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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Teaching Kids How to Disagree

By Peter DeWitt — February 02, 2012 3 min read
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Conflict resolution is one of the most important life skills that students can learn when it comes to social and professional relationships.

If you’ve ever spent time in an elementary school, you understand that students get mad at one another. As a former first grade teacher I heard my share of kids who said, “He’s gave me a dirty look,” or “He called me the S word,” which was not the vulgar S word that came to mind. No name calling is ever kind but we do know that some are much worse than others.

Students have disagreements all the time. Some of those are minor ones where they get over it in five minutes and go back to being best friends. Other times it’s a much bigger deal and they hold on to the disagreement for hours, days or perhaps even weeks. What makes disagreements worse is when they involve other children in the fight because that can take a simple resolvable issue and make it a war. Involving others in a disagreement is also where bullying may begin.

Educators know that academics are a small part of what they do with students, especially in the elementary and middle grades. A great deal of time is spent on working through issues and the normal storm and stress that come with adolescence. If students do not know how to handle the issues that come with making friends, they will never be able to focus on the academics that we want them to focus on. As much as we want academics to be first priority, for many students, relationships are what really take precedence.

Relationship building is something we all do. As adults we network with colleagues and make friends. We try to make our collegial relationships stronger so we can work as a team and bring education forward and meet the needs of our students. Although the relationships students make are not about making schools a better place, it does help make a positive school community.

Are Adults the Best Role Models?
Many times adults are not good role models for students when it comes to teaching them about dealing with disagreements. Adults have a habit of vilifying those people who disagree with them. Disagreements between adults can lead to long term grudges, especially in the work place. As sad as it is, there are adults who are insecure and cannot handle differing opinions.

How many of you have been at large meetings where difficult information is shared. Not everyone agrees at meetings, but most people do not speak up in opposition during the meeting because they do not want to draw attention to themselves or seem disrespectful to the person in charge.

However, other adults have no problem taking part in sidebars in order to share their true opinions. Another reaction that is human nature is to have a meeting after the meeting. Both of these are ways that adults work their way through a disagreement they may have with co-workers.

In the social media world, it is fairly commonplace to see adults post nasty comments on their Facebook wall about other people. After all, it’s their wall and they can get the support of all of their friends who will chime in with a supportive or nasty line or two. As a teachable moment, all of that type of behavior would be “Do as I say, not as I do.”

How to Teach Students to Disagree
What we really need to do for children is teach them that disagreements are a part of life. The important thing to do when a child disagrees with a friend is the same thing an adult should do when they disagree with someone. We need to teach children how to have open dialogue and talk with the other peer about the issue they are having. Of course and adult should intervene, but if we do not teach children how to work through their problems together, how will they ever learn it.

Conflict resolution is one of the most important life skills that students can learn when it comes to social and professional relationships. It’s simply a waste of energy to hold a grudge against someone for life because there was some minor disagreement. Disagreements are important to collaboration and working together. It’s through disagreements that people can find common ground and stronger ideas.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.