Managing conflict in schools

May 25, 2017
Matt Overd

Dr Matt Overd

CEO, Dfuse

Classroom banter, unruly pupils and aggression from parents are not new to those working in education.

This blog is about Managing Conflict, one of our middle leadership competencies. Get a quick insight into our competency framework with our Leadership Diagnostic.

But even examples of extreme violence against teachers – threatened by knives, axes or improvised weapons – are increasingly common. And this is not just happening in secondary schools– there are reports of children as young as five years old displaying violence towards school staff.

The impact on school staff and pupils can be significant – and that’s why it’s crucial to create a shared view for dealing with challenging situations.

Effectively dealing with conflict

Consider this. A child is being disruptive in class – they won’t stop, they won’t behave, and they do not show respect to their teacher. This situation is fuelled with needs and emotions. The teacher needs to teach the whole class. They may become annoyed or frustrated. The first thing to remember is to avoid spontaneous responses and to manage emotions.

Historically, the teacher might have used fear and threats to restore compliance. Not only is this approach against the ethos of many modern teachers but, if it doesn’t work, the situation can get worse very quickly.

In an escalated conflict at least two people are involved – often a perceived victim and a perceived antagonist, but there are also bystanders. At Dfuse, we work with all three of these roles to create climates where conflict will be defused and antisocial behaviour will be challenged. Many incidents of conflict in schools could be nipped in the bud by those involved or by bystanders – pupils with the confidence and skills to say and do the things that defuse.

Finding ways out of antisocial situations

We show victims of antisocial behaviour how to respond safely and appropriately. We show potential bystanders the role they can play in intervening or finding timely help – doing something rather than nothing. And we work with potential aggressors.

When working in youth justice settings we find that many young people had ‘talked themselves into trouble.’ A situation arose and they didn’t have the wit or inclination to banter the conflict away. Or they didn’t have the skills to manage their emotions, and the situation quickly escalated. Or they didn’t want to lose face in front of their peers. We asked one young person in a secure estate “have you ever considered not punching someone in the face when they annoy you?” He looked a little confused and replied “No.” He hadn’t learnt the social norms and behaviours that many take for granted, he needed to be explicitly taught the appropriate response.


Applying conflict management theory to schools

So, how does this apply to your school? Many incidents involving challenging behaviour are preventable, and indeed harmless; there are some that do become more serious – and these need to be handled both safely and effectively.

Dfuse’s CPD programme shows teachers five different ways to influence another person’s behaviour. The simplest is to tell someone what to do. It does have its place – giving a class instructions, for example - but in a one-to-one setting people often resent being told what to do, particularly if they perceive that they are in conflict with the ‘teller.’

Telling a child to “sit down and stop misbehaving” places a potential conflict firmly between you and them. If they don’t comply the situation could become a personal battle of you versus them. You are also left with very few options – back down and lose face, or up the ante.

A more defusing approach would be to ‘talk about’ the situation. Imagine that you are placing the point of conflict over there (not between you) where you can both see and explore it – together. It is much more effective to say “behaviour like that makes it difficult to teach the rest of the class and we all need to get through this work to do well in the exams.”

This approach disassociates the conflict from both you and the child. Giving a ‘because’ can help to increase compliance. This can help them to understand the importance of what you are saying. Or it might just give them a chance to back down without losing face. Also, with an opening like this, you have many potential conversation threads available to you depending on their response.

" Many incidents involving challenging behaviour are preventable, and indeed harmless; there are some that do become more serious – and these need to be handled both safely and effectively."

A framework for assessing conflict

The programme also shows how to choose a response that is appropriate for the situation. This is based on our RAC assessment, which many teachers have told us they like. In this order, assess the:

  • Risk to the safety of those involved and others
  • Anxiety of those involved – as if someone is highly anxious you’ll not be able to have a reasonable logical conversation with them until their anxiety has reduced
  • Complexity of the situation – what is going on? Are there things you don’t know about in play here?

The RAC model was developed by Dfuse as a simple aid for assessing a situation, prioritising a desired outcome and selecting and appropriate response. For example – if you assess a situation to be high risk (R) then the priority outcome is to reduce the risk or get away safely – nothing else matters at that point.

If a situation is high anxiety (A) then the priority outcome is to reduce the anxiety as in doing so you’ll restore logical thinking. Everything you do should aim to reduce anxiety – once this has been achieved choose the next outcome to work on.

High complexity (C) is a situation that appears to have more going on than what is being presented. Your outcome here is to seek to understand – so avoid assumptions and don’t try to problem-solve yet. Just listen.

Building a consensus and creating a common language and agreed ways for defusing conflict across the school can lead to a greater respect for each other and improved approaches to conflict that manage, rather than escalate, situations.

Conflict is a part of everyday life from childhood into adulthood. Managing conflict is a skill that we carry with us into our social lives, employment and membership of our communities. It is part of developing the resilience of an individual and shouldn’t wait until an issue of behaviour occurs. Taking steps early supports healthier school communities.

This article originally appeared on the website of the Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

Ambition School Leadership has used the Dfuse CPD programme as a basis of a Teaching Leaders Challenge Day for the second year running this year. Dfuse also offers free teaching resources.

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