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5 Tips for De-escalating conflict in the Music Classroom

Conflict and power struggles in the elementary music classroom can be tricky to manage. On the one hand, you want to diffuse the situation as quickly as possible so you can go on teaching your students, but on the other hand, you may want to ensure that you students respect you and that the conflict is resolved. So just how do you deal with conflict and power struggles in the classroom? The best way is to practice using strategies to find out what works.

Here are 5 strategies to de-escalate conflict in the music classroom.

1.Give Your Students a Choice:

If your student is challenging your authority in the classroom, chances are that it is because that student either feels that they don’t have enough power and choice, or that they are used to less structure and have had too much power and choice at home. One strategy that works wonders for me is giving students a choice in situations where they are being defiant.

Here’s how this works: First, state the rule or procedure that the student isn’t following, then inform them that they are not following that rule and cite their behavior. Afterwards give the student the choice to correct their behavior or receive a consequence.

Here’s an example: “Billy, you directions are to go to your seat, but you are walking around the classroom. You can choose to go to your seat or you can choose to lose your instrument privileges today and clap the rhythms instead.”

By making choice statements, you give the student the opportunity, and power to decide their own fate. When you do this, many students may choose to make better choices.

2. Allow Students To Go To A Cool-down Corner

Having a cool-down corner in your classroom can be a great way for students to calm themselves down when they are angry, while keeping their dignity. By using the choice statements listed above, you can say something similar to “would you like to take a few minutes in the cool-down corner and rejoin us when you are ready?”. This gives students an opportunity to choose to make a healthy choice by managing their anger.

So just what should a cool-down corner look like?

Some options include:

  • A stress ball or other stress items

  • A worksheet where students can write down their feelings

  • A small poster with self-calming techniques

  • Pictures or books with cute animals

  • Quotes or statements that reaffirm the student

The most effective cool-down corners come from knowing your students and your environment; however be careful to make sure that the cool-down corner is oriented to helping the student manage intense emotions and not escaping activities that they would rather not do.

3. Remove the Audience

Some students when being defiant or belligerent thrive on an audience. This may be because the student is seeking attention and to get others on his or her side. Students that are acting out in this way may actively seek to involve other students and spark a micro-uprising. By attempting to handle this situation with the rest of the class as an audience, you may actually be giving the student exactly the conflict that they are looking for. By asking the student to come to you and speaking quietly, or by approaching the student and speaking quietly, you remove the momentum and negative energy that the student is seeking and de-escalate the conflict.

4. Remain Calm

This may seem self explanatory, however there are numerous benefits to remaining calm while conflict is rising. This is because your body language has a great deal of effect on the interaction. If a student is being outwardly defiant, or attempting to escalate classroom conflict, they are looking to your body language to see what level of effect their behavior is having. If you are able to remain calm, then it sends the message that the student’s negative behavior is having little effect on you, which will discourage the student from seeking attention in negative ways. Ultimately when you stay calm, you stay in control of the situation which gives you the power to respond to the conflict instead of reacting to the conflict.

5. Restate Their Feelings

A simple strategy that can not only help de-escalate a tense situation, but also help a student better express their needs in your classroom is to restate their feelings. You can do this by taking the words they say, and stating them as back to the students as emotions.

Here are some examples:

Statement: “I hate music class”

Response: It sounds like you may be unhappy with some of our class activities. Let’s talk about what activities you may enjoy after class.

S:“You never pick me to help”

R: It sounds like you are frustrated with not being picked. I’ll keep my eye out for you the next time I look for helpers.

S: “I wish we had our old teacher back, they are much better than you”

R: Sounds like you miss your old teacher. I’m sure there were a lot of great things about him or her. Would you tell me some good memories of them after class?

Responses like these break the escalation because the needs and emotions that the student is expressing, albeit poorly, are being addressed. This creates a framework for rapport and trust and breaks the pattern of conflict.

Bonus Tip:

Break the Pattern with questions

A great way to break the pattern of escalating conflict is to ask the student a question, especially one they are not expecting. Some great questions are:

  • What did you have for breakfast?

  • What is you favorite song or movie?

  • What is you favorite hobby?

Unexpected questions break the pattern of conflict by putting the student’s mind on something else. This works especially well if it is something the student enjoys. When the pattern of conflict is broken, the student will be more open to being redirected.

These strategies are all things that I have tried that have worked depending on the situation. I realize that every situation is different and should be handled according to what is best for that particular situation. While these tips may work well with students who are being reasonable, there are also situations that are more of a crisis which require other methods, especially when dealing with students safety. I leave it up to each individual teacher to do what is best in those types of situations and follow their school’s guidelines for student crisis situations.

All of THAT being said. I hope these strategies can help you deal with conflict situations and help you de-escalate them so your classes can run more smoothly.

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