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A fairer process for school conflict resolution

This week, Adam Voigt explains the importance of a fair process when it comes to resolving conflict through a restorative methodology in schools.

Having three younger sisters and being raised in a home where material advantage was scarce meant that I got used to sharing. There were some battles within that economic necessity to share, but some undoubted positives too. Namely:

  1. I learned that to share well, one needs to discard self-interest temporarily or get used to some significant conflict on the home front.
  2. That there was much joy to be had from being the oldest boy in a home built around hand-me-downs!

It could have been a huge amount of work for my parents, and particularly for my Mum who was largely charged with maintaining a modicum of order in the home. After all, frequently asking four children to share is fraught with danger. In the very least, Mum risked spending many of her hours counting out equal piles of sultanas, measuring sausage slices and comparing the dimensions of bread slices. But Mum was a lot smarter than that.

Mum’s repeatable and incorruptible process for sharing was beautiful in its simplicity. She’d hand the cake, the ice cream or the apple to one of the two parties who’d be sharing and say: “you cut it in half, the other picks the one they want.”

It caused me much mental angst as I internally debated the merits of being either the “cutter” or the “chooser”. In the end, I simply surrendered to the process. What Mum was really teaching me is that there is no fair outcome without a fair process. It’s the process, the rules, the patterns by which we get things done together that will ultimately determine our views of how fair things really are.

“Fairness is not an attitude. It’s a professional skill that must be developed and exercised.”

— Brit Hume

Fairness in a school setting

The same applies in schools when it comes to resolving conflict through a restorative methodology. Underpinning the whole intention of restorative practices is a belief and structure for making a process fair – that we’d all do well to reflect on from time to time. 

The good news is that those who devised the framework make it quite easy by reducing the process to three simple E’s:

  1. Engagement: This is all about affording those responsible for harm (and often their families too) the chance to tell their side of the story before assumptions are formed and before the victim/s appeal to our emotions and sensitivities. That’s right – we’re going to ask the perpetrator for their version FIRST. This isn’t because we’re going to believe every word they say; it is far more about getting them involved. The truth is that we’re going to need perpetrator engagement in order to resolve their half of this relational breakdown. Both victims and perpetrators care about being asked for their side of the story. What’s interesting is that it’s the perpetrators who care about order – so ask them first. Victims are usually quite happy to wait for their turn, provided it’s clear that their turn is firmly on the agenda.
  2. Explanation: After conflict is resolved as efficiently as possible using a past-present-future geared approach, it’s a good idea just to explain just how we’re fixing things up. The old adversarial model has a habit of creeping back into our work just when we think we’ve seen the last of it. I’ve heard myself say to two students, “ok, so you two behaved really rudely for your PE teacher today, making her feel angry and embarrassed. As a result, you’ve decided to make amends by picking up 25 papers at lunchtime.” Umm – tell me exactly how that does anything for the PE teacher? Let’s just go over that to ensure we get it right this time. Explanation is a wonderful way to place a check on our process before we get to work on repairing harm.
  3. Expectation Clarity: I’d contend that it’s this step that most Australian schools struggling to implement restorative practices are forgetting. Where recidivism (repeat offenders, frequent flyers, etc) are coming back to the warmth of a restorative conversation but the frequency or severity of their behaviour isn’t improving, then a consequence (punishment) is very appropriate. This is best developed via negotiation with a: “So, what do you think should happen to you if that behaviour bobs up again?” My favourite type of consequence to coax students towards are time-related. A lunchtime, a detention or even an internal suspension is a great time to do your restoring, to write your apologies, to record your video commitments to higher standards and to clean up PE gyms (which is what I should have encouraged in my previous example).

Students for whom negative behaviour patterns have become an ongoing problem need the benefit of two systems – a clearly articulated punitive consequence AND an opportunity to clean up the mess left by their behaviour. They certainly don’t need us flip-flopping from one approach to the other.  But let’s be brutally honest here, this commitment to fair process isn’t likely to be received by students at first with a “wow, this is wonderful. Can we do this every time there’s a conflict in my life”. Improving our personal skill in resolving conflict strongly and adequately is a journey far more than it is a magical moment. Be patient, deploy that process fairly and follow through. These are the keys to creativity, moral development and enhanced collaborative skill – and are critical to your students’ success as adults.


Don’t have time to absorb the whole article today? Here’s the big points …

  1. Remember that process is where we judge fairness.
  2. Teach students a repeatable process for conflict.
  3. Engage perpetrators by asking them first.
  4. Explain the process to finish things off.
  5. Deploy negotiated consequences for “frequent flyers”.

AITSL STANDARDS FOR TEACHERS… and you addressed them by reading!

The Big One

4.3 Manage challenging behaviours.

But also …

1.1 Physical, social & intellectual development & characteristics of students.

3.5 Use effective classroom communication.

4.2 Manage classroom activities.

Adam Voigt

Adam Voigt is the Founder & Director of Real Schools. Built upon years of experience as a successful Principal, Real Schools helps schools to build and sustain strong, relational School Cultures. A speaker of local and international renown, Adam has delivered a TED Talk and is the schools/education expert for The Project”.

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