Conflict mediation at schools improves atmosphere and student performance.
Ao Wen Ya, a secondary school teacher in Beijing, China, teaches her students to live together peacefully. The result? ‘Children feel happier and more relaxed now,’ says Wen Ya. ‘They are really motivated to be kind to each other and to build a better world.’ And their performance at school? ‘The quality and standards of work are higher. They can express themselves better and have more confidence.’
Ao’s school, participates in Living Values, a teaching programme that emphasises that education is more than instilling cognitive skills. The programme, sponsored by Unicef and active in nearly 70 countries, incites positive social skills and values, and stimulates students to see themselves as young, complete beings whose emotional and spiritual development is at least as important as that of their intellect.
Living Values is one of the programmes that make conflicts at school manageable. It and many more approaches were recently on display at an international conference organised by the European Centre for Conflict Prevention in mid-September in the Dutch town of Soesterberg. Some 200 educators from 50-odd countries – from Armenia to Zimbabwe – came together to inspire one another with their experiences and to set up a new international network focused on solving conflicts in schools.
Ted Wachtel, chairman of the American International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP), was among the participants. ‘In school, children are punished if they do something wrong. And if that doesn’t work, we punish them even more. ‘That’s a dead-end situation,’ Wachtel said of the criticism surrounding the common method of approaching conflicts. The ‘restorative practices’ emphasise restoring relations between people. A group discussion is coordinated or a dialogue initiated between two adolescents who have had a falling out to get them to talk about the effects of their behaviour, for example. They explore who has suffered as a result and what they can do themselves to solve or prevent such problems.
There are substantially fewer fights and less vandalism at schools where Wachtel has introduced his programme. Absenteeism is also lower and fewer students are sent out of the classroom. The positive effects characterise the various methods of managing conflict at schools. And there are more. It improves the atmosphere in the classroom and at school, teachers can put more energy into their teaching material and children perform better.
Norway has closely studied the international research material on the effect of conflict management. It is the only country in the world where the government has linked itself to official programmes for conflict resolution. A good deal of attention is paid to peer meditation: teachers and students are trained to be able to mediate between two parties involved in a conflict. Mediation assistance can be sought as early as primary school when someone grabs a pencil from a classmate. By guiding the discussion according to a certain structure – whereby both students have the opportunity to give their version of events and how they want to solve the conflict – the mediator can help solve the conflict. In 80% of the cases, a solution satisfactory to both parties is found.
This type of approach may be more difficult for countries without a ‘discussion culture’, according to a Palestinian conference participant. Or, as Maja Uzelac, programme leader for the Croatian Mali Korak Centre for Culture of Peace and Non-Violence put it, ‘Those of us in Eastern Europe react less rationally and, in fact, quite emotionally to conflict. And our teachers do not want to share their authority with their students. They determine when a conflict ends and no one else.’
There was, however, unanimity about one proposition: managing conflicts doesn’t stop at the school gate. The anecdote of Tricia Jones, an authority in the area of conflict management in education, speaks volumes: ‘When the United States was preparing for a war against Iraq, my seven-year-old son asked whether mummy shouldn’t go have a talk with Mr. Bush.’ Because ultimately, as the participants realised, it’s all about raising a new generation of future world leaders.