One thing that I definitely remember: There was animosity between them for the rest of the school year (and I’m pretty sure beyond).
It was clear that punching a kid wasn’t going to solve deeper issues. It just showed there was more going on there. And even though there’s always been the trope of a dad telling his kid to stand up for himself or herself, go ahead and throw a punch so they leave you alone, it doesn’t generally seem to be the way of the schoolyard anymore.
Recently, President Trump said the Kurds and the Turks should go at it. “Like two kids in a lot, you’ve got to let them fight and then you pull them apart,” Trump said.
In reality, experts in child development know that isn’t the best way to resolve conflict among kids. To be sure, those we spoke with aren’t commenting on Trump’s foreign policy. But they have some pretty clear ideas about how best to help kids who have a conflict to resolve, and why working through an issue is better than letting them fight it out at the playground.
First off, Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University who studies sibling conflict, says parents need to be aware of how they themselves are handling their children’s interactions.
When asked what they thought were the best methods to manage their children’s conflicts, parents who participated in Kramer’s research of kids 3 to 9 years old said it was best when they can have a conversation with both children in the conflict and find a solution where both kids’ needs are met, Kramer explained. Parents said other techniques, such as separating the kids, simply telling them not to fight and threatening them with punishment, were “not as effective” as working with them to solve their issues, she said. Finally, parents thought “the least effective is just letting the kids fight and not intervening.”
Interestingly, when those same families agreed to let their children wear wires and record their days, parents mostly didn’t intervene when their young children fought. Guess what happened? “When parents don’t intervene, a lot of times, the fighting will continue," Kramer said. “Young people, in particular, often don’t have the skills they need to manage conflict.”
And that may be, in part, because parents don’t know how to help them, she said. “They don’t feel like they have the skills themselves to help kids really talk through what’s going on.” She and her researchers drew up ways to talk to kids about conflict resolution, now highlighted at funwithbrothersandsisters.org. “It is tough. Adults have a lot of problems dealing with conflicts, too.”
Megan Vroman is the principal at the new Ida B. Wells Middle School in the District. And of course, conflict happens every day, Vroman said, from the mundane to the more serious. The school tries to “normalize that conflict is ... part of life and something we all experience. It’s also something we need to learn how to resolve,” she said. “We’re going to have disagreements where we’ve made mistakes, made a wrong choice. But how do we resolve it in a way that is restorative and we can move on from it?”
Before the school opened this year, Vroman worked with Linda Ryden, the creator of the Peace of Mind curriculum for elementary schools, to come up with a middle school curriculum that would help teachers guide students in mindfulness and social emotional learning that can help them with conflict resolution. (Disclosure: My children were recipients of Ryden’s teaching and curriculum in their D.C. public elementary school.)
By the time kids hit middle school, she said, many of them haven’t had much instruction in how to work through an issue with a peer. And it’s tricky: They’re at a time of big transitions, hormones and still developing frontal lobes, which makes it difficult to make good choices in the heat of the moment.
Many times, Vroman said, kids "think they can just ignore [an issue with a peer] and move on.” Her goal at Wells is to help them learn to face the issues creating the conflict and find ways to resolve their problems, without punches being thrown. “Distance can be good, but there needs to be a way to resolve it,” she said.
So she and her staff focus on helping students learn how they can deescalate a situation themselves. “We always tell kids that there will be another time when someone upsets you or hurts your feelings,” she said. So they prepare and discuss ways they can ease tensions. "It helps with self regulation as well as [helping them] step back to a mindful state.”
What happens at her middle school when a physical alteration does occur? It’s a similar process to any conflict, she says. The students sit down separately and debrief with an adult. They talk about why they responded in such a physical way, how they could have responded differently and how their actions impacted others. “Then we bring them back together to have a productive conversation,” Vroman said.
The school also has a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) coach instead of a dean of students. This person instructs teachers in classroom management and how to resolve conflicts.
Of course, she said, there are times when kids are taught to protect themselves by solving an issue “in a way that is more physical.” As a middle school principal, she feels it’s her duty to teach children to respect that there may be a difference between rules at home and at school. “There are different rules in different environments," she said. “We hope this is the norm that you take elsewhere as you go into the world.”