Director's Corner: On Nonviolence

The topic of nonviolence is a recurrent topic at our school, because we view as one of our missions to teach our students to resolve their conflicts or differences of opinions in a nonviolent way. In the midst of heated electoral debates and aggressive campaign adds at the county, state and national level, when respect and civility desert the political scene, it seems especially timely to talk in this column about nonviolence. Many resources on peace and conflict resolution have been developed with political conflicts in mind. As a school, we are more interested in resources promoting social peace at a more individual level. Among the resources we use are Dr. Bailey's model of Conscious Discipline that we are striving to follow for classroom discipline (do not miss our upcoming community-wide training), and Dr. Rosenberg's model of Nonviolent Communication that was the topic of staff training in the Fall of 2010 and is now the topic of a class for the middle schoolers.

Both models emphasize as a first step the need for a change in the person learning about the model, a change in both their perception of conflicts and their way to communicate about them, a difficult proposition for good-willing adults and an even more challenging proposition for resistant adolescents.

It does, however, make perfect sense. Resolving conflicts peacefully requires self-control and the capacity to calmly think things over. If the person in charge reacts viscerally, not only a bad example is set, but his or her capacity to think and intervene is also compromised, as is the capacity of the protagonists in the conflict to calm down and resolve their difference. Before teaching self-control to anyone else, one has to teach self-control to oneself, by recognizing one's own emotional triggers, and learning not to take difficult situations personally. Our teachers experience this daily when a student displays a challenging behavior. If the teacher reacts in anger or frustration, the situation escalates, whereas if the teacher is able to remain emotionally detached, calm and empathetic, the situation deflates. Anger increases distress and conflict, whereas empathy restores safety and peace.

Easy? Not in the least. Attempting to communicate nonviolently while fuming inside does not work. Upset people have a heightened sensitivity for bad vibes. Even if smoke does not literally come out of your ears, your child (or spouse!) will pick up frustration, impatience or sarcasm from your tone of voice or the angry light in your eyes. To be successful at nonviolent communication, one has to be genuinely understanding (without any "violent" thought). Unfortunately for families, it is particularly difficult with emotionally close people. Fortunately for teachers, it is easier when the emotional connection is not quite as tight.

We pride ourselves on our level of tolerance and understanding for challenging behaviors, and on our genuine affection for and desire to support our more reactive students. We pride ourselves in seeing once over reactive friends become more resilient and better regulated as they mature. And we urge our families to embrace our nonviolent approach and support each other, refraining from hasty judgments and violent talk. It takes a peaceful village to raise a peaceful child.