Sunday, May 8, 2016

Conflict Resolution: A Path to Peace

The purpose of Conflict Resolution in the Montessori classroom is to promote acceptance of a variety of people and to learn how to get along with others in a respectful and peaceful way. It is an integral and everyday part of the work in the classroom.

To promote conflict resolution skills, we introduce the following general steps often referred to as an "I-message":

  1. Communicate. The first step is to communicate with the other party if something is bothering or irritating you. A suggested pattern to follow is to say “I feel ____ when you (choose to) do __________. Please stop.” For example, “I feel angry when you choose to bump into my table. Please stop.” The word “choose” can be included or left out depending on if the action appears intentional or accidental.
  2. Response. The other person needs to respond "I hear that you feel _____ when I chose to do ___,  so  I will stop.”  For example, "I hear that you feel angry when I bump into your table. I will stop."
  3. Seek Help. If not resolved, seek the help of the teacher or other responsible adult.

The underpinnings of this method involve that first everyone's feelings must be accepted and honored. It’s not acceptable to dismiss the feelings/opinion of another as invalid. Secondly, if someone asks you to stop doing something, you must stop doing it. It is not acceptable to continue doing something that is irritating or distracting just because you enjoy it. The Montessori classroom is an environment promoting respect and value for each other. Personal space and boundaries should be observed. Basic classroom rules must be observed.

The Montessori classroom is not a vigilante, “Wild West”, “Eye For An Eye”, “Every Man For Himself” kind of environment. It is a community striving to work in harmony while respecting the rights of the individual. If negotiations fail, children are expected to ask for help from the teacher. There is a structure for justice that must be followed and it's not acceptable to take justice into one’s own hands if negotiations fail. Retribution isn't appropriate in this setting because we follow the principle that “two wrongs don't make a right.”  Just because someone else broke the rules first doesn't make it acceptable for the child to break the rules, too.

This advice might be quite different from what some parents are used to telling their children. Some parents tell their children that it's acceptable to hit back if someone hit you first. This attitude assumes that there is no framework for justice that the child must work within. It gives permission to sidestep the whole structure of fairness in place at school.

This process requires a lot of adult support in the beginning to introduce and facilitate for quite some time. The adult coaches the children through the steps for many days/months. Eventually the children begin to internalize the process themselves and the adult begins to step back and observe, invited in when asked by the children. There is an expectation that eventually the children will begin to attempt to resolve issues themselves before involving the teacher/adult.

It helps to also rehearse what to do in some common situations that children encounter and the recommended response by the child. The teacher/adult can act out a scenario and how to respond. The children can be led through a reenactment. Of course, the teacher only mimics/pretends these actions.

  1.  If another child grabs something from them they should hold out their hand and firmly say “Please give that back.” They should not grab it back. 
  2.   If another child grabs them, they should firmly tell them “Let me go.” They should not attempt to wrench free or push the other person off.
  3.   If another child is actively attempting to hit them, they can certainly raise their arm in self-defense to block the attack but they should not strike back and need to immediately involve the teacher.

After each of these initial responses, the child should attempt to negotiate and get the teacher involved if needed. These responses are not comprehensive and are meant for young children ages 3 and up. They are meant for the most common types of conflict that children will encounter in everyday situations. They assume an adult is nearby and can intervene. They do not cover extreme situations where a child is being actively attacked in a brutal manner by another child that could cause injury. Those situations require immediate adult intervention. Most of the time, basic conflict resolution skills are all that are needed to work through everyday frictions and disagreements.

It takes time for children to develop conflict resolution skills and so it takes patience and time on the part of adults to support the process. Once children gain these important social skills, their confidence and ability to work peacefully with others increases dramatically. Hopefully the ideas presented here will give parents some ideas and guidelines about how conflict resolution is facilitated in the Montessori classroom and work to support this at home.

Marla Nargundkar,  AMI Montessori Guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Atlanta.