Assisting kids through conflict is becoming more prevalent in today’s schools, calling for a nuanced understanding of helping youth navigate the complexities of their difficult feelings and grievances with peers. When challenged to de-escalate conflicts and potentially volatile situations between students, restorative conversations can be a powerful tool for school behavior intervention support staff, such as counselors, social workers, psychologists, and other professionals.
When done correctly, these conversations bring all concerned stakeholders together to help mend relationships between students in conflict by helping them to become calm and nurture their communication skills.
Unfortunately, student conflicts and misbehavior aren’t improving in many places, negatively impacting learning environments.
In response, schools in Maryland, Missouri, and Tennessee led by Kendrick Alexander, EdD, are pioneering creative approaches to help kids resolve discord by reimagining how they express their feelings and emotions. These programs foster resolution and relationship-building techniques by applying affective language, which is a form of communication that promotes honesty and empathy, and perspective-taking techniques borrowed from restorative justice (RJ).
These and similar programs focus on assisting students through two critical stages: transitioning from negative emotional states by equipping them with strategies to regain composure and empowering them with the language and empathy levels required to return to the source of conflict to cocreate resolution. In the broader sense, RJ is an approach to discourse that can have a positive impact by providing a structured process that adults can use to help angry and emotionally hurt youth resolve their differences.
However, I have found that RJ concepts and practices aren’t always met with open arms. Sometimes teachers worry that RJ is just another thing to add to an already full workload, while others are concerned that it means misbehaving students will get a free pass. Both are valid concerns that administrators should address. Restorative conversations should be in addition to any consequences that students face for misbehavior, and it may be best to let counselors or administrators handle them rather than classroom teachers.
Here are practical steps facilitators can take to help students in conflict get back on track.
A 4-Step Guide to Restorative Conversations
Step 1: Communicate with parents and caregivers. Explain that resolution is the goal, but it also entails a process. Involving the concerned students’ families can provide valuable insights into the situation and help ensure success in the following steps. They may opt out and seek another recourse, and that’s OK.
Share the objectives and benefits of the restorative process with them, along with the goal of fostering growth and improving relationships among students. Working with parents is essential to creating a supportive network for students.
Step 2: Transition to a dedicated space for calming and reflection. Maintaining classrooms as havens for teaching and learning must be paramount—two parties in conflict shouldn’t disrupt class time for others. Some schools have dedicated spaces for students to recalibrate, reflect, and address conflicts, and they use trained facilitators who guide students through difficult situations with empowerment tools such as emotions planners, empathy maps, and responsible decision-making matrices.
Step 3: Gain individual perspective sharing and empathy building. The old saying “It takes two to tango” may hold true. However, if it’s been established that there was an instigator and a victim in a particular conflict, we must proceed justly. I suggest that the facilitator hold separate conversations with each student, allowing them to explain from their perspective what happened.
Kids’ emotions can be heightened in the moments following an incident, and using affective language can be a valuable tool.
Here are simple sentence stems to help facilitators get started.
“I” statements: “I feel _____ when _____ because _____.”
Empathic listening: “Thank you for sharing that with me” and “I want to make sure I understand you correctly. Did you mean _____?”
Affective questions: “How were you affected by their behavior?” and “How are you currently affected?”
Addressing the harm caused should be the focus when speaking with both the victim and the instigator. Here are some considerations for talking to the victim:
- Approach their pain with empathy and invite them to share their perspectives on the harm caused.
- Provide suggestions, potential approaches, and resources to facilitate healing and growth.
- Outline possible steps for mediation with the instigator to promote healing, empowerment, and reconciliation.
Here are some considerations when addressing the instigator:
- Invite them to share their viewpoints regarding the harm inflicted. Use empathy to help them understand the pain caused by their actions. This doesn’t mean we excuse the offense or eliminate consequences. Instead, we empathize to understand the underlying causes of the mindset associated with the behavior and to help the student make better decisions moving forward.
- Offer guidance, potential strategies, and resources to facilitate growth from the situation, including arranging a conversation with and apology to the other student. Stress the importance of accepting consequences and making amends to right wrongs after harming others.
Here are two protocol outlines to help guide these conversations. Practicing assertively through role-play with colleagues can be an effective way to prepare.
Step 4: Bring the conflicting students together for mediation. Implementing the previous steps correctly sets the groundwork for this step because of the following:
- Rapport has been established between the facilitator, both students, and their parents and caregivers.
- Students are calmer.
- No one is blindsided, and everyone comprehends that coming together will result in moving forward with resolution and peace-building, improving the school community.
Now, bring the students together for a mediated conversation. The facilitator’s role is to guide and keep the conversation on track, ensuring a safe environment where the parties can openly express their feelings, concerns, and perspectives.
Emphasize active listening and respectful responses without speaking over each other. Keep the atmosphere nonconfrontational, reminding both students that the goal is to move forward positively.
Toward the end, work with both students to identify common ground, fair solutions, and preventive steps to take to avoid future conflicts. Encourage apologies, explaining the importance of forgiveness and fresh starts. Finally, conclude the mediation by summarizing the agreed-upon actions and resolutions.