George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Helping Elementary Students Develop Conflict Resolution Skills

These tools help kids practice techniques that foster communication, understanding, and social success in the classroom.

April 18, 2024
SolStock / iStock

In the classic children’s book Caps for Sale, a salesman walks around town to sell the many hats he wears upon his head. It’s no wonder that teachers gravitate toward reading this story because the main character wears just as many hats as we do. One of those hats is conflict resolution specialist. When I put on this hat, I like to rely on a couple of tools: the Honest Expression Sheet and the Peace Path. Not only have these tools helped me better understand how to navigate conflict resolution, but also they’ve helped my students become more empathetic and independent in communication and problem-solving. 

Honest Expression Sheet

The Honest Expression Sheet is a communication tool that provides sentence starters and structure in order to guide students in navigating conflict. This tool was developed by Joe Brummer, a speaker, author, and trainer with over a decade of experience in trauma-informed restorative justice. It focuses on using “I” statements to communicate observations, feelings, and needs. The idea of “I” statements was introduced in the 1960s by psychologist Thomas Gordon as a way to help children communicate their emotions during play. According to Boston University, “An ‘I’ message can help you communicate your concerns, feelings, and needs without blaming others or sounding threatening. It helps you get your point across without causing the listener to shut down.” 

There are four steps to using the Honest Expression Sheet: 

  1. State the noticing. 
  2. State the feeling.
  3. State what is needed.
  4. State what you’d like to see from the other person.

Here’s a quick scenario of how this tool might be used:

“When I heard you say that you didn’t want to sit with me at lunch, I felt lonely because I need friendship. Would you be willing to sit with me tomorrow?”

For the last step, it’s helpful for students to name the behavior they want to see, instead of the behavior they want to stop. In the scenario above, the student said, “Would you be willing to sit with me tomorrow?” instead of “Would you be willing to stop ignoring me?” Sometimes, students may have difficulty thinking about what they should ask the other student to do. 

This sentence expresses some choices I like to give students to think about: “Would you be willing to apologize, give me some space, or use kind words?”

I make sure that both students go through the steps of the Honest Expression Sheet to ensure that both perspectives are heard.

The Honest Expression Sheet can also be used to communicate pleasant feelings, whether that be teacher to student or student to student. Here is an example of how a teacher might communicate in this way with a student: 

“When I saw you hold the door open for me, I felt respected. Thank you!”

I notice that when I use the Honest Expression Sheet to help students communicate in this way, it promotes the continuation of these behaviors. This type of powerful positive feedback is called behavior-specific praise or descriptive praise. When teachers provide frequent, behavior-specific praise, several aspects improve, including classroom climate, student learning outcomes, and relationships between teachers and students. 

For best results, try giving this type of praise using the child’s name.

In order for this tool to be most effective, you can keep a copy of the Honest Expression Sheet up in the classroom so that kids can use it as needed. 

Peace Path

The Peace Path is a communication tool developed by Playworks that also encourages students to use “I” statements and see each other’s perspectives. Disagreements or conflict at recess can get in the way of play. The Peace Path provides educators with a tool that helps to positively shape play environments. 

In this four-step activity, students take turns sharing their feelings, repeating the other student’s feelings, sharing their needs, repeating the other student’s needs, and sharing how they know that the conflict has been resolved. Some schools even opt to paint the steps of the Peace Path on the playground or in hallways so that the students can physically walk through the steps. A video example of teachers modeling how to use the Peace Path explains the process clearly and helps students understand the concept. 

Final Tips for Success

Teach students how to use these tools. I like to read a picture book with a problem, such as The Recess Queen, by Alexis O'Neill, and have students act out how the characters could have used the Honest Expression Sheet or Peace Path. I find that students have more success when they practice with fictional characters before trying it with their own problems. 

Build student vocabulary. When students have a richer vocabulary and can use the most precise word to describe their feelings, not only are they able to clearly communicate, but by labeling feelings accurately (referred to as emotional granularity), people can also regulate their emotions. 

Use a gradual release of responsibility. I recommend acting as a coach to guide your students when using these tools. After students have had some practice using these tools successfully, you may choose to oversee the interaction but only interject if needed. Eventually, students will be able to independently recognize when they could use these tools and implement them on their own! 

Make these tools your own. You can differentiate them for different grades, English language learners, or however you see fit. My grade-level team revised the Honest Expression Sheet so that our diverse group of learners can see themselves reflected in the images.

Remind students that they’ll each get a turn to speak. Before using the Honest Expression Sheet or Peace Path, both parties should commit to not interrupting the other.

At the end of using the Honest Expression Sheet or Peace Path, I like to restate the plan and what the students agreed to. Then I ask, “Do we feel like the problem has been solved, or is there something else we need to discuss?” 

Teachers and students are most successful when we have the tools we need. Consider adding these to your tool belt, and I’m sure you’ll find them to be necessary accessories to the many hats you wear.

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Classroom Management
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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