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Reading & Literacy Opinion

Five Questions to Ask When Conflict Arises With a Student

By Ariel Sacks — November 01, 2016 6 min read
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Teaching adolescents requires constantly evolving our skill sets for responding to conflict. This is a long term, often deeply personal process, since conflicts can often involve us directly. What can we do to move forward in the moment when our agenda and a student’s agenda seem to clash?

Developmentally, adolescents are hardwired to resist authority, because they are working to establish their independence. At the same time, they’re still building critical thinking skills and need guidance to be able to responsibly handle the independence they want. Navigating my role as an adult and teacher of students has gotten easier with experience, but no less complex.

It just so happens that my 20 month old daughter is approaching an age also characterized by the need for independence, the use of the word “no,” and the lack of judgement to weigh the consequences of her impulsive decisions. For example, it’s getting cold out, and she often pulls off her hat, because she finds it irritating. She doesn’t yet understand the consequences of catching a chill and how much she won’t like them. I do understand, but I can’t yet explain them to her, and it’s not easy to force a child to keep a hat on her head!

While my head was stuck in this “I-truly-know-better-than-you” dynamic, my daughter taught me an interesting lesson. My mother and I we were taking her to the not-so-nearby park in the stroller. It was a lengthy walk, and we had also stopped for coffee on the way, so she had been in the stroller a while. She didn’t yet know the word ‘park,’ so she really didn’t know where we were going.

About a block from the park, my daughter started getting very frustrated and wanted to get out of the stroller--so much so, that I decided to let her walk the rest of the way. But as soon as I unbuckled her, she did not want to walk in the forward direction. Instead she had her sights set on the front steps of the building we were passing. Thinking this was harmless, I let her walk up the steps, and down again. Then she wanted to walk up again, and down again... and around in a circle...and up the steps again, and down, and up...and so forth.

“Come on, let’s go to the park!” I tried numerous times, but she was totally engrossed in play on the steps. My mother was chuckling as I continued to follow my toddler around. I was getting antsy. I tried again to lead her off the steps to head to the park, but she protested loudly. I got annoyed. I was about to carry her off, when my mother intervened.

“You want to take her to the park so she can play, but she wants to play on the steps a block away! So let her play!” my mother said, laughing at the irony.

What was the difference, actually? In my mind, if my daughter understood that she would be at the park in a few minutes, she would probably prefer to be there. So I would do her a favor by forcing her to go. And the later we arrived, the less time we would be able to stay there, so I would do her another favor by forcing her to go now. But both of these points were inconsequential, because she was perfectly happy where she was, playing.

Underneath our competing agendas, she and I had the same goal, which was for her to spend some time playing outside. Who needed this to happen at the park--my daughter or me?

As I reflected on the lesson, I remembered a course I took at Bank Street College on conflict resolution. One of the big takeaways from that course was that we all have wants and needs: to resolve a conflict, we have to look at the underlying needs, rather than the wants. Often, they are more similar than they are different, and it’s possible to find a course of action that addresses everyone’s needs (but maybe not everyone’s wants).

When we find ourselves in a situation with a student where we seem to have competing agendas, here are some key questions to help sort out what really matters and find a way forward:


  1. What do I want right now?
  2. What do I actually need, with respect to my role as a teacher (and human being, of course)?
  3. What does my student want?
  4. What is the need that underlies this behavior?
  5. How might we look beyond the wants and answer both of our needs?

Answering these questions may require thought, away from the heat of the moment. And especially for #4, it may be important to discuss with the student as well.

Shorthand for this line of thinking might be--is this situation like the hat or the steps?

The Hat Problem:


  • I want my child to wear a hat outside.
  • What I need is to ensure that she is safe and healthy, as her mother.
  • My daughter wants to take off her hat whenever she wants.
  • My daughter needs her safety and health looked after by her mother, because she is not old enough to do so herself.

Solution: To respond to both needs, which are similar, I must enforce hat-wearing, whether my young toddler likes it or not. I can do my best to explain it to her, and with time, she’ll understand. I can allow her to remove her hat when we are indoors, but in this situation, my daughter needs to learn to be flexible, even if it’s difficult.

The Steps Problem:


  • I want my child to go to the park to play.
  • I need my child to have some play time and to head home at a certain time.
  • I should add that I have a need to feel confident that I am being a good mother, and sometimes it can be confusing what this should look like in various situations.
  • My daughter wants to play on the steps a block away from the park.
  • She needs time to play, and to develop her independence in a safe environment.

Solution: Allowing my daughter to play on the steps gives her the outside time we both know she needs, and it honors her independent thinking in a safe environment. Understanding this, I can relax and realize I am still “a good mother” while supervising her in a non-conventional play space. In this situation, I’m the one who needs to practice flexibility.

In a conflict with a student, I can try the same line of thinking. For example, I ask students to record their thoughts as they read on sticky notes. Sometimes individual students have pushed back against this. I definitely want all students to try it out first, but if a student has demonstrated effort and still feels strongly about not doing it, I’ve learned to look at the continued use of this format as a want. (It took some time for me to get there, though.) The need I have is for students to record their thoughts as they read. If a student feels much more comfortable doing this on paper or typing into a document, I can allow that as a solution to this conflict, and still meet my goal as a teacher.

Other situations are more like the hat. Sometimes students don’t want to read. They have their reasons, but underlying their sense of dislike toward reading is fear of failure and resentment around past experiences; deep down these students know they have a real need to be able to read as well as to feel safe and supported. I have to do the work to uncover and address these needs, which is not simple, but I do know that the student will need to get past his or her want in order to grow.

No matter how long I teach, I still have to think hard about my decisions in the classroom and my responses to individual students. I think these questions can help cut through some of the confusion and show me what to focus on when conflicts arise.

What complex situations have come up for you lately? How would this conflict resolution method apply?

[image credit: omarali.md]

The opinions expressed in Teaching for the Whole Story 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.


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