Fussbusters(*): Using Peers To Mediate Conflict Resolution in a Head Start Classroom.
As part of Head Start's support for children's social and emotional development, programs are required to "enhance each child's strengths by: a) building trust; b) fostering independence; c) encouraging self control by setting clear, consistent limits, and having realistic expectations; and d) encouraging respect for the feelings and rights of others" (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1998, Sec. 1304.21). Some of the most important social skills that children need to learn from a very young age are self-control and learning to handle conflicts. A lack of these skills is cause for concern, for it may have severe consequences beyond an occasional temper tantrum.
As Jacquelyn Gentry of the American Psychological Association states, "Violence is primarily a learned behavior, and kids who see constructive ways to deal with anger, frustration, and disappointment are learning violence prevention" (Chamberlin, 2000). Every early childhood program should address these issues. Because "Head Start plays an important role as a national laboratory school for early childhood programs" (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000), however, Head Start classrooms provide a particularly relevant opportunity to explore ways to encourage children's development in these areas. Such explorations may help others learn about successful ways of building on children's strengths and practicing the virtues of self-control and respect.
Conflict Is a Normal Part of Social Development
Conflict among preschoolers is an expected part of social development (Killen & Turiel, 1991). When two children have different needs or wishes, conflict arises. When they attempt to meet those needs and wishes, they are engaging in conflict negotiation (Rourke, Wozniak, & Cassidy, 1999). These conflict negotiation behaviors can be profoundly affected by subtle changes in children's social environments, such as different play partners (Malloy & McMurray, 1996; Rourke, Wozniak, & Cassidy, 1999), or by a change in social settings from school-time free play to semi-structured peer groups (Killen & Turiel, 1991). Teacher intervention can also dramatically affect children's conflicts.
The Teacher's Role in Children's Conflicts
Despite the body of evidence suggesting that teachers can effectively guide preschoolers through peer conflict (e.g., Oken-Wright, 1992; Stanley & Mangin, 1999), teacher intervention may not be the best strategy to assist children. For one thing, when a teacher spends time and attention mediating children's conflicts, that teacher is neglecting other children and duties. It is unreasonable to expect that teachers will never have to mediate conflicts, but more time and attention should be directed towards more positive situations and reinforcing good behavior. Second, DeVries, Reese-Leonard, and Morgan (1991) found that although kindergartners with directive teachers had fewer conflicts, their ability to negotiate and resolve conflicts independently decreased. In addition, other research suggests that in the absence of adult intervention, children often can solve conflicts on their own (Killen & Turiel, 1991). Rourke, Wozniak, and Cassidy (1999) concluded that preschool children relied upon conflict resolution strategies of power assertion and negotiation more than 90 percent of the time, whereas they sought adult intervention less than 1 percent of the time. Therefore, even if preschool teachers were willing and available to intervene in children's conflicts, the teacher might not have the opportunity to do so very often.
It is not unusual for a classroom to have students who continually force Other students into submission during conflict. The authors' study focused on enabling all students to solve their conflicts through mediation and discussion. To accurately categorize the conflict outcomes that were observed, they referred to Wheeler's (1994) four outcome categories of children's conflicts: 1) unresolved--children simply drop the issue or leave the area, finding different activities and playmates; 2) adult intervention--an adult suggests or imposes a solution; 3) submission--one child unwillingly yields to another child's dominance; and 4) mutually agreeable solution--achieved through bargaining, compromising, finding an alternative activity, or turning the conflict into a game.
If our goal is to increase children's social competence, then the ideal outcome for any conflict would be a mutually agreeable solution. Submission would be the least desirable outcome, because it involves a clear winner and a clear loser, thus creating an unwanted cycle of bullying and victimization. Adult intervention is not ideal, either, for the reasons mentioned above. In observing Head Start classrooms, the authors did not consider Wheeler's unresolved category to be a conflict situation; if teachers and children alike concur that no disagreement has occurred, then there is not any problem. For example, a child may say, "Can I play with you guys?" and be told, "Not right now." If the first child responds by finding something else to do without a murmur of complaint, then for practical purposes there has not been a conflict, just a discussion. Therefore, the conflict resolution strategy suggested in this article is aimed at resolving conflicts mutually, minimizing the need for adult intervention and reducing submission.
At the elementary, middle school, and high school levels, peer mediation programs have proved enormously successful. In a typical model, as described by Angaran and Beckwith (1099), two students are trained to be peer mediators; once a week, they meet with an adult who has gone through mediation training to help resolve conflicts at school. Preschoolers, however, need immediate feedback--ideally, right after-a conflict has occurred. Furthermore, the tone of elementary school peer mediation processes is too formal for preschoolers. For instance, Angaran and Beckwith suggest "get[ting] it in writing" (p. 24), a process that is less feasible and cognitively unlikely for preschoolers. Another drawback to the elementary model (in terms of fostering preschoolers' social competence) is that only a few children are chosen to be trained as peer mediators. If all children are to benefit from the program, then all children should be trained as mediators and have a chance to practice their skills. Overall, the logic behind peer mediation is sound, and this approach has a well-developed history even at the elementary grades. In order to make the mediation process developmentally appropriate for preschoolers, however, it must be immediate, more informal, and more inclusive.
Another movement, peace education, also has gained acceptance. Peace education addresses violence prevention and specific ways to teach peace at all levels of school. Diane Levin, who has written extensively on the subject, believes that focusing on prevention is the key to breaking the cycle of violence. Her book Teaching Young Children in Violent Times (1994) includes many practical ideas for teaching peace using puppets, children's books, cooperative games, and other methods. In the chapter titled "Teaching Children To Resolve Conflicts Peaceably," Levin discusses the importance of a win-win approach to conflict resolution, as well as the importance of training children, rather than teachers, to resolve conflicts. However, Levin does not suggest a specific peer-mediated conflict resolution strategy that can be employed immediately following children's disagreements.
The Fussbuster Program
The challenge in a Head Start (or any preschool) classroom seems to be finding conflict resolution strategies that children can carry out independently to the satisfaction of all. The authors suggest a conflict resolution strategy they call the "Fussbusters Program." Negotiations take place at the "Peace Table." The Peace Table is simply a table flanked by three chairs, which is located in a highly visible area of the classroom and which is not used for any other activity. If a conflict occurs, the children involved immediately move to the Peace Table, accompanied by a Fussbuster. The Fussbuster, a friend chosen by both participants, mediates the discussion at the Peace Table.
After four weeks of observations in a Head Start classroom containing high levels of conflict, two teachers and an undergraduate student introduced the Fussbuster program to a class of 16 students at group time. They told the students that if two children have a conflict not involving immediate health or safety issues, the two children should talk things over at the Peace Table. They should ask a friend--a Fussbuster--to accompany them and help them come to an agreement. Throughout the next few weeks, teachers facilitated large- and small-group discussions on how to be a good Fussbuster, and they gave children opportunities to try out their Fussbusting skills in practice scenarios.
The day after the Fussbuster program was introduced and children had a chance to try it out, the teachers and children made up a list of rules and procedures that were posted at the Peace Table. These rules and procedures (in the children's own language) were:
1. No hitting; keep hands and feet to self.
2. Talk things over.
3. One person (talking) at a time.
4. Take a helper--a Fussbuster.
5. Stay until the problem is solved.
6. Shake hands at the end.
7. You get your spot back (where you were playing).
The Fussbuster program continued in the classroom until the end of the school year. At that time, the children were interviewed. They reported positive experiences and thought the Fussbuster program was a helpful addition to their classroom.
Effect of the Fussbuster Program on One Child With High Levels of Conflict
Before, during, and after the introduction of the Fussbuster program, one child--with very high levels of conflict--was observed for one hour each week. Prior to introducing the program, he was involved in three to five conflicts per observation hour. The outcomes of those conflicts were most often of a win / lose nature (69 percent of his 16 observed conflicts), with the target child winning most of the time (63 percent of his 11 observed win/lose conflicts).
It was expected that after implementation of the Fussbuster program, he would maintain the same level of conflict, but that the outcomes of his conflicts would change. This prediction proved inaccurate. Once the Fussbuster program was introduced, he had no conflicts during the following two weeks of one-hour observations. Over the seven weeks of observation following introduction Of the Fussbuster program, he had only four total observed conflicts--one conflict each day during the third and seventh week of observations, and two conflicts during the fourth week. This was a wholly unanticipated result. In addition, the outcome of his conflicts improved. All four of the observed conflicts after the introduction of Fussbusters were negotiated at the Peace Table, where participants reached mutually agreeable solutions.
One possible interpretation of why the target child's number of conflicts dropped so dramatically is that it may have become clear to him that he was no longer going to be able to get away with making his peers unhappy. Arsenio (1996) examined the emotions of preschoolers involved in classroom conflicts. He found that conflict initiators were happy before the conflict, happier still during the conflict, and even happier afterward. On the other hand, conflict recipients, who were just as happy as the initiators prior to the conflict, became less happy during the conflict, and even more unhappy after the conflict. Therefore, conflict situations appear to work for conflict initiators and to work against recipients. Although Arsenio carefully avoided using value-laden terms such as "bully" and "victim," it does seem that he created a psychological profile of bullies who derive pleasure from conflicts, and victims who do not.
The results of the Fussbuster program suggest that imposing a process whereby all children have the right to object to the outcome of a conflict and to have it immediately mediated by a peer could quickly and dramatically reduce classroom bullying.
Effect of the Fussbuster Program on the Fussbusters
In interviews at the end of the school year regarding the program, the children who had been Fussbusters volunteered comments about their contributions. They reported being proud to be chosen, as well as feeling helpful and competent. To take a larger view, every child in the class had an opportunity to grow and learn a skill that directly increased his or her social competence. Every child had an opportunity to practice these skills, even if he or she was not chosen to mediate peer conflicts (some children might not have been chosen because of their limited English proficiency). These mediation skills, even if only learned through modeling by other peers, are skills that children can transfer to other environments, including the home or the playground.
With acts of violence on the rise, one must address young people's apparent lack of social competence. Although conflict is a normal part of social development, we must remain on guard against violent reactions. While peer mediation has played a significant role in elementary and secondary schools, its implementation at the preschool level was limited. The Fussbuster program provides a means for Head Start students to learn to peacefully resolve conflicts. A sense of ownership and teamwork developed as students wrote rules for the Peace Table and chose their Fussbuster. Teacher intervention was minimal and, often, not welcomed by students while at the Peace Table. The Fussbusters took their role seriously in bringing about peaceful resolutions.
The authors were encouraged by the success of the Fussbuster program with the child previously described who had been involved in many conflicts. He was no longer allowed to overpower fellow students, and his mediated discussions at the Peace Table created win-win situations for all children involved in the conflicts. While his dramatic decrease in conflicts points to the effectiveness of the Fussbuster program, further studies, with a larger pool of students, are necessary to fully gauge the program's benefits.
The results of this study can form the framework for peer mediation programs throughout preschools everywhere. With proper modeling and training, preschool students can take control of their conflicts and find peaceful solutions.
(*) Not associated with Barbara Davis and Paul Godfrey's Fuss Busters curriculum manual, first published in 1987 by the Mediation Center in Asheville, NC.
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Arsenio, W. F. (1996). Conflict-related emotions during peer disputes. Early Education and Development, 7(1), 43-57.
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Levin, D. E. (1994). Teaching young children in violent times: Building a peaceable classroom. Cambridge, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility.
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Oken-Wright, P. (1992). From tug of war to "let's make a deal": The teacher's role. Young Children, 48(1), 15-20.
Rourke, M. T., Wozniak, R. H., & Cassidy, K.W. (1999). The social sensitivity of preschoolers in peer conflicts: Do children act differently with different peers? Early Education and Development, 10(2), 209-227.
Stanley, P. D., & Mangin, M. C. (1999). The teacher's role in helping children learn to solve conflicts with peers. The Journal of Early Education and Family Review, 6(3), 17-22.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. (2000). Head Start fact sheet. Available: www.acf.dhhs.gov / programs / opa / facts / headst.htm
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children, Youth and Families, Head Start Bureau. (1998). Head Start program performance standards (45-CFR 1304.21). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Wheeler, E. J. (1994). Peer conflicts in the classroom: Drawing implications from research. Childhood Education, 70, 296-299.
Catherine Wilson Gillespie is Associate Professor and Associate Chair, Teaching and Learning, and Angela Chick is a graduate, School of Education, Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa.