Middle school is a time of immense growth and development; however, it is also a time of emotional turmoil in which there are many peer conflicts, conflicts with parents, and conflicts with self. Middle school students require a different approach to social skills and character development than do elementary school students. As a school counselor and the mom of a teen, here are my suggestions for developing middle school students' conflict resolution skills.
1. Teach them how to listen
Listening is more than hearing. We listen for learning, understanding, and enjoyment. Listening requires reflective and active skills. Active and reflective listening requires the engagement of the mind and body. Students can practice these skills by playing the classic telephone game in which a line of students have to share a sentence that is whispered down the line to see if the same sentence that started at the beginning is what is heard by the person at the end. Another favorite is Memory Master, which not only builds listening skills but also, builds executive functioning, an area of the brain that is undergoing a lot of change during the middle school years.
2. Help them understand conflict is natural
It is important for students to understand that conflict occurs naturally as we all have our own thoughts, options, cultures, and ideas, which may not always coincide. We want to guide students to develop skills that make conflict constructive. After explicit teaching about what escalates conflict making it destructive and what reduces conflict making it constructive, use simple role-playing activities to explore. In these relatable real-life scenarios, students are given the task of using conflict escalation that is destructive, and another set of students are given the task of conflict reduction that is constructive.
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3. Make it relatable
Middle school students must be engaged in order to gain much from any instruction; therefore, the conflicts you teach and the resolutions to conflicts that you build must be something to which they can relate. Make sure your lessons on conflict resolutions, games, and activities include real-life conflict. Engage the students in populating a list of hypothetical conflict scenarios that they struggle with daily through role-playing games.
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4. Teach them calming skills
During the heat of conflict, the brain is being controlled by the amygdala, the brain's safety alarm system. It is of utmost importance that students learn to calm down and take distance from the conflict before responding, so they are able to respond with their whole brains. Taking deep breaths, grounding, and other techniques are an important part of conflict management for students to learn and actively practice.
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5. Teach them how to identify and label emotions
Often, teens struggle to identify the emotion they are experiencing in the moment of conflict, so the response to conflict can be confusing. When teens have the skills needed to identify and label the emotions involved in the conflict, they are more receptive to constructive responses. Teaching emotional identification with music is a wonderful way to deeply engage teens. Make a musical game. You can play popular music and then share the kinds of emotions that are evoked or you can check out this awesome songwriting game!
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6. Help them reflect
Reflection is a time to ask questions about the conflict, about self, and about what you need going forward. I play simple games with my students using a beach ball. First, write self-reflection questions on a beach ball, then toss it around. The student reads the self-reflection question and then answers it before tossing the ball to another student. Make sure these self-reflection questions are not overly personal as middle school students struggle with the confidence to disclose information in groups.
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7. Help them be assertive, not aggressive
Teens often struggle with expressing themselves appropriately which is often the cause of conflict between students. A fun activity to identify assertive and nonassertive responses to conflicts with peers is Chair in the Center. Give teens a character paper that tells how they need to act (assertive, aggressive, passive) to attempt to convince the person from moving out of the chair. Make clear rules about language and physical touch.
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8. Build nonverbal language skills
Body language and nonverbal gestures are very important to communication. Misinterpretation of these cues is often a part of the larger conflict. Nonverbal language recognition is an essential conflict resolution skill. Pantomime and mime activities are some of my favorite ways to explore nonverbal language. Students can also play the Mirror game where they have to partner up and copy the body language of their partners without words.
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9. Teach them to speak with "I statements"
A difficult struggle for teens is how to express themselves verbally, so it is important that they learn to disarm defensive behaviors by starting conflict resolution conversations with "I" statements. A fun game to practice using "I statements" that I created is Counselor Counselor, where students walk around in a circle while music is playing, then they sit quickly when the music ends (like musical chairs), once they sit, they need to look under the chair to find out their role. The student who is the counselor goes to sit in the middle. The students with rolls must step into the middle to play their parts, and the other students are the audience. The students with roles act out according to the roles and the counselor intervenes by showing them how to restate what they are saying using "I feel" statements.
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10. Teach clarifying questioning skills
Asking clarifying questions can be very important to building empathy and understanding. It is always better to ask about what you understand to clarify what is being said by the speaker. This removes a lot of miscommunication that can result in conflict not being resolved constructively. You can easily gamify this skill by assigning partners a real-world conflict resolution situation, then allowing partners to gain points for each clarifying action they take in practice.
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11. Create an Escape Room
Teens love the challenge and excitement of an escape room. Escape rooms are engaging and tap into a lot of different skills making them great options for conflict resolution skill development. They allow a variety of students to show success and strengths. They also create an environment where students must collaborate.
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12. Let them write about it
One of the most simple ways for students to process conflict and feelings about conflict situations is through writing exercises. Writing supports self-reflection and skill development. So be sure to allow students some journaling time. Give them some free journal time as well as some conflict-related topical journaling time.
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13. Teach them to walk in someone else's shoes
Helping teens build empathy by understanding the world from the view of others is a very important skill that will work toward helping them become strong conflict solvers; therefore, a game, like Wear my Shoes, where two students have to switch a shoe with one another and then try to walk a line is a fun and silly way to get the point across in conflict resolution training. Make sure to take time to discuss the struggles they had walking in another person's shoes and help them make the connections to understanding the world from another person's mind.
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14. Teach them the truth about respecting themselves
Make sure teens understand that it is not rude or disrespectful to set clear and healthy boundaries with others. You can use a clear, calm voice to make sure people know what you like and do not like, what you are comfortable with and what you are not. This is the most important thing to respecting yourself. You can teach them this with a game called Boundary Lines. Students draw a chalk line between themselves and their partners. The partner says nothing then the other partner steps over the line. The partner draws a new line and says softly without looking up, "please do not cross this one". The partner crosses. The other partner draws a new line, looks the partner in the eye, and says firmly, "please do not cross this line". The partner steps over the line again. The second partner draws a new line, extends their arm out, keeps eye contact, and states firmly again, " I do not like it when you step over this line. Please stop".
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15. Teach them they do not have to like everyone
We often make kids and teens think that they must like and be friends with everyone when this just is not true. You will not always like and be friends with every person you meet. The most important skill in the conflict resolution toolbox is respecting others regardless of how much you like them. It is important for teens to understand that conflict is about the situation, not the person. Conflict happens because of a problem. It is not personal, so teach them how to respect the person and tackle the problem.
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16. Help them learn to pick their battles
Teens have a lot of big ideas and are learning to express their thoughts and opinions. This is a wonderful thing that should be encouraged; however, we also need to help teens understand how and when to go to battle. Often teens argue, fight, act out, and have conflicts over every small thing. If we can teach them how to choose the most important battles to stand up assertively against, then we will help them learn to manage stress and potential conflict.
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17. Teach them to focus on what they can control
Teens often seek unhealthy ways to gain control in situations or in feelings. It is important that we teach teens that they can only control one thing, themselves. The sooner this is understood then the sooner they are able to recognize and establish authority over self-control. Use activities like this to help kids learn to focus their thinking on what they have control over.
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18. Help them learn self-control strategies
Now that teens understand they can only control themselves, we need to be sure to equip them with the skills to access and employ self-control in their daily lives.
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19. Don't let them ignore it
Some teens try to avoid or ignore conflict, but this is not a healthy approach to potential conflict. As we learned above, conflict can serve positive purposes in our lives. Avoiding and ignoring conflict can lead to significant emotional build-up and a negative sense of self among other undesirable coping skills. It is ok to take distance from conflict to calm down or to avoid impulsive conflict resolution, but conflict must always be processed for it to be constructive.
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20. Make them into negotiators
The reality of lessons on conflict resolution is that negotiation is the key. Conflict is solved through negotiation after all these other skills are used to get there, the solving process is meeting in the middle to solve the problem.
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