I Teach Children How To Manage Conflicts

By Marilyn Ewing

Each of us is a child of God - unique and special. Each of us needs the feeling of belonging; each of us is in need of the support that a community has to offer. We need to build community, bridging the different cultures and races from which we come; but the community which we build must preserve the unique and special qualities that each person has to share. Instead of participating in community building, we find ourselves isolated, fractured, and broken. Reflecting our brokenness, violence in our schools and neighborhoods is a concern in every section of our country. Today’s school children encounter increasing levels of conflict, violence, and multi-cultural tensions.

There are many approaches one could take toward healing our brokenness, but the one I’ve chosen is to contribute toward settling our differences peacefully by teaching conflict management to elementary children. I would love every child to learn the skills of listening, speaking with respect, and brainstorming for solutions to problems.


The conflict management program contains the means for human beings to get along with each other. Its essence: Tell me your story while I listen, and I will tell you mine while you listen, and together we will work out our needs and problems until both of us are satisfied. When two students are in conflict, a mediator intervenes, asking permission to help. If granted, the rules are outlined: no blaming, no name-calling, no interrupting, and commitment to finding a mutually agreeable solution. Each person in turn relates his or her version of the problem and how it has made them feel. The mediator summarizes what each person has said and checks to be sure that the summary is acceptable to the person who said it. The mediator then asks the disputants for solutions. This “brainstorming” continues until a mutually agreeable solution is found, whereupon the two parties are congratulated and shake hands.

The attitudes and skills children learn through this process are extremely important.

Children learn language. They learn to describe accurately and to articulate what is happening to them. They describe both content and feelings. Once they feel more confident to express themselves in words, they feel less need to use their fists.

Children learn, as they listen to one another, to respect that person no matter how different in gender, race or culture.

Children become aware of other people and their feelings and learn how their behavior affects others. They learn that each person is responsible for his or her own behavior.

Children learn that they can be assertive about their own needs in the knowledge that they will be listened to.

Children learn the skill of brainstorming for a variety of solutions. Too often adults and children “get stuck” and think there is only one solution to a problem - theirs. If we are creative enough there will be some solution that will help solve our problem and satisfy both our needs. We learn that we must approach problems with a win-win attitude, not a win-lose one.

Children learn that they can be in control of a situation. It empowers them to know that they can solve a conflict without an adult handing down the edict. They need not be blamed, judged or punished. They can begin to look toward their own adulthood feeling confident that they can take charge as problems arise.

Children learn that there is a structure on which they can depend. This provides a sense of security, especially for children who have been abused or bullied.

Although the process may be used to settle a matter as simple as ownership of a pencil, it is not weak. It is based on the model used by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, neither of whom dealt with simple or easy issues. Dr. King often reminded us that it takes courage, strength, and bravery to solve problems nonviolently.

If children are not taught the skills and attitudes of the conflict management program, the one model most often used is “an eye for an eye” - If you hit me then I have a right to hit you back (or even clobber you). Martin Luther King had an answer for that when he said, “the old law ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everyone blind.” That kind of blindness is afflicting our society right now.

Reprinted with permission from Congregations, the Alban Journal Sept./Oct. 1992.

Marilyn Ewing is a third grade teacher at Belle Sherman Elementary School, lthaca. New York and coordinator of the Conflict Management Program for the lthaca School District. She can be reached at 1520 Slaterville Road, lthaca, NY 14850.