A small girl wearing a green jacket and ponytail listened politely as two of her fourth-grade classmates at described an argument they had.
"How did that make you feel?" she asked one, after he gave his version of a dispute about whose turn it was to use a purple magic marker.
Then, her classmate and partner in the Conflict Management exercise asked a follow-up question:
"What do you need to have the problem solved?"
Everyone giggled a bit as two of the four pretend to be mad at each other – though they were just role-playing. Then, reading from a script, the green jacketed kids asked the really important, attitude changing, question:
"What can you do to help solve the problem?" Both then promised to giving each other a turn using purple.
This scene from a training session one morning last week at Marin shows how the Conflict Management program is unfolding at Albany’s three elementary schools this year.
The petit green-jacketed arbitrators were learning how to help schoolmates resolve conflicts that come up on the playground. In lessons filled with "I" messages and identifying feelings, rather than blurted out accusations, children learn to resolve conflicts with peaceful solutions that seek to make everyone happy. Also, the conflict managers, about six in each classroom, learn a bit about leadership.
And it works.
has run the Conflict Management program with great success for about 15 years, said Deborah Brill, conflict resolution coordinator for the . It's a new part-time position.
So when the district decided to take on bullying and teaching respect as a district-wide priority this year, it asked Brill to expand the Conflict Management program to the other two elementary programs, and launch mentoring and anti-bullying campaigns at .
students received Conflict Management training in the fall. And, in February, two new anti-bullying and peer mentoring programs will begin at .
Starting early with lessons about respectful resolution of conflicts is key, Brill said. The hope is that kids from all three elementary schools will have the same familiarity with these methods, then build on them when they get to middle school.
"It's a fabulous program. It's about believing that kids can solve their own problems. And it gives kids the opportunity to become leaders," Brill said.
The program changes the atmosphere throughout a school, said Cornell teacher Ali Shiromoto, who runs Cornell’s conflict management program because, over time, everyone becomes familiar with its methods.
As lots of fourth and fifth graders - as well as older kids - around town can tell you, the Conflict Management methodology starts with four ground rules as people talk out a problem: no interruptions; no name calling or put downs; be honest; and be willing to work to solve the problem.
Once those ground rules are set, the conflict managers ask each disputant questions aimed at getting them to think through a conflict and take responsibility for it. Then they work to find a solution.
"It has worked really well here," Shiromoto said of Cornell. "Kids are definitely able to solve problems on their own using 'I' messages."
Through the years it has resulted in "everyone being on the same page," about how to resolve disputes. And, for kindergartners and first graders, they often feel less intimidated telling another child, rather than a teacher, about a playground tiff, she said.
"Little kids just need someone to hear them," she added.
At Cornell, they wear red jackets, and at Ocean View School they wear blue ones.
The paid for the jackets and other supplies, while the school district paid for Brill to bring the program at all three schools. She works a little less than half time.
When the training is over at Marin, about 40 kids will be ready to go out on the playground during recess and lunch. With their green jackets signifying who they are, they'll be available to schoolmates who want help solving arguments or healing hurt feelings.
"It's good. It has good questions," said a fifth grader named Atticus who participated in the Marin training. "It's not hard. You don’t have to go into a lot of detail."
Another fifth grader, Tarra, also had practical things to say about the program.
"It's fun and easy and gets to the point," she said. "I'm really glad I was chosen but if you get chosen and you don't want to you don't have to," she added.
One of the teachers leading the program, Jean DeWitt, summed up the value of the program during a week of national soul-searching following tragedy.
"Wouldn’t it be awesome if every child, every adult, everyone in the world, did this?" she said. "We'd solve a lot of our problems."
Everybody makes mistakes ... ! If there's something in this article you think should be corrected, or if something else is amiss, give editor Emilie Raguso a ring at 510-459-8325 or shoot her an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.