How to Teach Kids Conflict Resolution Skills

Without a doubt, all of our students need a little help in the conflict resolution arena. These are tough skills, even for some adults! Early instruction can help normalize the process and help our students start thinking about their own feelings, reactions, and words when they have problems with others. When I teach kids conflict resolution skills, I follow a basic, step by step outline, building the most essential skills first. Keep reading to see what my process looks like!

PS, this is a really long post with tons of tips! If you’re short on time, click here and I’ll email you a tip a day so you can read them when you have time!

How do you teach kids conflict resolution skills? I follow a step by step process to build the most basic skills first to help kids work it out! These work for conflict resolution classroom guidance lessons in elementary school counseling or small group counseling sessions to build conflict resolution skills. -Counselor Keri

Teach Kids Conflict Resolution Skills

1. Understanding Feelings

In any type of conflict scenario, it’s essential that all parties involved are aware of and understand their own feelings. Sometimes we feel angry on the surface when there’s a problem, but there might be an underlying feeling like fear, embarrassment, or loneliness.

To help kids understand their feelings, I start with the most basic process. We look at facial expressions. We talk about how this feeling feels in the body. And then we talk about when someone might feel that way. To personalize it, I have students think of times when they have felt a wide variety of emotions. In a small group, we might go around and all share a time when we felt embarrassed. In a classroom lesson, we might break into small groups and each small group will create a list of scenarios in which people might feel a specific emotion.

To really bring this home, I will have students keep an emotion tracking journal. This helps them take a closer look at how they are feeling throughout the day and the situations surrounding those feelings.

2. Using an Immediate Calming Strategy

After students are aware of the emotions they feel when a problem arises, we begin to talk about immediate-use calming strategies. These are skills students can use in the moment no matter where they are to calm down. I stress the importance of using at least one calming strategy before speaking (when this is safe, of course).

An immediate-use calming strategy is something students can do for 15-60 seconds that will help them take a moment, collect their thoughts, and release tension that could boil over into an explosive reaction. We practice things like controlled breathing, tense-and-release muscle contractions, visualization, exercise, and empowering thinking.

If your classrooms have calm corners, review with your students the process for visiting this area and have them identify calming strategies they can use before they approach the conflict resolution.

3. Scale the Event

After students have had a chance to identify their feelings and use a calming strategy, I want them to scale what actually happened. I have them ask questions like:

  • Is this a little deal? Is this really going to affect the rest of my day? Will I be okay if I just let it go?
  • Is this an issue I feel like I need to address with the person? Will this continue to bother me if we don’t address it?
  • Is this a huge deal? Do I need to get an adult involved? Is someone in danger?
What's the size of the problem? How big is the problem? How do you teach kids conflict resolution skills? I follow a step by step process to build the most basic skills first to help kids work it out! These work for conflict resolution classroom guidance lessons in elementary school counseling or small group counseling sessions to build conflict resolution skills. -Counselor Keri

After they’ve had a chance to use a calming strategy, students are usually better able to evaluate what happened and how they can move forward. Some students will be okay with letting little things go while others will recognize that talking about it or working it out with the other person is the only way they’ll be able to move on (and that’s okay!).

4. Expressing Feelings & Needs

Expressing Feelings

When students are ready to talk about the issue, I want them to be willing to express how they feel. I explain that when we share our emotions with others, it’s easier for us to relate to one another as human beings who have feelings instead of just someone who disagrees with me.

We practice making “I feel…when” statements almost excessively. It’s a hard shift for some students to move away from using blaming statements, so this is an area where we spend a lot of time.

To make it fun with a group, we do a musical chairs-style activity. I play music and students move around the circle of chairs. When the music stops, everyone sits down (no one is left out in this game!). The student sitting in a marked chair will get a scenario. That student will then use an “I feel… when” statement to express how he or she would feel in that given situation. This just adds a fun movement component to the activity, but sitting around a table with a small group works just fine too.

Stating Needs

For smaller problems or things that aren’t quite full-blown conflicts, we talk about how it’s okay to say what you need in the moment (this is not to say stating needs isn’t important in bigger discussions, but sometimes things can be resolved simply by sharing feelings and asking for what we need). For example, “I feel frustrated when you talk during writing time. I need quiet to gather my thoughts.” Or “I feel upset when you ignore my ideas for our project. Can you please consider this idea? I think it’ll really work well.” We practice this in the same way as expressing feelings: start with a scenario, state feelings and situations, and then share what we need.

Filtering Thoughts

I think it’s really important while practicing what to say that we also practice filtering out thoughts that probably aren’t great to say. This goes hand in hand with using a calming strategy first. When we take a moment to breathe and think, we get a better grasp on the situation!

I work with students to differentiate thoughts that are okay to say and thoughts that should be kept in our heads! We talk about how others might feel when we say certain things and how it might affect the overall conflict resolution. I use a bubble gum analogy for this. Our thoughts are like gumballs. Sometimes they need to stay in the gumball machine (filtered thoughts) and sometimes it’s okay to get out the gum and blow a bubble (statements).

5. Actively Listening and Reflecting

After we spend time focusing on how we feel and expressing ourselves, it’s an important shift to help students remember that there’s another person involved and their feelings and needs are important too! Some students sometimes even seem shocked to hear this. But of course, to resolve a conflict, both parties need to be heard. We do spend time actually stating feelings and reflecting those back, to introduce and break down those skills, we practice a few activities:

Active Listening Activity

To practice active listening, I do a partner drawing activity. I have 2 partners sit back to back. One partner has a clipboard, paper, and a pencil. The other partner has a picture of a simple image. The partner with the image describes the image to the partner without actually telling the partner what it is. The partner has to draw the same image from the instructions. The students have to work really hard to clearly communicate and listen carefully during the process! Some even get frustrated and we have to backtrack, sometimes cool down a bit, and start over.

Reflecting Activity 1

What’s more reflective than a mirror? To help students learn how to reflect what others are saying, I have them practice telling a story to themselves in a mirror. I tell them to look at their own facial expressions as they tell the story and notice what emotions they’re stating and what emotions their faces are showing. It seems really silly or simple, but it really is helpful for students to see how they can pick up clues from other people by picking up clues from themselves!

Reflecting Activity 2

To start this activity, I don’t immediately tell students what we’re doing. I ask one student to tell us about the best day they ever had. The student describes the day in detail, and then I pick one student ask him or her to repeat back the first student’s special day. The first student is always caught off guard a bit, so I pick someone who I know won’t feel uncomfortable being put on the spot!

After the student repeats back the information, we talk about what it means to reflect someone’s statements. We talk about picking up on their feelings, noticing how they look while they say it, and then checking to make sure we heard correctly.

Then, the student who reflected the first student’s special day gets to share her special day story. All of the other students are glued, looking for details and listening for emotion words and clues! I pick another student to reflect, and we keep moving through the group.

6. Brainstorming Solutions

Individual Solutions

For smaller deals or little problems, I think it’s important to give students a toolbox of solutions to try on their own. They can do things like walk away, choose a different activity, ignore it, or go to the calm down area. This goes hand in hand with scaling the problem. When students are able to label the problem as a little deal or something that doesn’t need to be addressed right away, they can choose one of their individual solutions.

Multiple Party Solutions

When students scale the problem and identify that they need to talk it out to resolve a conflict, we practice brainstorming solutions. I do provide instruction on win-win, win-lose, and lose-lose solutions first. We talk about how people feel given each type of solution.

To start with brainstorming, we’ll choose any conflict scenario. Then, I ask students to call out resolution ideas. No idea is a bad idea at this point in the process. We write them all on the board or chart paper. We do this until students have no more ideas left.

Then, each student in the group takes one of the ideas from the list (or small groups take 1-2 ideas if we’re in a classroom lesson). The student or small group takes that one idea and then decide all of the possible outcomes or secondary effects. Here’s an example: two students are best friends. They both want to run for student body president, and they have been arguing about the situation. When students brainstorm solutions, they might come up with these solutions:

  • No one runs
  • One runs for president and one runs for vice president
  • They fist fight to see who gets to run
  • Ask if they can run as co-presidents
  • They both run for president and agree to be happy for whoever wins

Students will then take each of these solutions, label them as L-L, W-L, and W-W. Then, they’ll hypothesize what might happen if the students choose each. So if they choose “no one runs,” students might hypothesize that both friends are upset and they harbor resentment about it and maybe fight later. They might not feel connected at school because they didn’t get involved in student council. We do this for each solution and then start to rule out some of the ideas.

7. Choosing Solutions

Once we have a narrowed down list, we try to compare all of the win-win solutions. If there is only one win-win solution, we take a look at the win-lose solutions and see if there’s any way we could modify them to be win-win solutions. An analogy I show uses a rope. We have two people demonstrate tug of war. This is when each person is trying to get a win-lose solution. Each person wants only what he wants and isn’t worried about what the other person wants. We talk about how bot people get hurt in this process (illustrated by red hands!).

Instead, I show them that finding a win-win solution is more like tying the rope to something heavy (I usually bring a 10-15 lb dumbbell for this). Both parties are on the same side, working together to pull the dumbbell, or move the problem. It’s a coming together process to honor each person and make sure both people feel valued, respected, and heard. Finding a solution that works for both people requires that we actually work together.

We revisit our list of solutions and find the solution that does exactly this. If we didn’t come up with a solution that honors both people, we go back to the drawing board and brainstorm more until we have a solution that both parties can agree upon!

8. Moving On

Sometimes moving on is the hardest part of the whole thing. But when our students pick a win-win solution, it shouldn’t be too terribly hard. To help students get to this part, I have them first make a list of times when it’s hard to move on. They might say things like

  • when I feel like the person didn’t really care
  • when I don’t get what I want
  • when the other person keeps bringing it up
  • when other people keep talking about it

Check Your Solution

First, we talk about how if they or the other person still have unresolved feelings about the situation, it might be important to recheck the solution they picked to make sure it’s actually a win-win choice. They might find that it isn’t and they can come up with something better.

Let Go of Grudges

I also find that it helps to talk to students about grudges. We talk about what it means and then I give them rocks to squeeze in their fists. They squeeze the rocks tight and all end up telling me that it hurts their hands. We talk about how holding grudges ends up hurting us in the long run! Another analogy we use is wearing really dark sunglasses. When we hold a grudge, it’s hard to enjoy the rest of our experiences because the grudge is blinding us or blocking our view!

When Others Won’t Move On

Sometimes when there’s a conflict, our students diligently go through the conflict resolution steps and think the issue is resolved, and another person holds a grudge, brings it up, or talks about it with other people. I talk with my students about their options here: they can talk directly to the person about it if they think it’s going to impact their ability to get things done, or they can use an individual solution (ignore, new activity, etc). The fact of the matter is not every person is always going to respond to our attempts to resolve a conflict in a positive way. Sometimes we have to choose our own way to move on. Hopefully this isn’t the case most of the time, but I do like to at least help students walk through the process here so they’re prepared.

The Act of Moving On

These situations aside, we talk about ways to actually move on! This can be a simple act like a handshake, high five or a hug. It could also be writing down the conflict on paper and both people tearing it in half and throwing it away to symbolize moving on. Help your students come up with their own way to move on!

This is a ton of information, but it really helps to break down each essential skill and explicitly teach it! We can role play conflict resolution all day long, but if students don’t know how they’re feeling and how their choices affect others, they’re not going to get very far when a real conflict comes up!

How do you teach kids conflict resolution skills? It’s a tough area but such an essential skill to normalize at an early age! Leave your best tips and tricks for helping kids work things out in the comments section below.

How do you teach kids conflict resolution skills? I follow a step by step process to build the most basic skills first to help kids work it out! These work for conflict resolution classroom guidance lessons in elementary school counseling or small group counseling sessions to build conflict resolution skills. -Counselor Keri
How do you teach kids conflict resolution skills? I follow a step by step process to build the most basic skills first to help kids work it out! These work for conflict resolution classroom guidance lessons in elementary school counseling or small group counseling sessions to build conflict resolution skills. -Counselor Keri

5 thoughts on “How to Teach Kids Conflict Resolution Skills

  1. I find that when I am working with kids who are in a conflict that empathy really helps. So, I have them switch places to see the other person’s point of view. I really like your lessons and I will be using them. Thank-you so much.

  2. Such a great blog post!!!! With summer here and kids home from school, the sibling fights are on the rise. I will be using these tips to help parents teach their kids conflict resolution skills for sure. Thank you for walking us through this!

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