In every setting—including the classroom—conflict is inevitable. How educators navigate it can have a massive impact on the culture of a school.
Back in 2010, the early days of the Regents School of Charlottesville, located in central Virginia, Head of School Courtney Palumbo visited other classical schools to gain ideas and insight. At two of them, she observed an approach to interpersonal classroom dynamics that made a huge impression.
“They were utilizing the ‘Peacemaker’ process, and we were blown away by how effective it was,” Palumbo said. “The conversation was about how we struggle to give a model for biblical peacemaking. This book is trying to give a framework.… It gives you a map. They were using it, and I knew we needed to use it.”
The Young Peacemaker is a curriculum that was created for parents, teachers, and youth workers to use with third through seventh graders, though many schools adjust it for use with all grades. The original program is faith-based, and a secular version—called Peacemakers in Training—is promoted by the National Center for Youth Issues. Both versions teach principles related to conflict resolution, including how to take responsibility for one’s fault, accept rather than deflect blame, see conflict as an opportunity, and truly extend forgiveness. It uses a “slippery slope” illustration to show children what three different responses to conflict look like, with peace-making responses in the center and negative responses—attack and escape—on either side.
Regents parent Joy Barresi has been amazed to see how much of the program her seven-year-old daughter Vienna retains and applies at home.
“Vienna understands these three categories: peacemakers, peace breakers, and peace fakers,” Barresi said. “I can ask her questions when she is having an argument with her sibling like, What is more important—the toy you are fighting about or your relationship with your sister? What can you do to reconcile with your sister? Because they [Regents] are doing the groundwork for me, it’s much easier for me to come in with the prompt, and then she comes in with the next steps.”
Parent Fay Pariello, whose three daughters attend Regents, noticed a similar dynamic emerge in her home. While normal sibling squabbles over toys haven’t disappeared, the way her children engage each other has changed dramatically.
“Before, they would compete to make their voices heard. They would speak over each other,” Pariello said. “Now they actually give time to each other to let each other talk. The three of them speak the same language that is kind of a common language in the house now.”
Through the Peacemaker program, it seems that character is truly being formed, its expression extending beyond classroom behavior. This kind of expansive influence on the relational engagement of students seems a mark of a program’s success. If so, the obvious question is, How is this achieved?
In The Content of Their Character, James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson outline five dimensions that serve as components of effective moral formation. These elements may help illuminate the success Regents has enjoyed in their use of the Peacemaker materials.
Hunter and Olson write that one dimension is “the actual sources that elucidate the framework of moral understanding.” These sources include texts that serve as an authority for the principles being taught; they confirm that the values being delineated are not arbitrary, but are historical and tested.
At Regents and other public and private schools that use the Peacemaker approach, the Peacemaker materials themselves are a source. In the Christian version of the program, the materials also refer back to biblical passages like Matthew 18, which outlines what to do when a fellow Christian is doing wrong. These biblical references provide additional sources of moral authority.
2) Formal Articulation
Hunter and Olson call this dimension “the degree to which a moral culture is articulated, whether formally in the classroom or informally in the relationships between teachers and students.” Put simply, values must be verbalized.
Every school year, Regents takes time during the first three weeks of class to teach students the Peacemaker principles. Even returning students receive an in-depth review of how to handle conflict—a review that increases in complexity as they move up the grades.
3) Informal Articulation
Informal articulation also occurs. Barresi remembered overhearing a teacher speaking with a handful of students in the office one day.
“The teacher said, ‘It has come to my attention that so-and-so has been hurt. Did you guys have any information about what happened? Here is a challenge that we have: Someone is our classroom is hurting right now. What can we do to help them feel better?’” Barresi recalled. “I really appreciated how she did not put blame on the girls. She put it in their court, and she just asked them, ‘How do we solve this problem? Your friend is hurting.’”
Hunter and Olson refer to this kind of informal articulation as “catching.” In describing the “catching” that had been observed in a study of American high schools, they wrote, “The moral example of teachers unquestionably complemented the formal instruction students received, but arguably, it was far more poignant to, and influential upon, the students themselves.” Students are constantly watching, and teachers serve as vital models of how to act and be.
“We want our teachers to be humble enough to ask for forgiveness,” Palumbo said. “In this contentious, super-sensitive society, teachers and administrators don’t always feel safe to admit when they are wrong. But we are all wrong, all the time! I have tried to create an environment where a teacher can say, ‘Class, I was tired this morning and was a bit grouchy. Will you forgive me?’”
Students are formed not just by what they hear and see, but by what they do. Hunter and Olson call these “routinized actions—some formal, some informal—all oriented toward giving tangible expression to the school’s values and beliefs.”
At Regents, part of the formal lessons in peacemaking include acting out scenarios that help students remember what they should do in the heat of conflict. They are also reminded of the Peacemaker principles by materials on the walls of every classroom.
“I have seen even the more difficult children admit where they are at on the Slippery Slope chart, whether it’s in denial or playing the blame game,” Palumbo said. “Kids can be really honest when you ask them to be and create a safe situation for them to be.”
5) Social Ecology
The final dimension Hunter and Olson discuss in The Content of Their Character is “social ecology,” or the “social support surrounding the child” outside the school. They cite evidence that a child’s moral character develops when they receive the same messages from multiple influential sources.
Palumbo confirmed the impact of this dynamic, and it’s the reason she works hard to get parents on board. Palumbo explained, “We say to the parents, ‘This is the one book we need you to read after you join Regents. We want you to understand the language your children will be using. If you really want to partner with the school, you will want to know what they are talking about.’ At least 75 percent of parents read it, and that is what makes it work.”
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It seems that Peacemakers is successful in part because it is involved in all five dimensions of what Hunter and Olson call a student’s “moral ecology.” Of course, there is more to students’ character (and to their moral ecology) than how they resolve interpersonal conflicts, but resolving them well does represent a crucial element of their behavior toward others. It also promotes a more orderly and productive learning environment. And Peacemakers’ apparent success in this key area suggests that other elements of a student’s character can be more effectively formed if they span all five dimensions of a student’s moral ecology, too.