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“It Wasn’t Me!” // Dealing with Conflict in the Early Childhood Classroom

By Patrick Harris, 5th and 6th Grade Teacher, Bishop Walker School for Boys, D.C.

Classrooms are small communities. The classroom community is comprised of students and teachers — both of whom are equal stakeholders bonded by goals, norms, and authentic relationships.

It’s without doubt that conflict in the community will arise. Why? Well, because conflict is a part of the human experience. Young people often work through managing their emotions, and ultimately managing conflict with their peers and adults. There’s no doubt that the dramatics of conflict are heightened when dealing with early childhood students. Since conflict is inevitable, it’s therefore important to note that how we, as educators, address conflict in the classroom is crucial to student success in school and beyond.

During my first year of teaching, I felt inadequate when conflict would arise in the classroom. I used my authority as a teacher to implement a no-nonsense approach. I changed students’ colors on a color chart and sent them away to “reset” before allowing them to rejoin the class. These actions were only short term fixes. I was exhausted.

I knew going into my 2nd year of teaching, that I wanted to use a social justice framework to manage and address conflict in the classroom. In my classroom today, we practice fairness and equality, the cornerstones of social justice, when we hold community meetings to resolve conflict. When a student feels as though they have been wronged, or when community has been disrupted from its purpose, students have the power to call a community meeting.

The purpose of the community meeting is to give all students a voice and an opportunity to resolve conflict together. Here are 4 tips on how to start a community meeting program in your classroom.

1. Establish Routines & Purpose

To call a community meeting, one simply says aloud “COMMUNITY MEETING!”. Community meetings can be called at any time, though they mostly happen right after recess or after specials. After a meeting is called, everyone then comes down to the floor, sits in a circle, and the person who called the meeting starts the dialogue (I feel _______ because _______). After we feel the conflict is resolved, we end it by holding hands and saying a class chant. This keeps our community intact. I informed students that the purpose of our community meetings are to resolve and learn from our problems.

2. Get to the Truth, Find a Solution, & Move On

There are three agenda items in the community meeting: (1) finding the truth, (2) brainstorming restorative solutions and (3) enacting these solutions while mending the relationship. What’s unique about the meeting is that though the conflict involves two students or a small group, the entire community is tasked with solving the problem. Allow students to solve their conflict authentically. Allow each of the parties involved to tell their side of the story and allow the class to ask clarifying questions. The entire class presents their opinions and they brainstorm ways to help right the person’s wrong. In many cases, it’s a heartfelt apology and a hug. In some cases, consequences are given…but not by the teacher. Restorative next steps and consequences are also brainstormed and voted on by the students. Many times these look like a student committing a kind act for another student to earn their trust back or it could mean a loss of points on Class Dojo. It is the teacher’s job to challenge students to think about the ways in which they react and respond to the conflict. You want to ensure that you’re helping the community meeting stay student driven.

3. Keep the Space Safe

The teacher’s job is to keep the space safe. When addressing conflict through open and frank dialogue, things can sometimes gets heated. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that students are using respectful language in this dialogue. Pause the meeting for a breathing break if necessary. It’s also important that teachers ensure that students are being fair in the judgement.

The Reality

Community meetings are a staple in our classroom. Students defer to this to resolve conflict in our classroom. It takes the responsibility off of the teacher to solve all of the problems and it puts it back on the students. To be honest, community meetings don’t eliminate conflict in the classroom. There are some community meetings that don’t end so nicely... Some apologies aren’t given and/or accepted right away. There have been moments when the class has voted to temporarily remove those harmful to our community. Trust is a key pillar in our classroom and it has to be earned. On the other hand, life lessons are learned daily. We work hard to earn each other’s trust if we have broken it. We are an imperfect yet strong community bonded together by goals, norms, authentic relationships, and trust. We have the community meeting to give us a space to practice being better everyday.

Patrick Harris is a 5th and 6th grade teacher, previously a 1st grade teacher, in Washington, DC. A Detroit native, Patrick graduated from Michigan State University’s College of Education with a Bachelors of Art in Elementary Education. Patrick’s passion lies in creating positive cultures and delivering transformative, culturally responsive instruction to early childhood students in urban settings. Patrick is avid on sharing his perspectives and memorable classroom moments on Twitter. Aside from teaching, Patrick works with Turner Impact to bring educational resources to working class families in his apartment complex. You can follow him on Medium here: Patrick Harris and on twitter at @PresidentPat.

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Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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