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Conflict Resolution: The Non-Violent Communication Approach

“Words are windows, or they’re walls.” 

-Ruth Bebermeyer

 

As adults, we navigate tension, judgment, conflict, disappointment, sudden changes, and other challenges in our lives day in and day out. How well we manage these situations is directly linked to the foundations of emotional regulation and effective communication that were established within us during childhood. Our children, too, encounter these sorts of difficulties on a regular basis, usually with lower stakes. These uncomfortable moments – when children hear unkind words or gossip, experience aggression or conflict, go through unexpected transitions or meet unfamiliar faces – can feel very unpleasant. But they’re an expected part of growing up in society, and they provide opportunities for children to develop their problem solving skills and to grow in resilience and empathy. Children who learn to navigate difficult social situations in an effective and healthy manner will become adults who have a well-established sense of self, as well as stronger social networks. Therefore, developing children’s social-emotional skills is undoubtedly the most important job that parents and teachers have when raising children. 

 

Daily Social-Emotional Lessons

At the French American Academy, social-emotional lessons are embedded in each day’s activities. For example, we start our days with a Morning Meeting, an integral part of the Responsive Classroom Approach. Greeting classmates, sharing opinions or experiences, participating in a fun activity, and reading the morning message together provide each student with a feeling of safety, fun, and connection to their classroom community. We also model and educate students about the Growth Mindset approach, which shifts thinking from “I just can’t do it” to “I can’t do it yet…” – a powerful reminder that each and every one of us has the potential to achieve our goals through perseverance and focus.

Many of our classrooms feature an “oasis”, where students can take a sensory break during difficult moments. 

The Non-Violent Communication Message

Creating an environment where students feel a sense of belonging and excitement about their potential can go a long way in establishing an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual respect. However, occasional moments of tension still pop up, when children require additional guidance about strategies that can help them solve interpersonal problems. The Nonviolent Communication approach, developed by Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD, provides many of the exact tools that children and adults can use to navigate tension and conflict with empathy and grace. Many of FAA’s teachers have participated in NVC workshops and regularly implement its strategies in their classrooms. Our upper school director, Audrey Poirette, also takes its lessons to students, working with them directly to build their resilience and compassion for others. 

The Non-Violent Communication Message

Creating an environment where students feel a sense of belonging and excitement about their potential can go a long way in establishing an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual respect. However, occasional moments of tension still pop up, when children require additional guidance about strategies that can help them solve interpersonal problems. The Nonviolent Communication approach, developed by Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD, provides many of the exact tools that children and adults can use to navigate tension and conflict with empathy and grace. Many of FAA’s teachers have participated in NVC workshops and regularly implement its strategies in their classrooms. Our upper school director, Audrey Poirette, also takes its lessons to students, working with them directly to build their resilience and compassion for others. 

The NVC process can be condensed down to four components:

  1. Observations
  2. Feelings
  3. Needs 
  4. Requests

We state an observation (without judgment) of an action that has affected our sense of well-being. We then articulate how we feel in relation to what we’ve observed. Hurt, confused, irritated, angry? This is the moment to objectively label our feelings. Immediately after this, we share information about what underlying need is not being met. For example, one student might be coached to say to another: “You scribbled on my worksheet, and that made me upset because I need to be able to do my best.” The last part of the statement is a request. In this case, that might be a simple “please don’t do that”. Practicing this communication strategy also prepares individuals to be more empathetic listeners, relating and responding more genuinely to speakers’ feelings and needs. 

Naturally, students need time and practice to absorb this communication strategy, which requires a sense of calm detachment that may not be automatically available during those difficult moments. This is why it is important to give even young children opportunities to express non-judgmental observations. Mme Poirette occasionally visits classrooms to work on refining this skill. Using case studies and role plays, she guides students to practice describing situations simply as they occur, without adding judgments about what is “good or bad”. When children practice non-judgmental observation on hypothetical situations, they are building a sense of calm detachment; with practice (and guidance from adults), they will be able to transfer this skill to real-life situations. 

Nonjudgmental observation is an essential first step in processing difficult situations, because it automatically causes us to step back from our feelings and adopt an attitude of objective curiosity. From there, our feelings can be analyzed, processed, and labeled. Often, emotions are actually rooted in our needs, which is why step 2 and 3 of the NVC process are closely linked. And making the request in step 4 allows us to attempt to have our needs met, thereby soothing some of our negative-feeling emotions. 

A Case Study: Carrie and Laura

For example, let’s imagine two 6-year-old students named Carrie and Laura. Carrie is working hard on her writing worksheet when Laura, who’s a very active child, bumps her elbow and causes Carrie’s pencil to slip, drawing a heavy line across the page. Carrie could react with immediate emotion, calling the teacher over and saying “Laura made me ruin my paper on purpose!” This statement is a judgment on Laura’s intent (we don’t know if she did it on purpose) and on the outcome (ruin!). Feeling upset, Carrie might lash out at Laura, demand punishment for her, or no longer want to be friends. Laura might become defensive and angry at being accused, or become closed off and distraught because of the criticism. Neither child will feel better as a result of this interaction (even if the teacher intervenes!), and their working and learning has come to a complete halt. 

However, if Carrie has practiced objective observation, she might say or think, “Oh, no! My arm got bumped and now there’s a line across my work. Better see if I can erase it”. Her emotional response might be annoyance because she has to stop working, or frustration if there have been several disruptions. Both of those emotions are probably linked to her need to do a good job and finish her work. Carrie might say to Laura, “When you move around a lot, you bump into me and it just made me really mess up. That’s pretty frustrating because I really want to do a good job.” If Carrie feels empowered to offer solutions, she might add: “Can you sit still, or scoot your desk away a little?” In this situation, feelings aren’t heightened and the working and learning can continue uninterrupted. 

Practice Makes Perfect

By learning, witnessing, and practicing this communication model every day, students can be the architects of their own more harmonious environments. But it must be intentionally taught and demonstrated both at home and at school; children don’t automatically come into the world knowing how to detach their observations from judgments. As adults, we can model non-judgmental observation anytime a situation pops up.

  • “Oops! You spilled some grape juice. Let’s clean that up.” 
  • “You’re using bright colors and coloring inside the lines. How do you think that looks?”
  • “There are a lot of toys on the floor. It makes me feel nervous because I don’t want anyone to trip and fall on them.”
  • That’s a lot of mac and cheese on your plate. You must be hungry! 
  • “It’s been a difficult day for me. I need a little quiet time. I’m going to take 5 minutes before you start telling me what you did today.”

It can take some practice to learn to regulate our language in this way – for many of us, the initial instinct is to praise “good” behavior and to scold “bad” behavior because that’s how we might have been taught. But teaching children to practice non-judgmental observation removes both shame from negative behaviors (focusing instead on consequences and solutions) and praise-seeking for positive behaviors (focusing instead on finding intrinsic motivation to do well). 

The problem of “bullying”

Bullying is defined as repeated aggressive and unsolicited actions directed from one student to another, especially when a power imbalance is present or perceived. Most instances of conflict during school, be they physical or verbal, do not rise to the level of bullying. Occasionally personalities clash, social pressure triggers more aggressive or defensive behaviors, or children find themselves in perceived competition with others, resulting in a tit-for-tat dynamic. These instances are unpleasant, but navigating them by practicing nonviolent communication can provide valuable experiences in communication and empathy. Even if difficult situations aren’t entirely resolved, if children have developed the skills to understand and communicate their needs, they are equipped to advocate for themselves and solve most problems. 

Cases of true bullying are rare but they do arise. When bullying occurs, it is a sign that a child is in deep emotional distress (usually masked by aggression) and has major needs that are not met. Perhaps they need love, compassion, support, safety, or respect, and the adults in their lives are not able to provide these things. Because the child is experiencing trauma that isn’t being adequately addressed, they seek to pull another child into their orbit, inflicting on them some of the same physical or emotional damage they are experiencing. From an NVC perspective, the child’s actions are direct reflections of their unmet needs. Bullying is a serious issue that involves first one child who is hurting (the bully), then a second (the target of the bully’s aggression). The school investigates allegations of bullying seriously and works to help both parties find peaceful solutions. If parents, teachers, and caregivers can be more prepared with NVC techniques to detect and address each child’s emotional needs, it can result in fewer instances of bullying. 

Caregivers’ Role

So, how can we use what we know to help children be more empowered and resilient in the face of conflict? Here are a few takeaways: 

  1. Model and practice non-judgmental observation as much as possible. Give children the same language so that they can learn to detach their judgments from the reality of things that happen. 
  2. Help children learn to label their feelings. You can start with the “big 6”: happiness, anger, disgust, surprise, fear, and sadness. But modeling even more nuanced emotions helps children build deeper understanding. You can let children know when you feel frustrated, impatient, nervous, excited, calm … and help them identify when they feel that way, too. 
  3. Work with kids to recognize their own needs and, when they’re old enough, the needs of others. You can do that by asking them what they need, posing questions about characters during storytime, and having discussions about the people you observe together. 
  4. In moments of acute distress, comfort children and sit with them in their hurt, sadness, or anger. After they’ve calmed down, discuss their feelings and needs with them, then workshop solutions together. If a solution to a problem comes from the child, they’re more likely to feel good about it. Allow them to have agency in their solutions; it’s important to empower them to solve their own problems! 

Conflict and disagreement naturally arise in children’s lives. By modeling and practicing nonviolent communication strategies, we can help empower them to make sure their needs are being met while they’re showing respect and empathy to others. These strategies will set them up for healthier and more successful relationships in the future. 

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