Beyond Peacekeeping

I can’t spin a ping pong ball, but I can defeat my son—sometimes. And he’s good. He controls the battle, smashing the ball over the net and slicing it through the air. When I play David, I spend the whole game trying to stay alive.

But I’m good, too. I concentrate on not missing, on keeping the ball on the table longer than David. I let him take the risks, responding to his wonder shots with well-controlled returns until he loses command of the ball.

Occasionally my patience wins out over his daring action.

And this defensive stance has always been my first instinct in classroom management. I wait for students to make false moves and then apply one of the strategies I’ve collected through the years—group a rabble-rouser with quiet students, perch on a stool by a fidgety kid during a read aloud, or separate hostile students across the far ends of the classroom. And in these ways I avoid conflict, keeping the peace.

But I’m not really building peace. My well-controlled returns to rowdy students smooth out dynamics in my classroom, but they aren’t equipping students to turn themselves toward peacemaking. So gradually I’ve built my repertoire of proactive strategies. Here are a few:

  • Facilitate conflict resolution: Teach skills like asking questions and using I language and not interrupting. Help dueling students to have honest and fair conversations and to see that disagreement doesn’t have to equal disrespect.
  • Tell and read stories: A large base for peace building is empathy. And stories give students a mirror, helping them see empathy in themselves. I’ve seen the eyes of bullies smart with unexpected tears in the moment of a story. And this sudden surge of compassion can be a bridge for reconciliation in real life.
  • Work toward shared goals. When students aren’t focused forward, they look sideways for trouble. Coat drives in the winter, food drives in the spring, group letters to a classmate whose dad died, competitions with another class—all these pull students into a classroom team.
  • Practice calming skills: Learning to regulate emotion under stress is hard. So when pressure escalates from a fight in the hallway or chaos in the lunchroom, or a bomb threat, model calming skills. Quit talking to have students write or draw in journals or listen to music or turn down the lights. Now and then, whisper to them, something reassuring and hopeful.

Keeping peace in a classroom is important, but peace building is vital.

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