Conflict with pinch of salt

 

A new method of dealing with conflict, called SALT, is being taught to school children, writes GEORGINA O'HALLORAN

BEHIND THE walls of one north county Dublin school you’d be forgiven for thinking cookery lessons are high on the agenda, given the frequency with which the question, “Have you put salt on it?” is heard.

The salt in question here, however, is in no way related to seasoning, but rather to the way pupils react to conflict.

When they find themselves on the cusp of a fight with another pupil or pupils, rather than let emotions take over, children at Donabate and Portrane Education Together National School are encouraged to Stop, Ask, Listen and Talk (S.A.L.T.).

“Put SALT on it – that makes all the kids say, Stop, Ask, Listen, Talk when there’s a row. The peer group are calming the situation down,” says principal of the school, Maeve Corish.

The SALT conflict resolution programme, which aims to equip primary school children with the skills and capacity necessary to deal with conflict (including bullying) in a constructive and positive way, was run as a pilot project at the school for the academic years 2004/2005 and 2005/2006 and proved so successful it’s been an informal part of the curriculum ever since.

“Conflict is a part of life in the classroom. What I love about this programme is that it involves a lot of collaborative work, so the class are involved. Very often children less involved in the row can keep it going by mentioning it. This enables peers to keep the peace. Saying ‘put SALT on it’ makes all the kids say stop, ask, listen, talk. The peer group are calming the situation down,” she says.

Mediator Fiona McAuslan, who designed the programme as part of her Masters degree in mediation and conflict intervention, says the idea came from her particular insight and experience as a former violinist in the National Symphony Orchestra and the idea that people could deal with bullying or conflict more effectively if they were trained, just as musicians are trained to cope with the highly pressurised world of live performance.

“The adrenalin rush and anxiety we feel when we are being bullied, or in a row, is the same set of body responses musicians feel when they are on stage, the difference being that they are trained to cope with performing while feeling nervous,” she says.

“The idea is that salt adds flavour to food and SALT adds good skills and good outcomes to our difficult relationships.”

One of the key elements of SALT is the use of stories by the teacher to address various incidents of conflict familiar to children such as rows over games.

The children are presented with “before” scenarios where the conflict escalates out of control and “after” scenarios where the characters use certain skills which lead to resolution of the conflict.

“The children really understand it – how things go wrong and how it works out with SALT added – they really see the difference,” says Corish, who taught the programme this year to two classes where “bickering was a problem” and found it turned the situation around.

“It pushes them to use ‘I’ statements. What they do usually is to accuse, saying ‘she did this’ or ‘he did that’. This makes them reflect. I find it very effective around 2nd, 3rd and 4th classes.”

Pupils also take part in role plays and discussions and learn simple listening, talking and anger management skills with an emphasis on repetition.

“I would see the programmes as highly preventative of bullying as it promotes communication and encourages children to speak up, whereas bullying thrives in secrecy,” says Corish.

“The message of the programme is that things go wrong and it’s how we deal with them that matters. It’s very tempting for parents to take over. This is giving the children the skills themselves.”

A problem with arguments among senior students in which bullying was a factor led to the introduction of the programme at Scoil Mhichil Naofa, Athy, Co Kildare last November.

“We decided to set up the programme so at least they had a way of coping with a confrontation with a friend or an argument, be it inside school or out of school,” says home school liaison teacher, Margaret Phelan.

“We’re finding it quite good. It has reached 95 per cent of children. They have to stop and think for themselves. It’s not a knee jerk reaction. It’s giving them the language to express how they feel and it helps teachers to get to the bottom of conflict in the classroom. You ask them have you added your pinch of salt and has that worked?” says Phelan.

The programme works equally well with children who don’t have English as their native language and for children with special needs, she says.

Another useful tool is called ‘the anger ladder’, in which children can indicate how angry and upset they are on a scale of one to 10. It gives teachers an indication of where the child is at, she says.

McAuslan began teaching the SALT programme at Drumcondra Education Centre in 2005 and since its launch in April 2008 she has delivered in-service training in about 10 schools and evening classes in a number of education centres.

She also delivers the programme privately to individuals or groups where required.

Director of Drumcondra Education Centre, Dr Eileen O’Connor, says the programme helps children deal with the source of the problem rather than just dealing with whatever the problem is.

She says there has been a lot of interest from teachers and others in the local evening and summer courses.

There is also an online course run in conjunction with the Drumcondra, Kilkenny and Cork Education Centres with a second online course on mediation beginning this year.

“It’s about learning to act in the crisis of the moment so people don’t react badly. It gives them the skills to think about the situation rather than overreacting.

“You build in automatic responses and the younger the children are, the easier that is,” says Dr O’Connor. “It’s giving children life skills.”

Creative Solutions to Conflict for Primary Schools: The SALT Programme: pack available from Outside the Box Learning Resources and Learning Horizons.

Outside the Box Learning Resources: Jigginstown Commercial Centre, Naas, Co Kildare.Tel: 045-856344. www.otb.ie. or info@outsidetheboxlearning.com

Learning Horizons: 44 Laurel Park, Clondalkin, Dublin 22. Tel: 01-4111537. Website: www.learninghorizons.ie and e-mail: info@learninghorizons.ie

Drumcondra Education Centre: tel: 01-857 6400. www.ecdrumcondra.ie and e-mail: info@ecdrumcondra.ie

'I learned the skills to deal with a bully'

AT THE age of six Carol counted Jill as one of her best friends, but within a year the friendship had changed dramatically as bullying behaviour crept insidiously into the picture.

By the time Carol was 11, it had reached the point where she didn’t want to go to school anymore.

“The whole thing became extremely fraught – an out and out feud,” says Carol’s mother, Anne.

“She [Carol] never knew what was going to happen, for instance, an arrangement to be included in a game at break-time would be broken at the last minute.

“It was relentless and subtle intimidation. The whole focus of Carol’s day in school was judged by Jill’s response to her on a daily basis and a week when she was off sick was a good week,” says Anne.

“There were lots of tearful nights and nightmares several times a week and Sundays were particularly dreadful with school the following day,” she says.

“Every single day in Carol’s diary started with Jill’s name.”

Looking back Carol, now aged 15, says her former friend was taking over her life and she was frequently taken out of class to explain matters and, as a result, was missing classes she loved.

“I was scared to go to school. I was always wondering what would happen today.”

Carol’s parents were almost continuously in touch with staff and management at the south Co Dublin school on the matter, but felt it wasn’t being handled very well and in the meantime their daughter, who was determined to stay in the school, was becoming more and more upset.

Following much investigation, they sought the services of Fiona McAuslan who, over the course of eight two-hour sessions, used elements of the SALT programme to help Carol learn skills to deal with the situation.

“I’d tell her about the incident and she’d ask me what I did and what I should have done and she gave me ideas,” says Carol.

According to Anne, “When Carol came away she was equipped with certain beliefs, certain plans and strategies.

“It let her know she had options and there was something she could do.”

Techniques Carol learned included using phrases like, “I feel,” rather than “you” to explain a situation. She learned not to accuse the other person, to keep quiet, and walk away.

“Both myself and my husband are extraordinarily proud of the way she has dealt with it. She’s thriving in school,” says Anne.

“Essentially, Fiona reduced the size of this child in Carol’s mind and increased Carol’s own sense of self. It was pulling Carol out of this quagmire and not focusing on how horrible the situation was, but looking at what was positive in Carol’s life – her strengths and achievements – like her other friendships.

“She made her realise that she was her own person, had the power within herself and didn’t need her mum, dad or the school authorities to stand up for her.”

Carol adds: “I feel I can deal much better with difficult situations now.

“She doesn’t affect me any more.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities