Kathryn Bliss (right) speaks with Oxford School students about conflict resolution strategies. (Photo: Alexandra Davis)

SMU society offers conflict resolution for kids

A society at Saint Mary’s University is teaching children that there are productive and peaceful ways to handle bullying at school

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Saint Mary University’s Conflict Resolution Society is teaching elementary school children ways to solve their problems in situations where teachers might not be around to mediate.

Throughout this school year, the society will hold a series of workshops with kids at Oxford School, focusing on peaceful and productive ways to put a stop to bullying among their peers. The university students are learning which conflict management strategies work best, and then will pass them along to the children. Society treasurer Kathryn Bliss says she hopes the Oxford students will learn ways to handle conflicts without ostracizing themselves.

“‘Balancing’ is an important method we teach them,” she says. “We want the kids to recognize when someone is saying something mean, for example, and build up feelings of empathy so they can step in and say something nice. It’s structured so kids can stand up for others without being set apart from their friends.”

So far, Saint Mary’s students have only met with children at Oxford School three times, but Bliss, a criminology master's student, thinks they’re already making a difference.

“The kids absorb information really well,” she says. “It can be difficult to put the things they learn into practice sometimes but a lot of kids are catching on quickly.”

Working abroad

The 15 university students in the conflict resolution society are dedicated to promoting positive ways of dealing with conflict overseas as well. The school is affiliated with Peaceful Schools International, an organization that includes more than 250 schools from 13 different countries. Saint Mary’s is the first university to gain membership to the organization, which encourages its schools to instill a sense of worthiness among all students and faculty members. 

As part of their desire to spread the message of Peaceful Schools International, students from the society will travel to Northern Ireland in February for the fourth year in a row. Each year the students who go on the trip participate in fundraising activities to fund the project.

The goal of the trip is to engage Irish students in similar discussions and activities to those that are organized in Halifax. Working in Ireland presents a new set of challenges though, since many children have witnessed violence in their lifetime and some are more desensitized to conflict.

Bliss was on the trip last February, and will return again in 2009. She says her first trip to Ireland was a life-changing experience.

“You might not change every kid you meet,” she says. “But if you can affect one, that’s still important.”

A future for conflict resolution

The society is still quite new at Saint Mary’s -- formal meetings just started in September. It was created as a response to the annual Ireland trip as a way to encourage conflict resolution on a more ongoing, local level.

Bliss acknowledges the conflict resolution society is still establishing itself, and with all of its executive members graduating in May, the students who follow in their footsteps will have to work hard to keep it going. She is confident, however, that Saint Mary’s involvement with Peaceful Schools International will ensure the society’s longevity. She also hopes that working with local elementary schools will be an ongoing project for the society.

“We’re still trying to get a sense of the specific things that the kids (at Oxford) are dealing with,” she explains. “We’re planning to tailor our training a little bit to target the incidents that they observe.”

While she realizes bullying and name-calling will always be issues among elementary school children, Bliss thinks the conflict resolution society is having a positive effect on the kids it works with.

“The kids are undergoing a process of awareness,” she says. “They’re noticing when they hear mean comments, and understanding that these are not okay, and that’s an important first step.”

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