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Outreach: Peace Promotion

Children, and most adults as well, tend to see only two choices in a conflict situation: fight for what you want, or give up and give in. So says Dr. Sandra Sandy, creator and Executive Director of the Peaceful Kids ECSEL (Early Childhood Social-Emotional Learning) Program, an outreach initiative of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR) at Teachers College. This program is just one aspect of the "broader systems" approach to schools advocated by the faculty and staff of ICCCR.

By applying current research on early brain development, the Peaceful Kids ECSEL Program brings social and conflict resolution skills to children who are ripe for acquiring and retaining communication, language, and problem-solving abilities that are likely to result in lifelong patterns of behavior. Through workshops that incorporate songs, puppets, partnering tasks, and turn-taking, preschool children are encouraged and shown how to develop various solutions to solve problems. Program staff members train school teachers, staff and parents to help children identify problems, brainstorm possible solutions, take the perspective of others, cooperate and communicate with others, and exhibit self-control.

Assistant Professor Peter Coleman, Director of ICCCR, described the work that the Center does in relation to school violence as teaching people to resolve conflicts more constructively, which is a preventive strategy for reducing violence.

While schools cannot address all the problems associated with violence, Coleman said, schools can play an important role. As a major influence in shaping the prosocial means of getting one's needs met, a school can provide educators and school staff members with skills for resolving conflicts. Peer mediation systems and classroom curricula and activities can further enhance the development of a peaceful culture in the school environment.

ICCCR works with groups from pre-school and elementary school to adolescents and adults. Their approach is to work with the whole system rather than just one part in order to change the culture of the school at four levels: the disciplinary, the curricular, the pedagogical and the cultural. From this perspective, the interventions are aimed at individual students and adults as well as in school systems.

Most frequently, administrators are eager to develop a peer mediation program as a first-level intervention for student disciplinary problems, incidents of violence or the threat of violence in the school. Both students and teachers are selected as mediators and are given 10 to 30 hours of training and follow-up supervision. As a result of these programs, research shows that disciplinary referrals, detentions and suspensions drop significantly, while the school climate tends to reflect a more positive tone. Student mediators develop self-confidence and esteem.

However, peer mediation alone is not enough to prepare students to live in a peaceful environment. Conflict resolution concepts and skills also need to be introduced into curriculum in ways that accommodate the age and background of the students. Common goals of the individual programs include instilling attitudes, knowledge and skills necessary to promote effective problem solving and cooperation while discouraging attitudes and responses that result in win-lose situations.

Two teaching strategies incorporate these skills into regular subject areas. They are cooperative learning and academic controversy.

Through cooperative learning, students are helped to understand the value of positive interdependence through mutual goals, division of labor, division of resources, materials and information among group members, and through joint rewards. In this way, they are taught that it is to their advantage for other students to learn well and to their disadvantage for others to do poorly.

Looking at controversy in a cooperative context promotes academic learning and the development of conflict resolution skills through discussion of topics from different points of view and reaching a consensus.

The establishment of conflict resolution programs in schools is combined with research being done on the effects of such programs. A 1992 study showed that at-risk students trained in conflict resolution and cooperative learning experienced increased social support and felt less victimized by others. Improved relationships with others enhanced self-esteem and feelings of well being, and resulted in a decrease in anxiety and depression. The positive feelings of well being led to better work readiness and performance and higher academic performance.

Research studies done on the impact of cooperative learning compared to competitive or individualistic learning showed that students working in group situations developed greater mutual commitment, and helpfulness and caring, regardless of differences. They were also better able to take another's perspective. Students reported having a greater sense of self-esteem and a greater sense of being valued by their peers. Attitudes toward learning, school and their teachers also improved, as did their ability to work collaboratively.

While the idea of a peaceful, conflict-free environment sounds good on paper, not everyone is ready to do what it takes to achieve those results. Sometimes parents and teachers have misconceptions about cooperative learning that create initial resistance. Research shows that unless schools and school districts are sufficiently motivated to embrace an initiative of transformation such as this, it is not likely to succeed. All the players have to buy in to the program.

Even when they have bought into it and begun to learn the skills it takes to systemically change over to a cooperative learning environment, it can take teachers about three or four years before they feel well-skilled in using cooperative learning methods. It is important that all of those involved are given the skills to motivate and persuade, organize and mobilize themselves and others to institutionalize the change.

The interest and demand for cooperative learning programs have been increasing at an accelerating rate over the last decade and there is not a sufficient supply of well-trained experts to train teachers and administrators in these skills. ICCCR is currently working to bring together what Coleman calls "an eclectic group of providers to work as a team."

"We are trying to work collaboratively with other service providers like David and Roger Johnson at the University of Minnesota to offer comprehensive cooperative strategies for school change," he said.

Coleman added that ICCCR is currently designing intervention models designed to address conflicts that emerge relating to class and race. Collaborative models are not effective in conflicts related to such power struggles.

"When groups feel oppressed by the system and marginalized, and when the system is not fair and just, it can elicit direct violence or sabotage," Coleman explained. "If dealt with effectively, the problem can change the institution and what the institution does. If not dealt with effectively, these problems can go underground and come up later in a more violent form."

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