Communication and Conflict in Schools

Schools experience similar communication and conflict difficulties to those that exist in all other areas of human interaction. There is again a situation where the Rescuer Syndrome is manifested and in many ways it is more strongly manifested in schools than almost any other area, other than, perhaps in the family. 

The reason for this is that for some adults it is difficult to believe that children can be considered responsible for their own actions.

Within such a view, all children must be taught how to behave rather in the same way that many consider teaching to be a spoon feeding of knowledge into the passive, empty vessels that are children.

Recommended... The Best on the Web for Teachers:
This is an excellent resource site that provides information sources for teachers on various topics.
If you do a search on conflict resolution there are 8 pages of links and resources! Conflict resolution lesson plans, Communication skill builders, Peer Mediation resources etc.

Transforming Conflict.... an excellent organisation which works with young people in educational settings, promoting restorative approaches to conflict.

Useful Books: Bullying: A Complete Guide to the Support Group Method (Lucky Duck Books)
Crying for Help: The No Blame Approach to Bullying (Lucky Duck Books)
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (How to Help Your Child)

What always surprises and baffles me about this is that countless adults act in ways that are considered 'difficult' or 'criminal' or 'immoral' and yet at the same time many children act in ways that would be considered moral, considerate, kind, loving, caring. Perhaps they were spoon fed their effective conflict resolution skills from an early age? But I think not. We all have an innate capacity to resolve our conflicts effectively, whether adults or children.

The main difficulty in any conflict that has escalated and become destructive is that this capacity has not been recognised by those involved. And the Rescuer Syndrome only serves to make it even harder to see.

And yet in schools it is considered that adults are 'inherently better' at handling conflict and acting in a 'moral' way and children are, seemingly, the opposite. Despite there being no evidence that there is any difference between 'adults' and 'children' in the way they respond to conflict.

The main difference that does exist is that adults have a greater capacity to damage others through violence.

Might is Right!

Perversely this is illustrated by the suggestion that corporal punishment should be acceptable when 'teaching children how to behave'.

We hear that 'It never did me any harm!'

Other than to teach that the use of physical force to control those weaker than me is acceptable.

I'd call that pretty harmful.

Fortunately corporal punishment is not now allowed in our schools.


And of course we could debate at length where the boundary lies between being an adult and being a child, but in reality in society it lies at the point at which a child ceases to attend compulsory education. Up to that point they are expected to be controlled by adults, and from that point on they are expected to behave as adults and 'control' themselves.

Although many of our institutions still continue to treat adults as if they were dependent and not capable of being response-able and responsible. A Parent-Child dependency relationship is assumed and practiced rather than an Adult-Adult autonomous relationship.

As a result of this predominant mind set in many schools, children are considered generally incapable of resolving their own disputes nor of owning their own behaviour and so a common feature of school life is the 'control' of children. This is basically conflict suppression, which, as I have described elsewhere is conflict avoidance. And as it is so commonly present in schools it is rare that children actually ever experience genuine conflict resolution there.

And so many young people leave school with little experience of being expected to take ownership of their feelings, their actions, the consequences of their actions and of the responsibility to resolve their own conflicts. Their main experience will have been of teachers and other staff being responsible for controlling the outcomes of conflicts, usually by suppressing them, or by 'giving them strategies' for dealing with them. (See further discussion of this on the Speak only for ourselves - 'I' statements page.

Neither option recognises, nor encourages children's innate capacity to create resolutions for themselves, nor does it identify that only they can ultimately be responsible for creating them.

This lack of development of the ability and opportunity to resolve conflict effectively is one of the reasons that there is often a 'fear of conflict', as it is not recognised that the destructiveness associated with conflict arises from the responses to conflict and not the conflict itself.

School Teacher = Conflict Suppressor

When I was a Mathematics teacher in a secondary school in London and I met someone, for example at a social gathering, I was never asked 'How do you teach algebra to children?', I was almost always asked 'How do you control a class of children? 

There is such an ingrained expectation of the role of the teacher to be a controller of children first and an educator second that the actual practice of teaching is considered of secondary importance. In almost all areas of interaction in schools there is conflict as there is in most areas of human interaction. But whereas in 'normal' circumstances there is the possibility of resolution by the adults involved,and outside of school, children can also be participants in effective conflict resolution, within school, destructive responses to conflict are usually dealt with by Rescuing by teachers and other school staff. 

As the introduction to the Rescuer Syndrome page describes: 

The Rescuer Syndrome is the biggest obstacle to supporting others in resolving their conflict. The belief that we know 'better' than someone else how to resolve their conflict, or are somehow 'better equipped' to do so, leads us to intervene or try to 'rescue' them in a way which disempowers them from resolving it or solving it themselves. 

And when this fails, as it inevitably will, a further escalation of the conflict occurs via destructive responses to the conflict when teachers blame parents for not raising their children properly........and of course parents react by saying it is the job of teachers to 'teach' children how to behave. 

When you point a finger at someone else, always remember that there are three pointing back at you. 

If ever people learn by watching others, children do not learn from our school system, nor some parents and teachers, how to respond effectively to conflict. 

While there can obviously be individual examples of effective conflict resolution, the overriding impact of the structures and relationships that exist in schools, and their relationship to society at large, is to suppress conflict rather than resolve it. 

When one of the most influential experiences of our lives does not give us the freedom to learn how to resolve our own disputes and models for us that 'might is right' and that conflict suppression is the usual response to difficult situations, then it is not surprising that many adults continue to experience despair and a sense of helplessness when conflict arises in their lives, and they do not see themselves as having a repertoire of responses that will lead to its resolution. 

And so, after schools have blamed parents and parents have blamed schools, the main escape that is considered is to have 'hope for the future' that everything will get better. Through that escapism we place an enormous pressure on children by saying that all will be well when we teach children to 'do it right': 

Children are our future!

Why is it not instead: 

We are our present!


Instead of waiting for children to learn from us what we haven't yet learned, let us take responsibility for ourselves and if it looks right to our children then they will follow. If they see us as able to resolve conflict then they will see what works and what doesn't. At the moment it is rare that they do experience this. The norm is to experience conflict suppression. 

And there is an enormous pressure on teachers as well: 

There is a vicious circle in which we project perfection onto teachers and expect them to 'know all' and to 'be perfect' when, as fellow human beings they are simply incapable of being so perfect. On the basis of this projection we expect them to 'teach our children' how to solve all of our own 'dis-eases' or dysfunctions:

Sexual morality
Drug taking
Alcohol consumption

We expect them to teach our children how to respond constructively to these conflicts........when they are not able to do so themselves. Teachers in schools are expected to 'own' the responsibility for how children act. They, of course, find such pressure intolerable and so pass the expectation to parents who are also under enormous pressure to be perfect, and who are also expected to 'own' the responsibility for how children act. 

Very few people expect children to own the responsibility for their own actions. 

And yet no-one else can. 

And so, for the last 30 years of my life that I can remember since I was a teenager and was told how my generation were 'the worst' for sexual promiscuity, smoking, alcohol abuse, violence, drug taking etc. every generation since that time has also been 'the worst' for these things. Children and young adults are not doing what we volunteer them to do:

Recommended... The Best on the Web for Teachers:
This is an excellent resource site that provides information sources for teachers on various topics.
If you do a search on conflict resolution there are 8 pages of links and resources! Conflict resolution lesson plans, Communication skill builders, Peer Mediation resources etc.

Transforming Conflict.... an excellent organisation which works with young people in educational settings, promoting restorative approaches to conflict.
Useful Books: Bullying: A Complete Guide to the Support Group Method (Lucky Duck Books)
Crying for Help: The No Blame Approach to Bullying (Lucky Duck Books)

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (How to Help Your Child)

Don't take drugs, don't have sex, don't drink alcohol.

We are suffering from our inability to control the behaviour of others who we believe are acting incorrectly.

These areas of concern continue to come around again and again because we keep doing what we've always done. We keep trying to suppress them rather than resolve them. And so they never go away.

Many people have a sense of despair and helplessness when they experience conflict and expect that someone out there will stop it.

Will control it.

Will suppress it.

And one of the main influences that led them to expect that was their experience of school.

The whole point about conflict suppression is that the boiling pot could bubble up and boil over again at any point. We can never feel quite safe that the lid will stay on. The idea that we could stop feeding the fire (stop Rescuing) in order to allow the contents of the pot to cool is not considered when suppression of conflict occurs. We have to keep watching it and reacting to any signs of it boiling over again, while continuing to feed the fire. We can't leave it alone with a sense of peace that it will cool, because we don't respond to the fire by letting it run its course. We just keep feeding it.

To try to clarify the analogy, the fire is any conflict, social problem etc. that exists. We have always tried to suppress the activities of the young (as if they were practiced exclusively by the young) rather than resolve the conflicts that arise from our differences of viewpoints about these activities. But we can never rest because the pot is always bubbling, there is always a drive by the young (and, it bears repeating, many adults) to take drugs, have sex, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes etc.

We spend our energies advocating what Byron Katie calls 'that old time religion' about what people should or should not do, when the facts of the matter are - they do! And so much of our lives is either spent feeling guilty for doing something, or it is spent trying to control and stop others from doing something.

The environments within our schools and most of our families create this. But again, before this is taken as finger pointing I want to emphasise that I am a part of this, as we all are. I can only speak for myself and challenge only the behaviour that exists, within myself. Because we all have a place in the web that holds it all together. And only by looking at our own behaviours can we free ourselves from the web so that it starts to collapse. Trying to change another's behaviour only traps us more within the web.

Look at the response to any conflict that arises and see how true this is.

It cannot be said enough:

Effective conflict resolution is more about self-awareness than about techniques for changing others.

And so, to summarise, I would like to consider some of the Principles of Effective Communication and Underlying Philosophies of Mediation that promote effective communication and conflict resolution and the extent to which they are relevant to schools:

  • Ownership is greatly reduced within schools - a compulsory curriculum exists, compulsory timetables, compulsory subject content, leaving very little room for autonomous decisions and self responsibility.
  • As a result of this, genuine empowerment is very unlikely to follow from the experience of being a pupil in school. In fact, disempowerment with regard to the sense of any ability to resolve conflict is engendered through the conflict suppression that is the norm.
  • Generally it is not ok to make mistakes in schools and a blame culture is very much evident. While experiential learning sees mistakes as invaluable signposts on the way to learning a skill or discipline, learning based on memorising facts and methods is less accepting of mistakes and in many aspects it is simply 'failure'.
  • Challenging the behaviour and not the person is not in keeping with many people's experiences of schools where various labels were ascribed to them as 'bright' or 'sporty' or 'dim' or 'useless' and were seen as accurate predictors of the future of the individual so described.
  • Being treated with respect was also not a common experience for many in schools.

To put it bleakly..... sorry that's usually 'bluntly', but it seems to fit, the underlying ethos of our school system is one of conflict suppression. It is pretty inevitable therefore, that we do not leave school with much experience of learning how to resolve our own conflicts nor to take responsibility for doing so.

But it's not the responsibility of schools to change that.

It's ours.

Return from Communication and Conflict in Schools to Communication and Conflict in different areas of our lives


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