How To Address Group Conflicts Using Class Meetings
As educators, we are accustomed to dealing with limit testing, challenging behaviors, and even, at times, outward defiance. While it is never easy to manage these moments of upheaval, we know it is a part of the normal childhood experience. All children will test limits in their natural process of learning, growing, and developing. Many of our Responsive Classroom strategies and practices help us foster a positive community and keep student behavior on track. We also have tools to help us with individual students who present with larger difficulties or more persistent challenges with self-regulation or self-control. But there are also times when we might see our entire class grappling with a similar challenge.
The Goal of Class Meetings
Ignoring problems, especially class-wide problems, will not make them go away. Giving too much attention to a class problem is also counterproductive and can even have unintended consequences. Class meetings with open and honest dialogue can be a strong starting point to help solve many prickly issues. During these conversations, the goal is to help students be reflective and come up with their own strategies and solutions. The teacher can step in as a guide but should try to keep the students focused on their own power and agency to make the situation better. What comes out of these class discussions can be an agreement, much like a class rule, that can be revisited and reinforced often.
Holding a Class Meeting
I recently encountered a whole-class challenge after I had been absent for an extended period. After two and a half years of avoiding COVID, I finally caught the virus and had to miss seven straight days of school. My twenty-one kindergartners were bounced around to three different substitutes during this time.
When I returned, I anticipated that we would need to reset, reestablish rules, review routines, and reconnect as a classroom community. But the reality of how much rebuilding we needed to do surprised me. As I worked to get my class back together, a persistent challenge became apparent. I had received a few emails from parents and from two of the substitutes about it, so it didn’t catch me completely off guard, but I had secretly hoped it might resolve on its own when I returned. Our problem was a class-wide epidemic of potty talk and mean name-calling.
Instead of trying to address this issue with individual students, I felt it was important to bring the class together for a full-class meeting to address it head-on with positive solutions in mind. I looked over the Class Meeting Planning Guide and used it to structure my class meeting. Here are the steps I took and how they went.
The Group Reviews the Class Rules
First, I shared some of the great moments and trends I had observed since the year began. I shared how I noticed their love of reading, their desire to participate in math lessons, their effort to share materials, and their calm and careful transitions. I also reminded them that at the beginning of the year they had created a class rule that said: “Be kind and help others.”
The Teacher States the Reason for the Meeting
Second, I named the problem that I saw. I told them directly that I had been hearing a lot of bathroom words and mean name-calling. I shared that some students had told me that this language hurt their feelings and made them uncomfortable.
Students Share What They’ve Noticed
Third, I asked the students what they thought about this problem and what ideas they had about why it was occurring. Giving students space to reflect and consider their choices can be a powerful tool when attempting to change behavior. The students spoke openly and honestly. Some shared that they had a hard time not repeating words that they heard others say and some even admitted that they liked to distract others and wanted to try to make them laugh. Some shared that they really didn’t intend to be mean, but just wanted to be silly. Some also shared that they really did not like being called names and that it was hard to ignore.
Students Suggest Solutions and Everyone Agrees to a Solution
Fourth, I asked the students how we could solve this problem. They suggested that we should all agree that bathroom words are for the bathroom and not the classroom. They also agreed that our room should be free of mean name-calling. They came up with three ideas to address these words and name-calling in the moment. They could ask the person to stop, ignore it, or move away from the person. Lastly, they all agreed that they would try to exercise more self-control and avoid calling anyone names.
The Teacher Follows Up With Reminders and Check-Ins
Fifth, we agreed on a time when we would check in and reflect on our progress. We decided we would check in every Tuesday and Thursday during closing circle for the following two weeks.
The change in my classroom was almost immediate. Everyone was really trying to adhere to our new agreement. I overheard a few students using some mean name-calling language a couple of days later, and two classmates immediately chimed in: “Remember, we don’t use those words here. We need to use nice words!” “Oops, sorry!” replied the other student. We did our check-ins as planned during closing circle, and I gave students time to reflect on their own efforts and talk with partners about how it had been going. After the two weeks had passed, we had nearly resolved the issue. By addressing this issue head-on and giving my students time and space to be a part of the solution, we made great strides as a classroom community.
When to Use Class Meetings
Class meetings, like the one I describe here, can be useful when addressing a wide range of class-wide challenges such as difficult transitioning after lunch or between teachers, lunchroom issues, recess issues like rough play, materials use, bathroom cleanliness, morning arrival routines, and many more!
When organizing class meetings, remember to focus on amplifying student voices and letting their ideas, reflections, and thoughts take center stage. When well executed, these meetings will result in students taking even more ownership over their behavior and actions at school. Building a strong classroom community is a year-long effort,and class meetings can be a great addition to your ever-growing teacher toolbox!
For more on class meetings, check out Solving Thorny Behavior Problems.
Mollie Bruhn is a consulting teacher for Center for Responsive Schools. She also teaches at Brooklyn Arbor Elementary School (PS 414) in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.