a school, not replace it. Typically,
students (some as young as 10 years, as well as those in high
school and college), along with teachers, are selected to be mediators
and are given between 10 to 30 hours of training and follow-up
supervision. The mediation centers get case referrals from deans
and teachers, and also from students.
Research shows positive effects on the student mediators: on their
self-confidence, self-esteem, assertiveness, and general attitudes
towards school (Crawford & Bodine, 1997). At the school level,
mediation programs result in a significant drop in disciplinary
referrals, detentions, and suspensions, and more positive perceptions
of the school climate (less perceived violence and hurtful behavior
among students) by both staff and students. However, mediation
programs alone, although useful, are not sufficient to bring about
the paradigmatic shift in education needed to prepare students
to live in a peaceful world.
2. Curriculum: Conflict Resolution Training
and school districts are introducing conflict resolution concepts
and skills into the curriculum, either as a stand-alone course
or a unit within existing programs. Curriculum components, which
comprise lessons and activities for preschoolers through university
graduates, cover themes such as understanding conflict, communication,
dealing with anger, cooperation, affirmation, bias awareness,
cultural diversity, conflict resolution, and peacemaking. There
are many different programs and their contents vary to accommodate
the age and background of the students.
elements are common to most programs as they share the goals of
instilling the attitudes, knowledge, and skills conducive to effective
cooperative problem solving, and of discouraging the attitudes
and habitual responses which give rise to win-lose struggles.
From a school systems perspective, this training establishes and
reinforces a basic frame of reference and language for collaboration,
and orients students to a process that is familiar but underutilized.
The following are the central elements of many training programs:
the type of conflict. There are three major types of conflict:
the pure competitive (if you win, I lose; if I win, you lose),
the mixed-motive (both can win, both can lose, or one can win
and the other can lose), and the pure cooperative (both can win
or both can lose). It is important to know which kind of conflict
is involved because the different types require different strategies
the causes and consequences of violence, and of the alternatives
to violence. It is necessary for students: to become aware of
what makes them very angry and the healthy and unhealthy ways
they express anger; to learn how to actively channel their anger
in ways that are not violent and are not likely to provoke violence
from the other; to understand that violence begets violence and
that "winning" an argument by violence will provoke
the other to try to get even in some other way; and to learn alternatives
to violence in response to conflict.
conflict rather than avoid it. Students should realize that conflict
may make them anxious, with the result that they may try to avoid
it. They should learn the typical defenses employed to evade conflict:
denial, suppression, excessive agreeability, rationalization,
postponement, and premature conflict resolution. They should also
identify the negative consequences of evading a conflict: irritability,
tension, and persistence of the problem. Finally, they should
recognize which kinds of conflicts are best avoided rather than
confronted: conflicts that will evaporate shortly, those that
are inherently unresolvable, and win-lose conflicts which they
are unlikely to win.
oneself and ones own interests, respect the other and the
others interests. Personal insecurity and the sense of vulnerability
often lead people to define conflicts as "life and death,"
win-lose struggles even when they are relatively minor, mixed-motive
conflicts. This definition may lead to conflict avoidance, premature
conflict resolution, or obsessive involvement in the conflict.
Helping students develop a respect for themselves and their interests
enables them to see their conflicts in reasonable proportion and
facilitates their constructive confrontation. Helping students
learn to respect the other and the others interests inhibits
the use of competitive tactics, such as power, coercion, deprecation,
and deception, which commonly escalate the dispute and often lead
ethnocentrism: understand and accept the reality of cultural difference.
Students need to be aware that we all live with people from many
different cultures. They should learn to understand and accept
the reality of cultural differences, understand the culture of
the other in a conflict, and help the other to understand theirs.
But they should also expect cultural misunderstandings, and use
them as an opportunity for learning rather than as a basis of
between "interests" and "positions." Positions
may be opposed but interests may not be (Fisher & Ury, 1981).
The classic example is that of a brother and sister, who each
wanted the only orange available. The sister wanted the peel of
the orange to make marmalade; the brother wanted to eat the inner
part. Their positions ("I want the orange") were opposed,
their interests were not (Follett, 1940). Often when conflicting
parties reveal their underlying interests, it is possible to find
a solution that suits them both.
personal interests and those of the other to identify the common
and compatible interests. Identifying shared interests makes it
easier to deal constructively with the interests that a student
perceives as being opposed. A full exploration of each students
interests increases empathy and facilitates subsequent problem
the conflicting interests between oneself and the other as a mutual
problem to be solved cooperatively. Students should define their
dispute in the most narrow terms possible, as a "here-now-this"
conflict rather than as a conflict between personalities or general
principles (e.g., as a conflict about a specific behavior rather
than about who is a better person). Diagnosing the problem clearly
and then creatively seeking options for dealing with it leads
to mutual gain. If no option for mutual gain can be discovered,
both students should seek to agree upon a fair rule or procedure
for deciding how to resolve the conflict.
communicating with the other, listen attentively and speak so
as to be understood. Doing this requires students to make an active
and ongoing effort to listen to and take the perspective of the
other, and to hear the others meaning and emotion in such
a way that the other both is and feels understood. Similarly,
students should communicate their own thoughts and feelings in
such a way that it is likely that the other understands what is
alert to the natural tendencies to bias misperceptions, misjudgments,
and stereotyped thinking. Commonly occurring in both students
during heated conflict, these errors in perception and thought
interfere with communication, make empathy difficult, and impair
problem solving. Errors include either-or thinking, demonizing
the other, shortening ones time-perspective, narrowing the
range of perceived options, and making the fundamental attribution
error. The fundamental attribution error is illustrated by the
tendency to attribute the aggressive actions of the other student
to that students personality while attributing personal
aggressive actions to external circumstances (such as the other
students hostile actions). The ability to recognize and
admit misperceptions and misjudgments clears the air and facilitates
similar acknowledgment by the other student.
skills for dealing with difficult conflicts. First, these skills
will prevent students from feeling either helpless or hopeless
when confronting others who are more powerful, who do not want
to engage in constructive conflict resolution, or who use dirty
tricks (deception, backing out of an agreement, personal attacks,
etc.). The skills will help students realize that they usually
have a choice: they do not have to stay in the relationship with
the other. Second, the skills will help students be open and explicit
to the other about what the other is doing that is upsetting and
about the personal effects of it. Third, the skills will help
students avoid reciprocating the others noxious behavior
and attacking the other personally for that behavior (i.e., the
student will criticize the behavior, not the person); doing otherwise
often leads to an escalating vicious spiral.
phrase useful for characterizing the stance a student should take
in difficult (as well as easy) conflicts is to be "firm,
fair, and friendly": firm in resisting intimidation, exploitation,
and dirty tricks; fair in holding to personal moral principles
and not reciprocating the others immoral behavior, despite
provocation; and friendly in the sense that the student is willing
to initiate and reciprocate cooperation (Fisher & Ury, 1981).
oneself and typical personal responses in different conflict situations.
Different people deal with their anxieties about conflict in different
ways. Thus, it is useful to emphasize six different dimensions
of dealing with conflict which can be used to characterize a persons
predispositions to respond to conflict (Deutsch & Coleman,
in press). Students awareness of their predispositions may
allow them to modify their views when they are inappropriate in
a given conflict. The six dimensions are these:
avoidanceexcessive involvement in conflict.
Hard negotiatorsoft negotiator.
Rigid-rule orientedloose process-preference.
Intellectualized responseemotion-laden response.
Escalating conflictsminimizing conflicts.
Compulsively revealing informationcompulsively concealing
Finally, throughout conflict, remain a moral person. A student
should continue to be a person who is caring and just, and should
consider the other a member of the same moral communitysomeone
who is entitled to care and justice. In the heat of conflict,
there is often the tendency to shrink ones moral community
and to exclude the other from it; this permits behavior toward
the other which would otherwise be considered morally reprehensible
and can escalate conflict and turn it in the direction of violence
two-year study of the effects of conflict resolution training
and cooperative learning on at-risk students at an alternative
urban high school found that they had a variety of positive effects
(Deutsch et al., 1992). Trained students improved in their management
of personal conflicts, experienced increased social support, and
felt less victimized by others. Enhanced relationships with others
led to increased self-esteem and more frequent positive feelings
of well-being, as well as a decrease in anxiety and depression.
Higher self-esteem, in turn, produced a greater sense of personal
control, and students positive feelings of well-being led
to higher academic performance and better work-readiness and performance.
further enhance the development of conflict resolution skills
from specific units or courses, students can practice these skills
in their regular subject areas with two teaching strategies: cooperative
learning and academic controversy.
Learning. Cooperative learning has five key elements (Johnson,
Johnson, & Holubec, 1986). The most important is positive
interdependence. Students must perceive that it is to their advantage
for other students to learn well and to their disadvantage for
others to do poorly. They can be helped to understand the value
of positive interdependence in many different ways: through mutual
goals (goal interdependence); division of labor (task interdependence);
division of resources, materials, and information among group
members (resource interdependence); and joint rewards (reward
should help students to go beyond the awareness of positive interdependence
to develop a prosocial orientation that fosters caring feelings
toward each another: students should want their classmates to
do well and feel good for the other students sake, not only
for their own. Cooperative learning requires the individual accountability
of each member of the group to the others for mastering the material
taught and providing appropriate support and assistance. Students
need to develop the interpersonal and small group skills that
enable effective cooperative work in groups. They need to have
time and procedures for assessing how well their learning groups
are functioning and what can be done to improve the way they work
together. Finally, cooperative learning groups should be heterogeneous
with regard to gender, academic ability, ethnic background, and
of research studies have been done on the relative impact of cooperative
learning (compared to competitive or individualistic learning)
which indicate very favorable effects on students (see Johnson
& Johnson, 1983, 1989). Group members develop considerably
greater mutual commitment, helpfulness, and caring, regardless
of their differences. They develop more skill in taking the perspective
of others, emotionally as well as cognitively; greater self-esteem
and a greater sense of being valued by their classmates; and more
positive attitudes toward learning, school, and their teachers.
Students usually master the curriculum more effectively by cooperative
learning, and also acquire more skills and attitudes conducive
to effective collaboration with others.
of Constructive Controversy in Teaching the Curriculum. Teachers,
no matter what subject they teach, can stimulate and structure
constructive controversy in the classroom that will promote academic
learning and the development of conflict resolution skills (Johnson
& Johnson, 1987, 1992). A cooperative context is established
for a controversy, for example, by: (a) assigning students to
groups of four, (b) dividing each group into two pairs that are
assigned positions on the topics to be discussed, and (c) requiring
each group to reach a consensus on the issue and turn in a group
report on which all members will be evaluated.
structured controversy has five phases: (1) the paired students
learn their respective positions; (2) each pair presents its position;
(3) students advocate strongly and persuasively for their positions
in an open discussion; (4) each pair presents the opposing pairs
position as sincerely and as persuasively as it can, in a perspective-reversal;
and (5) the students drop advocacy of their assigned position
and seek to reach consensus on a position that is supported by
the evidence. In this last phase, they write a joint statement
with the rationale and supporting evidence for the synthesis their
group has agreed on.
controversy not only makes the classroom more interesting but
also promotes the development of perspective taking, critical
thinking, and other skills involved in constructive conflict resolution.
Constructive controversy enhances students understanding
of opposing positions and encourages a better integration of diverse
ideas (Tjosvold & Field, 1984; Tjosvold & McNeely, 1988),
which results in higher quality solutions to problems, more productive
work, and strengthened relationships (Tjosvold, 1989; Tjosvold,
Dann, & Wong, 1992).
4. The School and Community Culture
training in cooperation and conflict resolution in schools throughout
the country focuses on children. This focus denies the reality
that most adults working in school systems have had little preparation,
training, or encouragement to work collaboratively themselves
or to manage their own conflicts constructively, let alone teach
these skills to others. In order for schools to take full advantage
of the gains from peer mediation programs and cooperation and
conflict resolution curricula, their staffs also must be trained.
Collaborative negotiation training for adults often parallels
student training, but it focuses on problems that are more germane
to the personal and professional lives of adults. We stress that
all adults in schools should be trained: teachers, administrators,
counselors, bus drivers, lunchroom aids, paraprofessionals, librarians,
coaches, etc. Doing so can help institutionalize the changes through
adult modeling of the attitudes and behaviors desired for the
students; demonstration of the value of such approaches; and encouragement
of the development of new language, norms, and expectations around
conflict and conflict management throughout the school community.
training and processes need not and should not stop at the school
doors. In fact, many student conflicts originate outside of school:
at home, on the school bus, or at social events. Parents, caregivers,
local clergy, local police officers, and members of local community
organizations, among others, should be trained in conflict resolution
and involved in the overall planning process for preventing destructive
conflict among children and youths.
promoting cooperation, constructive controversy, and conflict
resolution processes as the core of any comprehensive program
in nonviolence, we have been guided by the belief that it takes
more than a single course to bring about fundamental change. Students
need to have continuing experiences of constructive conflict resolution
as they learn different subjects, and a school environment that
provides daily experiences of cooperative relations, constructive
resolution of conflicts, and social justice. Such experiences,
combined with an education in the principles of cooperative work
and conflict resolution, should help students develop generalizable
attitudes and skills which are strong enough to resist the prevalent
countervailing influence in their non-school environments. They
should also help students acquire the attitudes, knowledge, and
skills that will enable their cooperation with others in resolving
constructively the inevitable conflicts within and among families,
communities, ethnic groups, and nations.
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This brief was developed by the Choices in Preventing Youth Violence
initiative, with funding from the Metropolitan Life Foundation.
It was published by the Institute for Urban and Minority Education,
Teachers College, Columbia University. The opinions expressed
in the brief do not necessarily represent the pinions or policies
of the Metropolitan Life Foundation or Teachers College.
Choices in Preventing Youth Violence, Erwin Flaxman, Director,
Teachers College, Box 228, Columbia University, 525 West 120th
Street, New York, NY 10027, 212/678-3158