Defusing Classroom Conflict and Creating Long-Term Communication Skills

With 30 students in a classroom, it’s likely that at least a few won’t get along. Some students just don’t like each other, while others seem to be best friends one week and enemies the next. As their teacher, this means you may encounter a significant amount of conflict.

Conflict creates stress in the classroom. Not only can it cause disruptions that eat into your teaching time, but it can also make school feel unwelcome or unsafe for some students.

Regardless of the age of your students or the subjects you teach, you can build conflict resolution into your lesson plans. Follow this guide when you experience a problem.

Know Your Responsibilities as an Educator

Most teachers approach conflict with the goal of stopping it. They want to get the class back on track quickly and efficiently. However, this can sometimes lead to snap judgments that aren’t fair to students.

To help your students, the Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation recommends using the acronym SOAR when you notice conflict in the classroom. This stands for stop, observe, assess, react.

There’s a lot going on in your classroom, and you may be tempted to react first if you are trying to keep everything under control. If you have a frequent troublemaker in your class, you may likewise place the blame on them immediately. By keeping SOAR in mind, you can stop and objectively view the conflict first, which will allow you to make better decisions on how to approach it.

Teachers are humans too. You will have your favorite students and those who are less than perfect. However, you can’t let your opinions of your students cloud your judgment.

“Although it may be tempting, it’s very important to not take sides when you are dealing with conflict resolution in the classroom,” says kindergarten teacher Melissa at the Printable Princess. “You need to be on the side of both children to set a positive example, especially if you feel yourself getting emotionally pulled into the situation.”

There are also different types of conflict to be aware of. This will determine how you approach conflict resolution. The team at Continental Press breaks down three key problems you may encounter:

  • Student-student: when one student has a problem with another or multiple students have problems with each other.
  • Teacher-student: when a student refuses to listen to you or has a personality that doesn’t mesh with yours.
  • Student-self: when a student struggles with low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and other mental health factors.

While it’s easy to identify student-student conflict, it may be harder to act objectively when faced with teacher-student conflict. Additionally, student-self conflict can be difficult to identify and act on.

Stubborn teen daughter avoiding talking; classroom conflict concept

Take Steps to Diffuse Conflict

When problems arise in your classroom, you will need to intervene. This is important for keeping the class in order and for resolving the issue.

“The very first step is to have the student or students calm down,” says school psychologist Laura Driscoll at Social Emotional Workshop. “This sounds obvious, but very often we rush past this step and engage a student in problem-solving before they are ready.”

It’s completely understandable to want to address an issue quickly and move on. Unfortunately, your students don’t operate like that. They need a cooling-off period, whether it lasts a few minutes or overnight.

If the conflict is heated, school counselor Keri Powers encourages students to practice an immediate calming strategy. This is something that lasts 15-60 seconds and gives students a chance to calm down and prevent their emotions from boiling over. Immediate calming strategies can range from controlled breathing to calming corners. The goal is to prevent the conflict from escalating.

There are other ways to help students calm down after they have completed the immediate calming strategy. The team at says asking students to draw a picture of what happened can help start a discussion about the source of the conflict. It creates a cooling-off period for students while allowing them to reflect on what happened. The students can explain what they drew and why, creating opportunities for you to ask questions and come to a resolution.

You can’t move forward with the resolution process until all parties are level-headed and ready to discuss their experiences.

two students writing; classroom conflict concept

Teach Conflict Resolution Year Round

While cooling-off activities can help students who are facing an immediate problem, your conflict resolution lesson plans will give them the tools to compromise and communicate with each other. These lessons should start at the beginning of the year and run through graduation.

The team at Lalilo created a three-day lesson plan for discussing conflict and teaching resolution strategies. By spreading the lesson out over a few days, students have time to reflect on the information, increasing the chances that they remember it weeks after the lesson. The lesson plans start with discussions about conflict and then move into role play.

Elementary school teacher Anna Parker gives her students a “big versus little” problems worksheet. This helps students identify how big their problems are and the appropriate reactions to them. “If I start throwing things and screaming because someone took my pencil, that is an unexpected behavior based on the size of that problem,” she explains.

When students experience conflict during the year, they can identify if there is a big issue or a small one.

Additionally, it’s important to teach students when to turn to an adult for help. As a teacher, you don’t want to spend your day resolving small disagreements, but your students need to know that you are a safe person to turn to. “When children face bullies who don’t want to engage in conflict resolution, they may need to try different tactics,” says Karen Muston, school counseling consultant at Connections Academy. “Advise them to talk to a trusted adult about the situation.”

The “big versus little” worksheet can address when to immediately seek help from an adult and when to practice basic conflict resolution skills first.

Almost any teacher can incorporate conflict resolution ideas into their lesson plans. Phys ed teacher Elizabeth Bolger uses a tool called “Peace Path,” which combines conflict resolution with physical activity. Each step has a different activity, from listening to others to repeating what you heard. This allows students to easily remember how to approach conflict by making the learning process fun.

Conflict resolution is a long-term lesson for students. Sara Cottrill-Carlo at The Responsive Counselor recommends hanging up visuals in the classroom, hallways and other common areas like the cafeteria. These visuals remind students that they have peaceful problem-solving skills on-hand. Bright illustrations and cartoons can also draw kids in to look at the cards.

students smiling; classroom conflict concept

Reinforce Conflict Resolution for Older Students

As students enter middle school and high school, they experience heightened emotions because of hormones and thus greater conflict levels. Educators of more advanced grades may find they need to spend some time discussing conflict resolution.

“Conflict resolution in middle school is primarily a product of two things: communication skills and emotional maturity,” says Marie Phillips at Complete Literature. “And believe it or not, kids as well as adults can learn to navigate these issues and thrive through them.”

One of the biggest factors of conflict resolution for teenagers is emotional intelligence. This involves stopping, reflecting on why students feel a certain way and using words to describe their feelings.

“Emotional awareness is the key to understanding yourself and others,” writes the team at Middle Earth. “If you don’t know how you feel or why you feel that way, you won’t be able to understand your own needs or communicate effectively to smooth over disagreements.”

You also won’t be able to share your needs without threatening or harming others.

Once students can identify their own emotions and reasoning behind the conflict, they can move on to identifying these same emotions in others. This is a key part of emotional intelligence.

“As teachers may ask students in middle school to place themselves in another’s shoes, high schoolers will benefit from identifying differences in order to understand another’s reasoning or point of view,” says Amanda Martin, an elementary school music teacher. “Students should analyze why the other person is acting in the manner in which they are.”

This helps students understand the motive for the behavior and understand where the strong emotions or reactions are coming from.

Conflict may get more complicated in these older grades, especially as the personal opinions of others are involved. However, the skills students learn during this time can be applied through adulthood.

Even adults with the best conflict resolution skills have a hard time empathizing, communicating and controlling their behaviors. It’s easy to get upset or angry when you encounter someone who pushes your buttons. That’s why learning conflict resolution skills should start young and be cumulative, built into your lesson plans so students learn over time how to communicate and solve problems with each other.

Images by: dolgachov/©, fizkes/©, Santi Vedrí, Kuanish Reymbaev