Knee-to-Knee Conflict Resolution: Success Starts with Support for Teachers

By Richard M. Long, executive director, Learning First Alliance

When developing a social/emotional program that focuses on the whole child, make sure you have the support needed to build the professional learning to go with it.

Successful schools have increasingly spotlighted social/emotional learning (SEL) as part of a comprehensive approach to focus on the total child.   For some schools, this journey began with anti-bullying programs, while for others it has come about as part of a process to help more students become better at working with others. But simply focusing on SEL isn’t enough; successful schools pay attention to the implementation: While it is important to be aware of the social and emotional needs of students, implementing an effective program entails more than making an announcement. Actually making it work requires the full engagement of teachers, administrators, parents, counselors, coaches and all other school staff.

According to the The Elements of Success, successful schools incorporate social/emotional learning in every classroom and program, guided by agreed-upon definitions, standards and competencies, developed by experts, such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning and the American School Counselor Association. In these schools, this work is considered essential, and every adult—administrators, teachers, coaches, school counselors, parent leaders and other stakeholders—understands and is engaged in it every day. 

This means that for schools to “Focus on the Total Child,” which is Element 1, they also have to have Element 5, a “Strong, Supported Teaching Force and Staff.” The key is ongoing professional learning for teachers to have the tools to incorporate social/emotional learning. Specifically, this means that teachers need to know how to guide their students to learn how to work in the cooperative environment of a classroom.

For example, I once witnessed a highly skilled teacher manage a class of 35 second-graders by requiring arguments between students to be settled by going “knee to knee.” When a conflict arose, she would command, “go knee to knee,” and the students went to a corner of the room to sit in chairs that were pre-positioned to be close and facing each other, their knees had to touch and look each other in the eye and discuss the problem until it was resolved with either an “OK,” or “I am sorry.”  It was usually pretty quick.  For this simple act of conflict resolution to be achieved, the teacher had to see it practiced, practice it herself, set up her room to allow it to be done, teach her students, and then consistently implement it.

Like many other parts of this classroom, this experienced teacher found this technique and integrated it into a complete classroom management program. The technique itself was honed by her working with other teachers and by her having the time to talk about what had worked in other classrooms. She taught her students how to do the knee-to-knee process by having them all see it and then practice it. In reality, the toughest part, getting them to actually talk about the issue, came about because that is what they were told to do—again with a couple of examples.  As it turns out with the requirement that they had to stay focused on each other brought about quick resolutions to the day-to-day conflicts of having 36 people together in a small space.

However, this practice wasn’t something that was done in isolation.  The teacher also needed consent and approval from the school’s principals and counselors, and she let the PTA know about it. 

And when this process failed with certain students who needed more help, she had to be part of a system that allowed those students to have an avenue to get that support.  The counselors, social workers and school psychologist had to know what had been done and why they were now involved.

Social/emotional learning has a wide range of concepts. Learning how to deal with conflicts is somewhat different from learning about self-awareness. The importance of this is for teachers to be aware that each component of social/emotional learning requires its own professional learning; emphasizing this with colleagues is crucial to its long-term success.

As the Elements of Success point out, how a school integrates all of these ideas is critical. For teachers, and other leaders, having the awareness of social/emotional leadership is important, as is defining it. Yet, for your school to be effective, professionals need to have the requisite training on how to properly implement it.


Author Bio

Richard M. Long

Richard M. Long is Executive Director of the Learning First Alliance, a coalition of 12 national education organizations including AFT. Dr. Long is a nationally known advocate, writer and commentator on pre-K-12 issues and federal policy. Prior to joining LFA, he spent the past four decades working in education policy, including 37 years as the Government Relations Director for the International Reading Association. He also concurrently served as Executive Director/Government Relations Director for the National Title I Association from 1995 to 2014. He earned bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees from George Washington University.