Conflict resolution programs gain in primary schools

Educators seek to address issues leading to juvenile hostility

November 09, 2001|By Alina Tugend | Alina Tugend,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Teachers at Public School 217, a large, diverse elementary school in the Ditmas Park section of Brooklyn, were searching for ways to explain to their students the attack on the World Trade Center.

So they turned to a simple lesson that is part of their continuing conflict resolution program.

The story tells about a drop of honey falling from a rooftop. First a cat and dog fight over the drop. Then the neighbors get involved. The king keeps saying it's not his problem. Finally it's all-out war. The king realizes he should have dealt with the problem when it was just a drop of honey.

For the youngsters, the allegory resonated. In peer mediation, an essential component of conflict resolution, selected students are taught how to mediate disagreements among classmates before they fester into fights.

Schools tried many different tools to make the tragedy understandable to students, among them the increasingly popular programs that teach tolerance and how to resolve problems peaceably. After the Sept. 11 attacks, PS 217 offered grief and trauma counseling.

`Retaliation, retaliation'

"We also asked teachers to find lessons that would help children be peacemakers at a time like this, when all they heard was `retaliation, retaliation,'" said Phyllis Corbin, the assistant principal. "The issues conflict resolution focuses on, of appreciating and celebrating diversity, are very, very important now, especially in this divided community."

Schools are increasingly relying on such curricula - whether anger management, character education, peace programs, violence prevention programs, anti-bias programs or anti-bullying programs - to give students a structure to articulate their problems and feelings, and to address the brand of juvenile hostility that can spoil the atmosphere of a school campus.

Dozens of nonprofit organizations and companies offer curricula: conflict resolution and anger management kits from Sunburst Technology, a division of Houghton Mifflin, have dominated its best-seller lists for eight years. And in the wake of a crisis, demand multiplies. Colorado, where Columbine High School erupted in gunfire in 1999, passed legislation in May requiring an anti-bullying program, and many more states are considering such requirements.

The most popular approach, conflict resolution, first emerged in the 1970s and is now offered in 15 percent to 20 percent of public schools nationwide.

Resolving Conflict Creatively, developed in 1985 by Educators for Social Responsibility of Cambridge, Mass., is one of the longest-running programs in the country and is now used in 375 schools, including New York City public schools. Through contained lessons, discussions integrated into social studies, peer mediation or a combination of all three, conflict resolution teaches a specific set of skills aimed at resolving disputes not only without aggression but happily (a "win-win," in the terminology).

Does it work?

Anecdotal evidence aside, how effective are these initiatives that are sweeping through classrooms?

"Does It Work? The Case for Conflict Resolution Education in Our Nation's Schools," an analysis of 70 studies published last year by the Washington-based Conflict Resolution Education Network, warns that there are few sound studies and that existing ones don't follow students over enough time to see if changes are long-lasting. The report calls for more rigorous evaluations to see which approaches work. But at their best, it found, programs can improve performance on achievement tests and instill cooperation, positive attitudes toward school and self-control.

Bad behavior can be tamed. For a recent study by the University of Washington in Seattle, researchers watched students interact at the beginning and end of a year in six schools with conflict resolution programs and six without. In schools using programs, they found a 29 percent decline in incidents involving hitting and fighting and a 20 percent decline in verbal aggression like insulting and taunting. In schools without programs, physical aggression increased 41 percent and verbal aggression 22 percent.

In fact, elementary school children naturally become more aggressive as they age, according to a two-year study of 5,000 students by the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University. Resolving Conflict Creatively, the program it evaluated, did not reverse the tendency but reduced the rate of increase.

But lessons must be frequent. Conflict resolution reduces bad behavior when taught on a regular basis and through different stages of a child's development, as it is at PS 217. Children exposed to 25 lessons or more show a decrease in verbal and physical aggression, the Columbia study found. But those who receive only a few lessons, which is common in the aftermath of a crisis, do worse than those who receive no lessons. Children apparently pick up on the hypocrisy when a teacher is just not interested or doesn't believe in the program.

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