At the core of most legal issues is an unresolved conflict. Indeed, conflict is an inevitable outcome of living and working with others, and whether or not it results in legal action, it affects everyone’s life at one level or other. This is true whether one is 7 or 97 years old.
Within the scope of justice education, exploring conflict with students is necessary and valuable. As bullying becomes an ever greater concern, not only within schools, but in workplaces, professional sectors and the cyber world as well, it is an increasingly relevant topic for youth of all ages.
Navigating conflict well requires knowledge, skills and attitudes that can be learned and practiced.
OJEN/ROEJ’s justice education projects, promoting the development of this legal literacy, flow from kindergarten to grade twelve and beyond. Creating a strand that focuses on conflict is responsive as well as preventative. With the preventative aspect of education in mind, especially with the primary grades, a pilot project that introduces the youngest grades to productive skills to use when in a conflict, was created and piloted last year with a grade three class in Scarborough. It was repeated this year with a grade three class in Etobicoke and this week grades one and two students in Etobicoke are participating in “Comfort with Conflict”.
The “Comfort with Conflict” project first gets primary students to explore community and the importance of relationships in the community. Students are asked whether it’s realistic for people in a community to always agree with one another. “Hands up if you think people in a community will always agree with one another all of the time?” None of the grade one students raise their hands. “Hands up if you think people in a community will disagree with one another some of the time”. All hands go up. Students then share stories of disagreements they have experienced themselves either as participants or as observers. Most are very familiar with negative disagreements. Very few are aware of positive disagreements. Students learn that like a doctor in their community who helps people when they are sick or hurt, a lawyer is the person in the community who helps people when they are in a serious disagreement that they can’t solve on their own.
Students then meet a lawyer who visits their classroom and introduces them to two advocacy skills. On the first day of the lawyer’s visit, the skill is “Be Curious”. This involves asking yourself questions about the friend you’re in a conflict with and about the situation, such as “Why doesn’t she want to play with me?” “What is making her mad?” The next part of “Be Curious” is to ask the friend a question, “Why don’t you want to play with me?” “What is making you mad?” Students first observe the lawyer volunteer and OJEN/ROEJ staff person role playing the skill, before they get into pairs and role play themselves.
The second advocacy skill is “Listen to Understand with Your Heart”. Students learn how to actively listen to the friend they’re in a conflict with until they are able to understand the other person’s side of the story with their heart. These skills are tied back to the importance of maintaining relationships with people in the community when appropriate and possible. “Comfort with Conflict” for grade three students introduces them to four additional skills as well.
As children at younger ages are exposed more and more to conflicts around them, giving them the time and a safe place to discuss and role play skills that will help them navigate the conflicts they find themselves in, is preventative and responsive. Learning about the role of the lawyer in the community and meeting a lawyer is beneficial as well, as it creates a connection between what they’re learning in the classroom and the real world outside the classroom. The interest and demand from students, teachers and school administrators continues to grow for the “Comfort with Conflict” project.
By Maureen Ra