Can the schools become the “parens patriae” for an ailing family structure? As a public school teacher, I have observed an increased merging of the school and family roles. During the past five years, teachers have become providers of a breakfast program. We organize the milk count, assist with package opening and converse. It is all free of charge and very popular with parents. I feel like a parent. As I teach my learning disabled students a lesson from a drug prevention program called “Project Charlie”, I reinforce their self-esteem with acute lesson on warm fuzzies and giving compliments. The title of this project stands for “Chemical Abuse Resolution Lies in Education”. The same parent feelings persist when I do a lesson from “Building Blocks”, an AIDS prevention program. Informal discussions with teachers indicates widespread awareness that educators play an increasing role in the lives of our children an their families. Many parent/teacher conferences find parents seeking assistance on family issues, economic stress and behavior problems. For some parents, there is little time to devote to academic and emotional growth. In some families, there is also a lack of stable and supportive family members or neighbors who will give contact and affection. It is my traditional view of the family that is challenged but research shows that our values were never really “ a unified group giving up self for the home”. A more valid listing would find autonomy, self-development, a desire to overcome obstacles, a curiosity about how things work and a desire to seek perfection (Whyte, 1988). Today’s children do seem to have the traits listed above and they often thrive in school settings despite non-traditional family structures.
But children are still quite vulnerable when their basic needs aren’t met. A healthy emotional climate is based on feeling safe and having basic physical needs met (Maslow, 1968). As these needs are met, basic trust and attachment start to flourish. Yet some families cannot offer nurturing aid. Some families are impaired due to poverty, mental illness, or violence. Some families are gatherings of angry and abusive people. Who will have the “best interests” for these children? The schools have responded with more Head Start Programs as lawmakers allocate funding to this preventative preschool program. The states have all passed child abuse reporting procedures and many social service programs. The courts cannot be counted on to deliver violence prevention because they react after the acts have happened and interpretations of the laws do not generally favor children. The decisions by our highest court members indicate that they can “flip flop in their views about whether to trust or distrust family members” (Minow, 1993). As they have balanced the scales of justice over the years, the Supreme Court justices have tended to support the needs of the state while weighing the rights of the parents. The rights of children are not clearly legislated and the interpretations tend to protect children but not give them autonomy or rights. Many writers are provoking debates on children’s rights so that the courts and law-makers will remove the barriers to children’s rights. When children are entitled to the quality of life that adults take for granted, then perhaps life, liberty and the pursuit of justice will translate to a quality of life that is not currently pursued. The school’s role in preventing violence needs to be a coordinated effort with standards of care and psychological health defined by law-makers and courts. My contention here is that the state and the parents need to share the responsibility with education so that children grow up with their full range of developmental needs taken care of (Burtt, 1994). I will focus on conflict resolution training for my unit project and I turn now to discuss the goals of this unit.
GOALS FOR “Conflict Resolution: New Rules for Early Primary Grades”
My first goal is to establish a solid rationale for teaching this unit. Teachers are always busy, so taking on another social curriculum idea may not be possible. I have organized the lessons to provide a format that is similar to “Project Charlie”, a chemical abuse prevention program that is currently being used in the New Haven Public Schools. I propose three reasons for teaching conflict resolution skills. The first reason is that there is an alarming increase in the violence that children are now exposed to. My young students converse about the latest shootings and violence daily. They are watching television shows that far exceed the typical cartoon and comedy violence that were typical children’s fare. Shows like Rescue911, Cops, Emergency Call and the evening news provide daily graphic exposure to violence during children’s viewing hours. In addition, these kids also discuss their regular viewing of MTV and talk shows that display angry and dysfunctional family relationships. When sensational personalities like O. J. Simpson are involved in a violent crime accusation, the exposure increases. The children are also increasingly involved in violent situations at home and in their neighborhood.
A second reason to consider violence prevention is that our system of laws and punishments is failing to curb violence. As policymakers and lawmakers identify the issues worthy of governmental attention, they carefully define and describe each problem. They label things as the “teen/parent problem, domestic abuse problem, gun violence problem and child abuse problem”. The policymakers shy away from considering the psychological structures or social structures that form the supports for continued abuse, violence and neglect (Minow, 1993). The enormous growth of social problems makes any analysis very complex. I have discussed how historically entrenched our various family and social structures are. It is difficult to change our beliefs and laws, despite the evidence that change needs to happen.
An additional question might be posed by the reader. Are the social controls and services so flawed that the educational system must provide an early base of social skills? Let us look at the facts for foster home placements in 1991. About 430, 000 children were in foster homes, group homes or institutional settings, which is fifty percent more than fives years earlier. In some states, infants comprise most of this growth surge (Children’s Defense Fund, 1992). These costly interventions require a severe failure to enter services and seldom able to remediate the complex problems. My informal talks with teachers indicate the every classroom has abused and disruptive students who require more help than any one teacher can give. There are promising practices in our social service system that correlate with conflict resolution skills. I see “the big family “as a classroom for the purposes of comparing the following exemplary practices for troubled children and families (Children’s Defense Fund, 1992).
1. Emphasize family unit instead of one individual. Conflict resolution training teaches the whole group to solve many types of problems with people in their class, school, family and home.
2. Build on family strengths instead of emphasizing deficits. Students can often continue behaviors that give them negative reinforcement or they can give up trying because they are “no good”. Conflict resolution encourages all attempts and accepts all ideas as good brainstorming material.
3. Prevent crisis instead of reacting to crisis. The goal of step one in conflict resolution is to stop and identify the problem as soon as it feels like a problem is occurring. It rewards persistence and puts no time-limit in talking.
4. Address family needs comprehensively instead of piecemeal. How many times have I heard a teacher say, “If only I didn’t have child x, y, or z in my room”, or seen the same child out in the hall. The group will always have problems and more special needs students are being serviced in the regular education setting. Children need more support services than ever and teachers can use a plan that keeps the peace by using more peer supports.
5. Treat families with respect and honor cultural differences. The diversity of urban students can cause isolation, name-calling and rejection in the early grades. The role-playing, talking, and cooperative planning in conflict resolution teaches how to take another person’s perspective. A New York City conflict program reported results that showed better rapport for both teachers and students (Glass, 1994).
6. Offer flexible, responsive services instead of rigid, single-purpose services. In education, we often limit ourselves to a two option choice system. Teacher authority was often a “Do it my way or get out”. Lessons were often a whole group “sit and listen”style. Children are still taught to fight or walk away. There is no one way to meet life’s little conflicts and the children need to practice generating many solutions to conflicts.
Once a clear understanding of conflict resolution is established, most educators wonder if six to eight year old’s can effectively utilize it. Current research indicated that children can become aware of their rights in a court of law. Some researchers state that children as young as six or four can play an active role in court proceedings(Leach, 1994). The second goal of my unit is to support my argument that this age group can learn conflict resolution skills. This unit can help children learn the concepts, practice the steps and reinforce their efforts to independently use the skills. If we can start early and modify the habits that breed violence, children will change. The underlying premise here is that we are all social beings who respond to our environmental reinforcers. Another theory of learning has influenced learning styles in early primary grades. It is Piaget’s theory that states how knowledge is gained. According to Piaget, education provides opportunities that allow a child to put experiences into systems or schemes. A child’s ability to learn is based on experiences and the child’s inborn curiosity. They can organize and initiate with conflict resolution because it is just another learning opportunity that makes cause and effect more explicit. His views, like many other learning theorists, puts an emphasis on a child’s strengths and not their deficits (Cook, Tessier, Armbruster, 1983). The lessons that a teacher can create are different than the traditional social studies unit on laws and rules. I prefer to view these lessons as a planned series of actions that cause students to change. The measure of success is the amount of curiosity and skillful observations that even learning disabled six year old’s can make. The teacher’s role becomes that of a facilitator who asks probing questions like the following:
Who do you think made the rule about no weapons in school?
Why is it unsafe to leave a baby alone?
How do stop signs help people?
Do families have laws and rules that they use?
How are we all the same and how are we different?
This type of inquiry promotes a cognitive development that is easily carried over to math and language lessons. Most teachers do not realize how frequently they do problem solving skills all day long. Children enjoy answering questions that make them think. A teacher can adapt any lesson to a current event that is in the headlines. A cultural holiday like Thanksgiving can be explored for the problems the Pilgrims had to conquer. The question of whether children can use this is like asking if children are people who are curious observers with feelings. The answer is a definite yes.
My third goal in forming this unit is to address the question of children’s rights and responsibilities. Children have a moral responsibility to know right from wrong. Young children hold very absolute views on right or wrong. They tend to be so egocentric that they cannot take on another person’s viewpoint. Some researchers note that role-taking opportunities are able to facilitate moral development. The opportunities to have decision-making power and role-taking opportunities was found to be often unavailable to economically disadvantaged groups (Melton, 1983). It is my argument that urban children need more opportunities to solve problems and role-play if there is to be a preventative force in combatting violence. Secondly, I feel that children need more legal rights to protect themselves from abusive situations. Is it subversive to tell children that their parents cannot beat then severely or injure them?I would counter that it is negligent to not inform both parent and child about ways of handling anger and the many dangers of violence. Over twenty-five years ago the phrase “battered child syndrome” was created to identify the child victims of angry beatings. Now all fifty states have laws and services to stop child abuse. Our quick fix labels help us stigmatize child abusers while our courts continue to look at children as private property. One judge has helped to organize the “National Task Force for Children’s Constitutional Rights”. Judge Gill notes that seventy-nine countries have protected their children in their constitution. Our children lack their basic civil rights. We let them be beaten in the homes of people who would be arrested if not for the protection of parental rights. He asks Americans to look at the crimes being committed by young people who were raised as “detached kids who never bothered anyone, have no conscience, no feeling”. He warns that we are not going to have enough hospitals, prisons or policemen if we don’t help children help themselves (Boyle, 1991). Children are a powerful ally in creating a better world. If educators can help them make good decisions and seek non-violent means to solve their problems, it will be many small steps in the right direction.