Building Conflict Competent School Communities:
A Strategy for Engendering Positive School Climates
If school climate is like the air we breathe that goes unnoticed until something is seriously wrong (Freiberg, 1999, p. 1), one can imagine the suffocating urgency with which many schools battle hostile behavior, inadequate academic performance, poor student engagement, and low staff morale on a daily basis. For these schools, the prevalence of such toxicities bespeaks of climates likely viewed as less than physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe by their constituents.
That these crises seem impervious to abatement suggests that conflict can often be pernicious and paralyzing. At a recent training held at Johns Hopkins School of Education (SOE), several administrators and educators claimed that conflict evokes sentiments of “being backed into a corner and no way out;” “I avoid it whenever I can;” and “I’d do almost anything to make it go away.” I’ve heard similar dispositions articulated at every conflict transformation program that I’ve facilitated to date, whether they involved institutions of higher learning, public libraries, public schools, social services agencies, non-profit organizations, or community businesses. Increasingly, I’ve come to realize that ad hoc programs can do little to transform entrenched institutional conflict cultures.
In institutions where stakeholders continually feel disempowered and disconnected when besieged by conflict, adopted countermeasures routinely react to rather than address the threat conflict poses to the energy, productivity, well-being, and potential of the institution. In the context of learning institutions, the absence of a strategy that systemically targets a school’s prevailing conflict culture portends that its climate will rarely be salubrious because the preponderance of conflict to permeate all levels of the school inevitably outstrips the rate at which the school can feasibly churn out reactionary measures.
A schoolwide conflict transformation strategy entails viewing schools as communities of constituents who relate to one another and their environments in the pursuit of learning. It recognizes that a climate that fosters positive engagement, social and emotional growth, self-efficacy, and commitment to a shared vision is achievable when the interactional and relational dynamics of the school community are characterized by empowerment and connectedness, instead of fear and defensiveness.
A conflict competent school community empowers stakeholders to engage with issues that matter to them, even if it means confronting differences, asking difficult questions, and challenging assumptions. It incorporates built-in processes that support rich and honest exchange of ideas and opinions; and solutions that emphasize empowerment over correction, connectedness rather than arbitrament, and restoration instead of punishment. This encourages schools to examine practices and policies that are intended to correct perceived inadequacies but inadvertently reinforce perceptions of social rejection, failure, alienation, and academic futility. It also motivates stakeholders to identify practices that can exacerbate behavioral transgressions in children who develop antisocial postures as a result of high-risk environments and coercive practices at home.
In a conflict competent school community, administrators, teachers, students, and parents accept less than ideal solutions to problems and interests because they are confident of being heard and included in decisions that concern them. Structured programs and mentoring platforms can further shape practices that promote seeking clarity, expanding perspectives, developing empathy, and investing in the personal and professional development of self and others.
Freiberg, H.J. (Ed.). (1999). School climate: Measuring, improving, and sustaining healthy learning environments. London: Falmer Press.