Teaching Conflict Resolution Skills in Physical Education

As a physical education teacher, I check in with my students at the beginning and end of every class using the Zones of Regulation, which is a great tool for helping students identify feelings and levels of alertness.

Through these daily check-ins, I began to notice a pattern. I learned that most of the angry, frustrated emotions the students were experiencing were generally due to something that happened during recess that day.

In my conversations with classroom teachers, I heard them express frustration because they were losing valuable teaching time on conflict resolution — solving students’ conflicts from recess.

In talking with students, I learned that students in some grades understood that conflict resolution meant “solving arguments” — but they were unable to state any steps that would be involved with actually solving a problem. When asked what they would do if a peer was not listening to their side of an argument, a few students responded, “Get angry,” “Yell so they hear me,” and “Ask the teacher for help.”

As teachers and as parents, we tend to solve problem for kids instead of teaching conflict resolution skills so they can learn to solve problems for themselves. We do this either because we don’t think the children are emotionally capable of solving the problem on their own OR we know it will be quicker (and quieter) if we just solve the problem ourselves.

However, neither one of these options is beneficial for children.

Students — of all ages — are capable of learning how to resolve conflict. If we spend the time upfront teaching students the six steps to conflict resolution, we will save time later because students will be able to resolve the conflict as it occurs. Teachers won’t have to solve it during academic time.

Teaching Conflict Resolution Skills

A few years ago, our social-emotional learning team got together and created a Peace Path to meet the needs of our students.

The Peace Path is a fantastic tool that helps students resolve conflicts one step at a time. It serves as a “visual ladder” on the floor, giving students something to walk across as they move through the six steps of conflict resolution.

Peace Path, Step 1: The first step in the ladder is agreeing to walk the Peace Path with one or more peers. Sometimes an argument is too fresh, and students are not emotionally ready to talk the problem out.

If a student asks another student to walk the Peace Path and they are not ready to, I have them respond, “I am not ready yet. We can try later.” I explain to the students that both participants have to be willing to talk it out and try to resolve the conflict.

Sometimes people need more time before they are ready to talk and that is okay. Once both students agree to walk the Peace Path together, they stand on the first step of the ladder.

Peace Path, Step 2: The next step is S.T.A.R., which stands for Stop, Take a deep breath, And Relax! The students take one mindful breath together and try to relax.

Peace Path, Step 3: The third step for students to use “I statements” to express themselves, such as “I feel _____ when­­­ ­­­­­____.”

One student speaks first while the other actively listens and then they switch roles. This way each student has an opportunity to speak their mind and feel as if they are truly being heard.

Peace Path, Step 4: The fourth step is for each student to repeat and clarify what they heard  using the phrase“I hear you saying you feel___ when ____.” Follow-up responses to this include:

“Yes, that is exactly what I am saying”

“You only got that half correct. I also feel ___”

“No, that’s not how I feel at all. I feel ___.”

Once both students feel content that they were heard accurately, they can move on to Step 5.

Peace Path, Step 5: The fifth step is working together to brainstorm and find a win-win solution. Students must work together on finding a solution they both feel is fair.

Peace Path, Step 6: The sixth step on the Peace Path is “Agree or Disagree?” If both students agree to the solution proposed in Step 5, they shake hands and move off the ladder. If they disagree with the solution, they must make a U-turn and walk the steps again to brainstorm a different solution.

It’s important for students to understand that some problems are more complex and require more time and effort to solve. That’s perfectly normal. And sometimes the solution may be to “agree to disagree” and move forward.

Practicing Conflict Resolution Skills

The ability to solve conflicts peacefully is a learned skill and not intuitive. Health and physical educators should teach the six steps to conflict resolution, but more importantly they should give students ample time and opportunity to practice and role-play these skills in a safe and nurturing environment.

Students need to understand that conflict is a natural part of daily life and that conflicts can be resolved peacefully. They also need to know that it is okay to disagree with someone, they can still be friends with someone who has different views, and people differ when it comes to how they respond, learn and practice the skills.

Giving students these conflict resolution skills will empower them and help them become more cooperative, respectful, and responsible members of their community.

Whole-School Approach to Conflict Resolution

It’s important for the whole school community to be on the same page when it comes to conflict resolution. This includes classroom teachers, special areas, cafeteria employees, lunch monitors, and the administration.

It takes a village to raise a child, and we must all be active participants in the conflict resolution training process. My school social worker, Lauri Carluccio, and I trained the teachers, lunch monitors, and entire staff on how to use the Peace Path in classes and at lunch/recess.

We also spent an hour with students in each grade level (K-6), training them on the six steps of conflict resolution and how to use the Peace Path. We had them role-play different conflict scenarios so they could practice the six steps. The students were supervised by all special area teachers, the social worker, and our Peer Leaders.

We must keep in mind that these are hard skills to learn. By teaching conflict resolution skills to our students at a very early age, we’re giving them great problem-solving habits and skills for a lifetime.

Additional Resources

Elizabeth Bolger

Elizabeth Bolger is a physical education teacher at Lincoln Avenue Elementary School in Sayville, NY. She serves on the Advisory Board for PHE America and Executive Board of NYS AHPERD-Suffolk Zone. She presents at conferences around the county and was recently named the 2021 SHAPE America Eastern District Elementary Physical Education Teacher of the Year.