For the 2014 8th Grade Capstone Project, we chose to focus on Friends School’s Conflict Resolution (CR) Program. For the past year, we have immersed ourselves in understanding and evaluating the Conflict Resolution Program, going over the CR manual, watching the CR training video, and assessing what is working and what’s not working with conferences in lower and middle school.
To begin with, we looked at the different aspects of a conference, such as facilitation, and the behaviors that create a need for conferences. We reflected on our own experiences with conferences and created a list of the recurring behaviors that cause conflicts: isolation, intimidation, excitement, someone being overly energetic, threats, theft, exclusion, power dynamics (within friend groups or in the classroom), sharing responsibility, name-calling and teasing, gossip, as well as manipulation.
We discussed how conferences and the Conflict Resolution Process have helped us 8th graders over the years and the skills we have gained by using conferences. Some of these skills are: lessening of anxiety, gaining confidence, communicating what is on your mind and what is bothering you, using your voice to solve problems, seeing things from other people’s perspective, reading someone’s body language and hearing their intonation, developing empathy, learning how a community can come together to overcome an issue, learning how to sustain relationships with people over long periods of time, learning how to prioritize your problems, identifying an underlying problem, reflecting on and analyzing your own actions/words, and being honest.
We also did role plays of different conference scenarios and practiced facilitating conferences. We learned to see conferences from a facilitator’s perspective and created a list of things that will help facilitators see them from a student’s perspective. We recommend that this list be included in the CR training manual. One of our recommendations is that the facilitator shouldn’t “put words into students’ mouths,” but instead should use phrasing like, “Is this what you are trying to say?”
Also, the facilitator shouldn’t force an apology. Kids should be empowered to end the conference on their own. There should also be an explanation in the manual about how conferences don’t necessarily need to end with everyone happy but that the issue should be resolved.
Another idea we had is that students should try to explain at the beginning of the conference why they couldn’t solve the conflict themselves before calling a conference. (The thinking behind this suggestion is that kids should be trying to use other ways in addition to conferences to solve conflicts).
We also reviewed the lower school and middle school conference sign up forms and have created a Group Gathering (GGs) sign up form. This way students can request a GG when they feel the need arises. For instance, if someone feels that the community is facing a problem they can decide to work it out with the whole group, rather than in the smaller setting of a conference.
Most importantly, we have focused on evaluating conflict resolution for middle school. We conducted a survey of middle school students to see their opinions on the school’s Conflict Resolution Process. From these results we saw that the majority of students did not know the two parts of our system, conferences and group group gatherings. Also, many students find conferences ineffective in middle school. Most participants think that they would choose to solve their problems on their own, and only use conferences if suggested by a teacher, or if the conflict is serious enough. “I think they are a little helpful, but sometimes we sit and talk about the same thing for and hour.” Another student thought that “they are geared too much to lower school and now it is an embarrassing thing if you have a conference in middle school.” Many people thought that conferences needed improvement because they “shouldn’t be like the lower school conferences.” They suggested having them be at “a time where people with “conflicts” could talk to each other without a teacher there.” Another revision suggestion that was common was that “there shouldn’t be a ‘process,’” and that signing up on the forms seemed shaming and awkward to middle school students.
This survey confirmed what we already felt about conferences in middle school – that the prevailing student perception is that they aren’t helpful or necessary in middle school. However, after our year-long study of the Friends School CR process, we disagree, and we want to help middle school students see the positive outcomes of conferences and understand why it is a process worth engaging in, even if it doesn’t always seem like conflicts are resolved immediately.
By the end of the year, we will have created a video for the middle school to teach students about the positive influence conferences can have, and how they are a an important tool for students to use to resolve their conflicts with each other.
– written by FSM’s 8th grade class with support and editing by advisor Rebecca Slaby (Middle School Humanities Teacher)