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Conflict Resolution in the Classroom

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech titled "Strength to Love" in which he said:

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction...The chain reaction of evil - hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars - must be broken..."

So, how do we break the chain reaction? I cringed when I heard that the man accused of killing one activist and injuring 19 in Charlottesville was, according to his history teacher, fascinated with "Nazism and had a big idolatry of Adolf Hitler [and] had white supremacist views." I then became outraged when I read an article in which the accused's mother told a reporter "that she didn't speak with her son about his political views and that she wasn't aware of his ties to white supremacist groups."

Schools have a crucial role to play in putting an end to this "chain reaction of evil." Two of the core mindfulness principles are 1) everything arises out of causes and conditions and 2) suffering causes suffering. Hatred doesn't just happen on its own, nor does violence. We have to look to beneath the vitriolic speech and aggressive acts to find the suffering that causes one to lash out. Any psychologist will tell you that we humans are social beings who are hard-wired for connection. We want to matter. We want to be seen, loved and understood.

For the past ten years, I worked as an elementary school teacher. It was challenging (and exhausting!) to untangle social conflicts day in and day out. However, each conflict presented a teachable moment. I viewed these moments as critical to the learning process and the social and emotional development of my students. I'm not a big fan of the "Just say you're sorry and move on" technique because that's dismissive and gives the message that they don't matter. So, I would ground my students (or the individuals involved) in an exercise to help them step out of that fight, flight or freeze state of mind. I would have my students sit in silence for a minute or two as they labeled, on the exhale, anything that they were aware of in the moment. Initially, I would model this exercise out loud by saying, "Aware of warm cheeks, Aware of anger, Aware of tears, Aware of heart beating, Aware of anger, Aware of a car honking, Aware of tingling in hands...." Then, when I felt that the explosive energy had settled, I would lead the students in a discussion since they were in a calmer state, which allowed them to listen to multiple points of views and discuss what occurred. Often, there wasn't an easy solution and I had to say things like, "I wasn't there so I can't say he did it or she did it." But what I always did was end our discussions by asking questions like - What can we learn from this incident? How can we avoid this happening in the future? What can we do differently? I would also toss in questions like - How many of us have felt excluded? Who has felt betrayed by a friend? Have you ever said something you wished you didn't? Students would often giggle and tension would be released when they saw that we all had similar experiences. I made sure to raise my hand because I, too, have made mistakes and had my feelings hurt. As we know stress impairs the ability to pay attention so these conflict resolution discussions actually helped my students become more engaged with the lessons and activities. Otherwise, their thoughts would be gripped by the conflict and therefore unable to partake in the lessons.

One of the more memorable conflict resolution discussions I had was a one-on-one conversation with a student who repeatedly made fun of his classmates. I asked him to hang back as the other students went to recess because recess was often an emotionally charged period for him. We sat down and I told him I had overheard him say, "You're a loser" to another classmate. He looked like a deer caught in the the blinding flash of oncoming headlights. His eyes glistened with tears and he asked me if I thought he was bad. I said, "You're not bad, but you are making poor choices." With that he began to sob. As he sobbed, he kept saying, "So, I'm not bad? You don't think I'm bad?" I began to name many of his positive attributes and, as I did, I noticed how he relaxed and the tears gave way to a smile. Now that he was more settled, we returned to the issue at hand, and I asked him what he could do to make amends for his behavior. He said that the class was probably playing soccer outside and that he would apologize to her and pass her the ball if they were on the same team. It was at least a start. Of course, I shared this incident with the student's parents and they were receptive to hearing what I had to say. It wasn't the first time they had received a call like this, and they began to have conversations with the administration on how to help support their child and help him curb what was growing into a habit. His parents were willing to explore the causes and conditions that were provoking their son to behave in such hurtful ways. We end behaviors that cause suffering when we explore how we are suffering.

Schools need to reach out to families when there are issues and families need to reach out to schools when there are issues. What happens at home affects what happens at school and vice-versa. I'm not saying teachers and parents need to divulge every little incident that occurs at home or at school, but the big incidents should warrant attention and be shared with a tone of care and concern, NOT judgment.

One of the reasons why I left the classroom and launched MetaMinds is because I am passionate about teaching mindfulness practices to individuals, families, institutions and organizations. Mindfulness helps enhance attention and self-regulation, but it also makes us more sensitive to ourselves, each other and the world in which we live. A couple years ago, The Atlantic, wrote an article titled "The Kindness Cure" , which is about a study that illustrated how mindfulness helped people become more empathic. posted an article that delves into the science behind mindfulness and how it affects the brain and one's degree of empathy. My hope is that through mindfulness teachings and practices we can kindle the light within ourselves and each other to collectively "drive out darkness" and end the cycle of "hate begetting hate."

*For those of you who may be new to my blog I wrote a post about my classroom's kindness jar that dovetails nicely with today's post. Here's the link -

**Lastly, I realize I promised to provide mindfulness exercises in the post I wrote yesterday and that will come! I just felt inspired to write this one first. Stay tuned!

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