Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Helping Students Manage Conflict

Answering questions designed to regulate emotions may make it easier for students to find solutions to common disagreements.

June 25, 2024
FatCamera / iStock

These days, our world is inundated with heated discussions, polarizing debates, tense protests, and culture wars, whether they be about abortion rights, gun control, affirmative action, climate change, the Russia-Ukraine war, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Discord is part and parcel of life. At a time when the nation is so divided, schools must do more to help students manage conflict. How can schools empower students to resolve conflicts with peers or adults?

Problem-solving is an emotion-regulation strategy of taking action to directly address an emotional situation. Think about 14-year-old Padma talking to a peer who called her names about how sad she felt. Or 17-year-old Alejandro encouraging his classmates to put more effort into their group project after being pressured to do the heavy lifting. Problem-solving empowers students to take charge of their emotional needs. It can increase students’ self-efficacy in problem resolution and prevent similar situations from happening again.

A powerful problem-solving tool for conflict resolution is students’ expressing their emotional needs to peers or adults in a clear and civil manner. Consider 16-year-old Chris, who feels angry and advocates his need for an apology from a peer who shoved him in the hallway. Or 13-year-old Max, who feels excluded and shares their need for meaningful social interactions. There are five evidence-based steps to problem-solving.

5 Problem-Solving Questions for Conflict Resolution

  1. What is the problem? Students state how they feel and perceive the situation. ”I” statements are a helpful communication tool for students to state behavior that bothers them without sounding unkind. For example, Chris can say, “I feel annoyed when you shove me without apologizing because it hurts.” Or Padma may say, “I feel sad when you call me fat because it puts me down.” Unlike “you” statements, “I” statements enable students to express their emotions and concerns without others shutting down.
  2. What are the solutions? Students identify what they need from the situation. They come up with different action steps that others can take to remedy the situation. For instance, Padma may expect an apology or want the name-calling to stop. Max may expect an invite to a social activity or want to tag along.
  3. What are the consequences? Students assess the helpfulness of each action step. What is good about this action step? What might be bad about this action step? Students choose an action step that is specific, reasonable, and doable for others. For example, Chris may want his peer to never push him, but accidents may occur in a crowded hallway. Alejandro may prefer his classmates to finish the remaining work themselves, but they may not know what to do, resulting in a bad grade for the group project.
  4. What is the best solution? Students state what they need out of the situation. ”I” statements are an effective communication tool in this case for students to state how others can meet their needs without sounding coercive. For instance, Max can say, “Can I go with you to the movies?” Or Alejandro may say, “I need us to work together on this project. Would you help write up the results?”
  5. What is the result? Students determine the helpfulness of their solution. If it is helpful, the problem is resolved. If it is not helpful, students could retry by returning to step one and perhaps enlist an adult they trust at school to problem-solve with them.

However, problem-solving requires time and effort to generate, select, and enact solutions. Problem-solving can also lead to frustration when the solution, or some part of it, is not within students’ control. Imagine that 18-year-old Cody, who feels trapped and is being made the subject of rumors, asks others to stop spreading or fueling them, but he has little control over their behavior. So, if students are fatigued or solutions are beyond their control, they should try other emotion regulation strategies (e.g., cognitive reframing, distraction, emotional support seeking) in tandem.

Conflict resolution through these problem-solving strategies is one way to help students manage minor disagreements with classmates. More serious disputes may require some degree of adult intervention. The bottom line is that all students should feel safe and accepted at school, no matter their race, gender, language, religion, or ability, especially amid the current contentious social-political landscape, and educators have to take steps to create this inclusive, welcoming environment.

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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