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Coaching Your Child        < Previous        Next >


Conflict Resolution


Q. A big boy insulted and pushed my small daughter off the computer in the media center when they were both in eighth grade. Why? Because he wanted to use it, and she was in his way. But when she complained to the librarian, they BOTH got hauled to the office and they BOTH got in trouble. School officials excused his behavior to her father and me by saying, "Well, what do you expect? He's from a broken home." They made our daughter apologize to him, though we're not sure what for, and they made him apologize to her, and that was it. They called it "conflict resolution." Neither one of the teenagers felt good about it afterwards. Several other kids witnessed the incident, and say that he should have been disciplined. We say this is dishonest that the school never made the boy own up to purposely hurting the girl, and explains how bullying and, later, domestic violence and other abuse in society is spreading and getting entrenched. What should have happened?


Your school should have had a code of conduct, clearly articulated, to guide what should have happened. If everyone knows where the boundaries are, incidents like that are much less likely to happen. Chances are, the boy should have been received some sort of formal discipline, whether it would have been staying after school for an hour the next day, receiving counseling for anger management, or being required to write a letter of apology to the girl he pushed.


Conflicts in school reflect poor rule-making by the adults. The more conflicts that happen, the worse the school leadership is doing at anticipating and sidetracking problems among students. Most of the time, it's because educators like to be thought of as "nice" and not punitive, so they avoid making firm consequences for errant behavior. In that lax environment, the errant behavior mushrooms.


Simple, consistent, clearly-stated and appropriate rules provide definition, structure, and security. "If you do this, you will have this happen to you" is the basic idea. It sounds as though your school was bending over backwards to be tolerant and supportive of every student, even to the point of ignoring obviously bad behavior, probably because your daughter apparently wasn't injured, at least physically. That means the big boy "got away with it." That's not good.


If students don't experience the consequences for losing self-control, and learn the hard way about taking responsibility for one's actions, it doesn't bode well for our nation. A lack of empathy for those weaker or smaller than themselves, and the arrogance that comes with "getting away" with behavior that's obviously wrong, will cripple them in future interactions with employers, customers, coworkers, family, friends and so forth.


Even in the best-run schools, kids will be kids, and interpersonal difficulties are bound to occur. Conflicts are, after all, opportunities for learning, just like everything else. However, they will just escalate if there aren't clear, simple, well-communicated rules about how conflicts will be handled that are in practice and upheld. Poorly-articulated conflict resolution policies tend to "feel" unfair and unsatisfactory, largely because they are designed to evade the conflict rather than confront the truth about what happened. Instead, conflict resolution practices tend to force a phony compromise and consensus between the people who were in conflict. And that's not a good way to unravel the bad feelings that resulted in the bad behavior, and ensure that it won't happen again.


It sounds as though your school is using Soviet-style conflict resolution, in which both parties are coerced into accepting part of the blame, and no one emerges as the "winner" or the "loser," or in this case, "victim" or "perpetrator." Ironically, what happens is that the teen who consistently gets victimized - but does not have that acknowledged by school authorities, much less corrected, and see "justice" - gets more and more depressed and withdrawn, or in rare cases, "gets mad and gets even." We all know about cases like Columbine school murders and so forth, in which the "cool" kids of the school kept getting away with teasing and bullying the "slackers" until they decided to seek revenge.


Now, this incident is much less drastic than that. Sit down and discuss it with your daughter, and tell her how you would have handled it, had you been in charge. Look at the school manual or code of conduct, and see if school employees followed protocol. They might have a "zero tolerance" policy that spells out what should happen if one student hurts another. If they didn't, it would be a good learning experience for your daughter to return to the office with the code of conduct in hand, and ask why the policy wasn't followed. If she doesn't get an acceptable answer, then she should follow the chain of command through the principal, the central office of your district, and the elected school board, to have this incident reviewed and, most likely, handled more fairly.



Homework: Here's an example of a school code of conduct from Shreveport, La.:



By Susan Darst Williams Coaching Your Child 26 2008




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