By Sarah L. Sweetman, Production Editor, OJPCR
There is little dispute that teaching conflict resolution skills to children is of great importance. Where there is dispute is in the best, most age-appropriate way to teach them. Dozens of books are written on the subject, most with their own, individual approach toward conflict resolution education. The true "best path" probably applies theories and practices from a diverse range of such publications. Additionally, there is no true consensus on who should teach these skills: parents, teachers, religious leaders, or the students themselves. As an introduction to some of the materials available, this review will discuss four books: Children as Peacemakers, Free the Children! Conflict Education for Strong and Peaceful Minds, Theatre for Conflict Resolution: In the Classroom and Beyond, and Theatre for Community, Conflict and Dialogue: The Hope Is Vital Training Manual. These are by no means the only books available on this subject, nor are they entirely representative of all dialogue in this area; they are simply a starting point for further reading and discussion.
Children as Peacemakers, by Esther Sokolov Fine, Ann Lacey, and Joan Baer, is a case study of a Peacemaking program at the Downtown Alternative School, an elementary school in Toronto, Canada. This book, though quite short, gives a view of how this particular program was developed and the successes and difficulties faced along the way. Unfortunately, little replicable information is given. The book concludes that each program must be approached in a unique way and that, in order to obtain any true guidance from the creators of this particular project, the best option is to attend one of their informative workshops. The assistance it does give resides, primarily, in the knowledge that programs do exist and that at least one has had some success.
Free the Children! Conflict Education for Strong and Peaceful Minds, by Susan Gingras Fitzell, provides information for teachers and parents on education and curriculum development for students from pre-K to 12th grade. Throughout the text, and in a special resource section at the end, Fitzell provides numerous books, tapes, websites (though many important sites are not included and those that are are frequently outdated), and organizations (again, not very comprehensive). This information provides a valuable starting point for anyone interested in conflict resolution education. Within the text, education information is separated into five distinct age groups preschool/kindergarten, lower elementary school, upper elementary school, junior high adolescent, high school adolescent and is especially beneficial for those only interested in providing these skills to students of a certain age (i.e., high school teachers who do not interact with first grade students). This separation can, however, cause problems as a result of the authors assumptions regarding development at certain ages and the universality of this development. Students who are more or less advanced than the norm may become lost in the system and important information may not be given to students of a certain age because current developmental theories say they may not understand it. Rather than questioning such preconceived notions, Fitzell accepts them and alters her educational offerings accordingly.
For example, Fitzell indicates that the teaching of global peace is inappropriate for lower elementary school children. She states that "global peace and awareness are wonderful for kids to begin to understand, but are so separate from their everyday lives that they cannot relate to them" (p. 36). To support this argument, Fitzell lists the responses she obtained when asking students to describe war and peace. She says that because students were only able to provide four responses to define peace, whereas they provided five examples of war, it is obvious that students understand the concept of war to a significantly larger degree and cannot, therefore, grasp the concept of peace. Fitzells students were able to provide her with these responses but she "could see that they didnt really understand, couldnt relate much of it to themselves" (p. 37). As a result, she decided to drop such lessons from her teaching, rather than using the limited understanding they did express as a starting point for further discussion.
Additionally, Fitzell indicates that children of this age are extraordinarily gifted when it comes to feeling empathy, as indicated by their responses to other childrens stories of pain and pictures of starving children abroad, but does not consider applying this skill to an examination of war. She apparently never considered the use of their empathy as a means to introduce the more complex issues of global war and peace. With ever-increasing images of war-torn countries and published books of childrens experiences in war, such concepts can be examined and explained at a level the children can understand. Also, Fitzells determination that children cannot relate such stories to their lives is based on a false assumption that peace is an exclusively global concept. In an age where domestic and gang violence is rampant and six-year-olds kill other six-year-olds, it is obvious that peace education can, and must, be provided to children at a young age.
Theatre for Conflict Resolution: In the Classroom and Beyond, by Trisha Sternberg, and Theatre for Community, Conflict and Dialogue: the Hope Is Vital Training Manual, by Michael Rohd, both address the role of theatre and roleplay in conflict resolution education. These books are designed to give teachers, parents, students, and other interested parties the ability to apply these approaches without prior experience or formal training. Both texts provide numerous exercises, from warm-ups to summarizing and activating activities, for use with people of all ages.
Theatre for Conflict Resolution makes simplistic attempts to explain conflict, but should not be used to obtain an understanding of the concepts behind the teaching. Its role in conflict resolution education is to provide ideas for applying such concepts to classroom activities and involving students in experiential learning. The exercises it presents are briefly explained, with some examples, though the end goal behind them is not always made clear.
Theatre for Community, Conflict and Dialogue, on the other hand, is very well organized and provides important information regarding the intent behind the activities. This allows for a more informed facilitator able to adapt the general activities to better meet the needs of the group. Each exercise description begins with a suggestion for the ideal number and ages of participants, the estimated duration, the basic organization of the exercise, alternate variations, important things to keep in mind while the exercise is being done, the issues the exercise addresses, and general thoughts.
The importance of conflict resolution education, from early childhood throughout life, cannot be too strongly stated. Whether in a formalized, classroom setting or on a family or community level, people of all ages must need learn how to deal with violence and conflict in their lives and globally. These books provide valuable information, both practical and theoretical, and can play an important role in any conflict resolution education program.
Children as Peacemakers, by Esther Sokolov Fine, Ann Lacey, and Joan Baer. 1995. Portsmith, New Hampshire: Heinemann. 79 pp.
Free the Children! Conflict Education for Strong and Peaceful Minds, by Susan Gingras Fitzell. 1997. Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers. 190 pp.
Theatre for Conflict Resolution: In the Classroom and Beyond, by Trisha Sternberg. 1998. Portsmith, New Hampshire: Heinemann. 173 pp.
Theatre for Community, Conflict and Dialogue, by Michael Rohd. 1998. Portsmith, New Hampshire: Heinemann. 150 pp.
OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution is published by the Tabula Rasa Institute, www.trinstitute.org.