Conflict in the ESL Classroom

Handling conflict in the ESL classroom will be part of your job as an educator. Teaching your students life skills such as compassion and conflict resolution is just as important as teaching the nuts and bolts of the English language.

Handshake meetingInstead of viewing major conflicts between students as a hindrance to your lesson, view them as a chance to impart your students with the skills – both language and interpersonal – to handle that sort of conflict on their own.

However, productive and compassionate conflict resolution is something that TEFL courses often don’t cover, so here are a few tips and ideas for getting started with an approach to conflict management that can impart important life skills to your students.

Make time for conflict resolution

With your ESL lesson schedule so tight already, it might seem impossible to make time to have a little “talk it out” among two or three students. But think about the time and energy that you are pouring into managing the fallout of these underlying conflicts each class, and it suddenly seems worth it to find the time.

Call the students aside during quiet individual work time, during break time, or right at the end of class.

Introduce some key phrases

One thing that makes it difficult to help moderate conflicts among your students is that they often don’t have the language to communicate their feelings and frustrations.

You can help them out with that by incorporating some important phrases into your lessons. When you are introducing new grammar patterns or vocab words, think about how you can work some useful interpersonal language into your lessons.

Here are a few examples of phrases you can teach your class:

“When you did….., I felt…..”

“I didn’t like it when you…..”

“I didn’t realize…”

“It hurt my feelings when you said…”

“I didn’t mean to…”

“I’m sorry that…”

Role-play conflict resolution

You probably already spend a significant amount of time practicing conversations and grammar patterns in your class, so make use of some of that time to give students practice using key phrases and resolving common scenarios.

Give them a common classroom situation and an example conversation to practice their conflict resolution skills in English.

Wait for feelings to cool down

You know how hard it is to have a rational discussion when you are still seething with anger, Or how hard it is to forgive someone when you are still barely holding back tears.

If all parties haven’t had a chance to cool down, then odds are that any attempt at conflict resolution is just going to devolve into the same sort of issues that caused the conflict in the first place.

Encourage your students to redirect their energy into an activity or game, or to take some quiet time outside of the classroom, and to understand that you can make time to address the issue when they have had a chance to calm down.

Help everyone feel heard

People, in general, tend to talk over each other and not really listen when they are upset. Your role as a teacher is to make sure that everyone has a chance to have their say. You might have to have a “talking pencil” or simply give each person the chance to explain their point of view.

Another part of letting people feel heard is to encourage them to use “I” statements such as “I feel hurt when you call me that name,” or “I saw you throw that at me.” This helps prevent anyone from feeling accused and defensive and helps the discussion focus on each student’s perspective and feelings. This is also a chance for you to help give them the language they need to express themselves.

Encourage compassion

It’s amazing how often hurt feelings and grudges simmer below the surface. Disciplining students might get class back on track in the moment, but it does nothing to mitigate the deep anger, hurt, and misunderstandings that can result from name-calling, bullying, ostracizing, or even simple careless remarks.

Taking even two minutes after class to ask two students to come together face to face and express what they are feeling can end up being a lifelong lesson in compassion and understanding.

Reward good conflict resolution when you see it

If you notice a particular student using the vocabulary and grammar patterns you’ve taught, or hearing someone apologize for something without prompting, acknowledge it.

Teach your students that being compassionate and considerate of their peers is something that is within their power to do at any time, and that it will be recognized and rewarded.

It’s always going to be a lot easier for you in the short term to just impart discipline and enforce rules. However, giving your students the time and tools to work out conflicts among themselves not only builds character and compassion, it gives them valuable practice using English for a real purpose.

Plus, it might make your life a lot easier a few months down the line when students resolve their own arguments with you barely even having to step in.

Have you used any of these techniques in your classes? How did it work out? Do you have any other points you would like to add? Let us know in the comments section below. 

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