Page Links
Apr 23

Stepping Off the Conflict Escalator

Posted by Valentine Burr in Fair Is Not Equal on Apr 23, 2013

Maia, "I was using that marker."

Ruby, "No, I was. I need it."

Maia, "You can't use it. It's mine."

Ruby, "It's not yours, I'm using it. You're always taking stuff. This is for sharing."

Maia, "I was using it! You saw me! Look! You can't just grab. Give it!!"

Ruby, "Stop! Ugh!!"

And picture now: a push, some yelling, tears ensue...

In a heartbeat, a squabble over a marker can rocket up the conflict escalator. While age matters, particularly in terms of the source of classroom conflict, the stages up the escalator looks remarkably similar no matter what the source or how old the riders.

The conflict escalator is a useful tool we’ve used to help students see how conflict escalates and to give them strategies for de-escalation.

The Role Play

The way I used this tool most often in my elementary and middle school classrooms was through role play. I’d draft a simple conflict script or students would suggest ideas. We’d aim for scenarios that looked awfully similar to common classroom issues without asking kids to re-enact recent struggles.

Once we had developed some conflict scenarios, I would model (with another teacher or a student who I’d prepped) how we could role play the stories. The aim was to help students see how conflict builds over time and how two people can fuel the escalation.  After some modeling with teacher help, we would usually get to a point where students could take the roles and act out the stages of the conflict themselves. Simple props, though not necessary, almost always helped both actors and audience connect to the action.

After the role play, I’d draw a blank escalator like so…

…and ask the students to identify the stages. It’s important that the focus not be, “who started it.” While sometime conflict has a clear aggressor and victim, the purpose here is to engage with the idea that more commonly, “it takes two to tango.”

Mapping the Conflict

As students identified each step of the conflict, I would also ask them to name what each person might have been thinking or feeling as the conflict progressed. Once we mapped out the role play, we would get a picture that looked something like this...


Strategies for De-escalation

The second stage of the process was to ask, “Could Maia and Ruby have stepped off the escalator? If so, when? And how?” Students are often eager to offer ideas:

  • Maia could have said, “I need that marker back. Can you give it to me when you are done.”
  • Ruby could have said, “I’m frustrated that you are not sharing. Can we find a way to share?”
  • Maia and Ruby could have asked a teacher to help them find a solution.

I usually took notes like this…..

If students didn’t point it out, I would generally ask them if there is any point where it is “too late” to step off. We would talk about the fact that at the top of the escalator the emotions are the strongest. It is usually too hard for anyone to stop a conflict all the way at the top without taking cool-off, even adults.  



What's in Your Bag?

For older kids I sometimes introduced the concept of baggage...When we travel, we often bring bags with us. Sometimes the first step of the conflict is less about the action occurring and more about what’s in our baggage.

For example, what if inside Maia’s bag was that she woke up late, missed breakfast and came to school tired and cranky? Or what if in Ruby’s bag was that Maia teased her yesterday so she was feeling irritable and unwilling to share that morning? Here’s a picture of Maia and Ruby’s baggage….

Older kids can begin to thinking about the “invisible” influences on conflict as a way to become more aware of what’s in their own bags, and perhaps even what their peers are carrying around.

Putting it all Together

Once a class has this metaphor and practice using it in non-emotional situations, the next step is to help them apply it. For some kids you might be able to say, “looks like you and David might stepping onto the escalator.” For others you might be able to point to a poster with strategies for stepping off the escalator. As with all our strategies, no one tool will ever be an entire solution. Conflicts will continue to occur; we are human after all. That said kids often feel helpless in the face of conflict, which can wash over an interaction like a wave that builds in force dissipating only after it has crested. Teaching kids to see that conflict builds because of choices two people make can help kids regain a sense of their own power and control in social situations.

Finally, many of you may read this and think, “I’d love to, but I’d never have time to do this.” Keep in mind conflict scenarios abound in literature and history. A tool like this supports understanding of cause and effect, sequencing, point of view, as well as conceptual understandings of power, perspective, limited resources and compromise.     

What are some ways you support your students in learning conflict resolution skills? We’d love to hear!

tagged conflict, conflict resolution, emotional literacy, strategies
blog comments powered by Disqus