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Conflict in the Classroom

Conflict is a natural part of social interactions, and thus it is no surprise that conflict occasionally arises in the classroom. Ranging from a minor disagreement about grades to more disruptive instances, we typically think of conflict as something to be avoided in the course of teaching and learning. On the other hand, what would a classroom discussion or debate be like if there were not differing points of view? Conflict SpectrumIn practice, conflict ranges on a spectrum from destructive (e.g. fighting in class) to constructive (a learning opportunity).
This post offers five broad tips for preventing or responding to destructive conflict and encouraging constructive conflict.

  1. The first step toward a productive handling of conflict is to understand your own natural conflict tendencies. Different individuals experience conflict in a variety of ways (becoming defensive, avoiding it altogether, etc.), and our own experiences may differ depending on the context of the conflictual encounter. Before taking action, it is helpful to consider the biases and experiences you have that might influence your judgment in a particular instance. Understanding your own tendencies before conflict arises can help prepare you to manage conflict in a healthy manner.
  2. One important way to prevent destructive conflict is to ensure you create a safe and welcoming classroom environment from the first day. In your syllabus, you may wish to include an inclusivity statement that reflects a commitment to valuing different perspectives and opinions. This sets the tone for how you expect the class to behave and function. In other syllabus policies, be as clear as possible to avoid confusion in how they should be interpreted. Additionally, spend time getting to know students and be open to any concerns they may have. If students know and respect you and the other students, they are more likely to respond to conflict in a constructive way.
  3. In addition to statements in the syllabus, try to involve students in constructing the ground rules for class discussion or working in groups. This encourages students to think about how healthy discussions or group work occur and how they would like to be treated by their fellow students. Writing ground rules can be done at the start of the semester or before the first discussion or group assignment. Be sure to remind students of the rules they established; some professors even ask everyone to sign a contract agreeing to the ground rules established by the class. Should conflict arise, you then have a common agreement to utilize to restore a healthy environment.
  4. Think about how you approach potentially sensitive subjects in your course. If a certain topic may divide your students, consider addressing it later in the semester after students have had a chance to form relationships and work together on other, less sensitive subjects. As the topic approaches, start by discussing the issue broadly before asking for students’ personal opinions. Alternatively, consider using a debate to encourage students to examine both sides of the issue and support their opinion with facts and evidence rather than emotions. In sum, plan to build up to the subject and prepare students for the discussion ahead of time.
  5. If destructive conflict does occur in class, always try to use it for constructive means. First, think about who is harmed or affected by the conflict and be sure to include them in the solution. Here are a few common techniques to use at contentious points in the class:
    • State the problem you have identified and caution the whole class, rather than directing your comments to a particular student. For example, you could state: “This discussion appears to have crossed more into personal opinions than a discussion of the assigned reading. While those opinions are valued, let’s try to frame them in light of the evidence from the text.”
    • If the conflict is disruptive, ask students to step back and think about what happened and write down their reaction or thoughts. Ask students what they learned from a particular moment and whether the conflict is reflective of a larger issue.
    • If a student raises an unpopular opinion, open up the point for further discussion. Suggest that others likely hold that position, and ask students to explore why some people hold a particular position while others hold different ones.
    • If one or a few students are the source of the disruption, ask them to discuss the issue with you after class or in office hours.
    • If you are unable to appropriately diffuse a situation, tell students that it is important and you will return to it at a different time. This allows time for tempers to cool and for you to come up with an appropriate response.
    • Finally, if a situation cannot be used constructively and impedes your ability to conduct the class, you may ask a student if they need time to cool down outside of the classroom. Follow up with the student later on, and recommend other wellness resources if necessary.

These are just a few strategies you can use to address broad conflict situations. If a conflict arises in your class, utilize the resources available to you to ensure that it is handled appropriately. Reach out to your departmental administration, a faculty mentor, or other offices on campus. Remember that it is possible to shift conflict from a destructive moment to a constructive learning exercise, so be proactive in repairing any harm done. And even before conflict occurs, do what you can to prepare yourself and your students to respond to conflict in a healthy manner.

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