• by Juanita García, MA • IDRA Newsletter • November- December 1997
We live in a society that has been accustomed to high levels of violence. Skill and courage are required to resolve disputes peacefully. The STAR Center*, in collaboration with education service centers throughout Texas, is assisting schools in preventing violence.
This effort includes a series of three-day institutes in which school leaders convene to experience and learn approaches that will result in improved communication within the schools and community. Conflict management and mediation can provide the skills necessary to turn daily crises into learning situations.
There is an old Mexican proverb that says “cada cabeza es un mundo” or “every person is a world within themselves.” We are all so very different, and conflicts arise daily. It is part of our human condition. As an experienced classroom teacher and school administrator, I can attest to the numerous conflicts that occur within the school setting.
Our students are saturated with images from the media that are based on redemptive violence – that is, violence that justifies revenge of the protagonist or underdog. “Popeye” is an example of an underdog justifying revenge on the bully (“Bluto”) as the damsel in distress (“Olive Oil”) cheers him on. The message is this: If someone hurts you, then it is okay to hurt them back. Many adults reinforce this message to their children. I have heard many parents tell their children, “If someone hits you, then you hit them back.”
But trying to settle conflicts with violence does not work. We as parents and educators must teach our children that the best way to resolve problems is through honest communication.
The most important skill in effective communication is listening. When we communicate, we use words (or verbal forms) about 7 percent of the time and nonverbal forms 93 percent. Nonverbal forms of communication include tone, facial expressions, posture and gestures (Mehrabian, 1968). We use the skills of writing 9 percent of the time, reading 16 percent, speaking 35 percent and listening 40 percent. The communication skill that we use the most, listening, is the one for which we have the least formal training (zero to six months). The most difficult thing students have to do in school is listen. And listening is vital in resolving conflicts peaceably (Collier, 1997).
A good conflict resolution session will fully utilize all aspects of communication. While the students learn to be “active listeners,” they also develop their verbal skills. Verbalization is essential for problem-solving. The parties in conflict help each other to gain an understanding of each other’s situations through their verbal interaction.
Verbal skills have even further implications when you apply them to students’ academic success. Dr. José A. Cárdenas writes in his new book, My Spanish-Speaking Left Foot:
- Since verbalization is key to cognitive development and subsequent academic achievement, it is surprising that more verbalization does not take place in U.S. schools attended by language-minority students (1997).
Cárdenas notes that his experience with schools in Mexico enlightened him to the fact that the encouragement of verbalization in the classroom led to higher verbal activity and higher reading ability. He observed that students in Mexico had better reading skills than did students in the United States in either all-English or bilingual classrooms.
In a conflict resolution training session, our goal is autonomous learning because providing solutions to problems disempowers students to create their own solutions. The internal environment is key. Students’ feelings must be validated, and students must be trained to resolve conflicts peacefully. Parent education and transferring skills to the home is another objective of the session. Participants learn to serve as better mediators between students and peers – adult to adult and student to student.
Thus, it is important for us to re-evaluate students’ abilities to resolve conflict. Too often, administrators, counselors and teachers doubt students’ abilities to problem-solve. I have heard a teacher say, “These students come from backgrounds that don’t enable them to resolve conflict peacefully. We have to admit that people from low-income backgrounds do not practice conflict resolution.” An administrator said that her students just do not have the ability to communicate, perhaps because of their “limited language skills.”
People can blame students’ economic background, their cultural upbringing or even their language, but whatever differences students may have, those differences do not prohibit them from learning. Poor, minority and linguistic minority students are not incapable of gaining and developing problem-solving skills. It is the responsibility of the teacher, administrator and counselor to teach all students to become peaceful problem-solvers. In order to do this, they must believe in and value their students instead of attacking them for their differences.
The next phase of the STAR Center’s work in assisting schools to prevent violence involves working with an inner city school, its students and staff to make it a model peaceable school that others can then replicate. Our training sessions are geared toward helping counselors, teachers or administrators begin the process of implementing a peer mediation program on their campus.
According to Albert Mehrabian, there are seven key elements needed for the successful implementation of the program (1968).
- Secure administrative support. A commitment from the administration must be made to ensure the program is incorporated into the existing disciplinary system
- Obtain teacher support and involvement. All teachers must believe in the effectiveness of the program. They must have a working knowledge of the conflict resolution model. They should be encouraged to participate in the overall program
- Identify an implementation team. The team should consist of five to seven people, including faculty and staff members, and an administrator who will develop the program plan, promote the program, provide support to the program coordinator, and offer other special skills and support as needed.
- Design the program. The team will decide who will be the mediators, what kind of cases will be heard, when and where cases will be heard, how referrals will be solicited, and how confidentiality will be guaranteed.
- Select mediators. Mediators should reflect the served population by sex, age, ethnicity, and social and academic standing.
- Train mediators. The first year, students should be trained by outside experienced mediators. In subsequent years, the implementation team and the experienced students should become the trainers.
- Collect and evaluate data. Data on the number of referrals, mediation sessions, agreements and completed agreements should be collected to determine the effectiveness of the program.
Using these elements, the STAR Center will continue to provide support and technical assistance for initiating, developing and implementing peaceable schools that value human dignity and self-esteem and that work for all students.
Strategies for Conflict Resolution
Peer Mediation Approach
Specially trained student mediators work with their peers to resolve conflicts, recognizing the importance of directly involving youth in conflict resolution.
Process Curriculum Approach
Teachers devote a specific time – a separate course, distinct curriculum or a daily lesson – to the principles, foundation abilities and problem-solving processes of conflict resolutions.
Peaceable Classroom Approach
Teachers integrate conflict resolution into the curriculum and daily management of the classroom using instructional methods of cooperative learning and “academy controversy.”
Peaceable School Approach
The school incorporates the above three approaches in order to promote a climate that challenges youth and adults to believe and act on the understanding that a diverse, nonviolent society is a realistic goal.
Source: National Center for Education Statistics. “Creating Safe and Drug-Free Schools: An Action Guide.” US Department of Education. Internet posting (September 1996).
Collier, Rosslyn Falcòn. “Basic Transformative Peer Mediation: A Manual for Trainers,” (San Antonio, Texas: Youth Peacework Initiative, 1997).
Mehrabian, Albert. “Communication Without Words,” Psychology Today (1968).
Cárdenas, José. My Spanish-Speaking Left Foot (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1997).
* The STAR Center is the comprehensive regional assistance center funded by the US Department of Education to serve Texas. It is a collaboration of the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and RMC Research Corporation. For information about STAR Center services call 1-888-FYI-STAR.
Juanita García, MA, is an education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November- December 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]