The Impact of Perceptions on Conflict Management

Article excerpt


This article describes research that explored student and teacher perceptions and management of conflict within the primary school context. It was found that both teachers and students shared similarities in their views of conflict and in their management of interpersonal problems at school. Conflict-was generally perceived to be a negative phenomenon. In addition teachers and students commonly used a limited range of strategies, relying mostly on familiar and reactive conflict management techniques. Resolving conflict though compromising and problem solving was rare. Student and teacher perceptions of conflict accounted for their handling of conflict. The need to re-consider the value of conflict as positive for learning and living within and beyond the school is raised.

Conflict is not a new phenomenon, however it receives incessant attention and much consideration because both students and teachers have difficulties in dealing with the complex issues surrounding it. The implications for teachers and students are many.

This qualitative research set out to explore the nature of children's conflicts at school. It examined the extent to which children's and teachers' perceptions affect the management of conflict. This article draws upon literature and findings of this research that included the perceptions and management strategies of both teachers and students in an Australian primary school. Six primary teachers and eight Year 4 students (10 year old) participated in the study. It involved teacher and student interviews, participant observations in the classroom and playground, and document analysis. Triangulation of data sources, member checking and auditing was used to verify the accuracy of data interpretation.

The terms 'conflict' and 'conflict resolution' are used frequently in this article. The description of conflict as the result of individuals' or groups' incompatible goals and as overt opposition by one person to another person's actions or statements is similar across various definitions. Folberg and Taylor's definition (1984 pp. 7-8) of conflict resolution will be used here for discussion purposes. 'The participants in a conflict isolate the issue, develop options, consider alternatives and reach a consensual settlement that will accommodate the participants' needs either between themselves or with a neutral third party'.

Brief Overview of the Literature

Traditionally, many adults have viewed conflict between children as an undesirable event, 'senseless, wasteful and destructive' (Opotow 1991, p. 416), and have tried to intervene or to prevent disputes. In her study of the nature of conflict at school, Opotow (1991) found that when asked about student conflict teachers mostly recalled overt physical confrontations between students. Teachers overestimated the frequency of physical fights and underestimated the harmful potential of less obvious types of conflict (p. 425) such as teasing. She also found that teachers viewed conflicts as less significant than do students; their descriptions emphasized the pettiness and irrationality of conflicts. For instance, one teacher commented, 'Nine times out of ten they [children] don't know why they got all worked up' (p. 430).

In their everyday experiences, teachers form opinions about their students. Research indicates that they form negative opinions of those involved in conflict, describing students as lacking in appropriate social skills and being unable to adhere to social rules. For instance, Opotow (1991) discovered that teachers respond as though conflict is 'something only done by troublemakers' (p. 425) and they cast these students as developmentally inferior.

A growing amount of research in recent years has concerned itself with the question of whether conflict need always be destructive. Deutsch (1973) proposed differentiating between 'destructive' and 'constructive' conflict. The former expand beyond the primary issue to related issues, escalate with the use of threats and coercive strategies, and end in the dissatisfaction of both parties. …