Making Conflict Productive
From the Vision archive: Conflict may be unavoidable in human relationships, but one educator developed an approach that turns potentially harmful, negative experiences into growth opportunities. (Updated and republished in Spring 2022 from our Fall 2015 issue.
Michael Redivo is a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder of Values Grounded Consulting in Phoenix, Arizona. His goal is to help parents “raise happy, hearty, healthy and well-adjusted children while creating a family environment that is refreshing, calming and extremely positive.”
From 2008 to 2018 Redivo served as executive director at Desert Heights Academy, a private day school for high-risk students. Fundamental to the school’s innovative approach was Redivo’s Productive Conflict Model, which teaches that conflict can often be a meaningful part of the learning process and a natural part of healthy relationships. The key lies in how people, both staff and students, manage and use conflict to grow and develop.
Vision contributor John Bromfield Jr. spoke with Redivo during his time at Desert Heights to discuss the rationale behind the program. As it turns out, its underlying principles offer a positive model not only for at-risk students but for all who want to improve their relationships with others.
JB You’ve developed an interesting classroom discipline model for at-risk students. Can you give us a brief overview?
MR Many of our kids come to us because they struggle with conflict in their relationships and/or within themselves. Learning to anticipate conflict is part of developing healthy relationships. So that’s the genesis of the Productive Conflict Model. The purpose is really to help staff find healthy ways of working through conflict with their students and with fellow staff and coworkers.
The model came from my earlier days of working in a private school and realizing that staff needed a lot of guidance and direction. The one piece I saw that was missing in existing models was the integration of emotion, recognizing how that influences our efforts at managing difficult behaviors—our own emotions, as well as our understanding of the students’ emotions—and how we can work through that so we can effectively help them manage. We need to understand our own internal process when we’re getting frustrated with a student, or if we feel very compassionate toward a student who has made multiple mistakes, and we want to give them a break when maybe we shouldn’t. The process guides how we teach. We are teaching students how to exercise self-control and show respectful behavior. We as a staff model these key, value-based ways of behaving so students see actions throughout the day that show us handling ourselves with self-control. We respond to disrespect in respectful ways; we model those kinds of skills that we want the students to emulate.
That is at times challenging but incredibly effective, because in the process of growing up kids seek leaders, mentors, people to guide them. So this model is positively focused on staff being accountable to practice the skills that we want students to practice. It gives students a very meaningful experience: “Hey, I can trust you. If I make a mistake, I can go to you and you’re not going to go all sideways on me or become too reactive.”
“This model is positively focused on staff being accountable to practice the skills that we want students to practice.”
Another piece has to do with the biology of learning—the brain chemicals released when we feel stressed and when we feel safe in the knowledge that we can trust those in our environment. This positive model creates an environment that leads a kid’s brain to release the neurotransmitters—dopamine and oxytocin—that allow them to learn better. That’s what comes of the staff practicing the skills we want students to practice. When we model that for them, then the classroom culture becomes safer. When the classroom culture becomes safer, the individual student begins to have, just because of their biology, the ability to process and receive information more efficiently and more effectively.
We can certainly talk about positive reinforcement and doing a lot of what is already out there in different school settings, but unless we can implement it with one another—between colleagues, between staff and students—we water down some of these other behavioral approaches. This element serves to bolster the process of teaching.
JB So the staff are actually illustrating the behaviors they want to see in the students.
MR Yes. That comes from understanding the unique challenges the students face and all those risk factors that wear them down: poverty, addictions, community and family violence, parental abandonment, discrimination, and so on—recognizing that these students have wounds and that these wounds, these emotional and cognitive disabilities, are real. Our focus is to teach them the skills to adapt, adjust and manage, all within a developmental framework that’s designed to help them think, “How is what I’m doing helping me grow up?” We help students to learn that, although wounded by various hardships in their past and current life, they can be productive as they heal and grow.
When you ask students to do a five-sentence paragraph, and they struggle because they have learning disabilities, they can easily make this a personal battle between themselves and you. You can free yourself from that battle to say, “It’s not a ‘me vs. you’ thing. It’s really about me helping you learn these skills so that you will be able to write, because as you’re practicing these skills, you’re showing yourself that you can do it. You’re dealing with the frustration of working with and compensating with a disability, having to learn how to manage it; you’re dealing with that sense of ‘I’m not good at this. I have to work at getting better at it.’”
All of those experiences are wrapped up inside this model in terms of how we encourage, how we support, why we give them positive reinforcement. When something is hard for a learning-disabled student and you offer positive reinforcement, it’s really a signpost saying, “Hey, you’re heading in the right direction.”
“When something is hard for a learning-disabled student and you offer positive reinforcement, it’s really a signpost saying, ‘Hey, you’re heading in the right direction.’”
JB Most people tend to go to the negative first—to go straight to punishment. Why does positive reinforcement work?
MR A big part of it is that you can’t grow up unless you know what you’re good at. Unfortunately many of the students have come to think, “This is me: I don’t do well, I don’t succeed, I get kicked out of class.” Positive reinforcement gives us an opportunity to break those patterns and say, “That may have been the old you. But as you grow up and grow out of the old you, we want to reinforce a strong, shiny, more powerful, empowered young adult (or in the case of our younger kids, a child) who understands how education can help them grow up.”
JB So your model is consequence driven: There are consequences to your actions, positive and negative. There are also things that are outside your control, but let us try to work on the things you can control.
MR Very well said. One of the key things to understand is that we can’t control a student’s behavior. That is the cardinal rule of the Productive Conflict Model. If adults buy in to the notion that “it’s my job to make you listen,” they will fail. Instead, we focus on what we can control. We as staff can control ourselves, and we have a lot more control over our environment. So if we are positive, encouraging, supportive, it puts students in an environment where they are more likely to try. And when they try, they are more likely to succeed. On a biological level, it creates a safer environment in which students don’t have as much stress, because when we are stressed the brain releases a chemical called cortisol, which interferes with its ability to process information effectively and efficiently. So if you control your environment, they aren’t worrying about someone teasing them or bullying them; the cortisol levels go down, and it actually contributes to them feeling more comfortable and safe. That releases oxytocin, which helps them bond in a healthy relationship with the teacher, the other staff and one another. Learning can also be buoyed. It happens on multiple levels and leaves them feeling that sense of accomplishment that comes with successful learning.
JB And the students are comfortable making mistakes because they feel safe in an environment where they aren’t going to be teased.
MR Yes, that’s huge, because it’s what we’re trying to accomplish. Mistakes are an important part of the learning process and need to happen; we have to adjust. And when students feel comfortable making mistakes, that is what we call, in this model, a validating and promoting (or VP) classroom. You are validating a student’s experience, and you are promoting healthy behaviors.
JB What are some discipline strategies teachers can use in the classroom?
MR We talk about managing your environment in order to be proactive. Reactive discipline strategies tend not to be as effective. Remember that the purpose of the Productive Conflict Model is to help students grow up, and education and learning how to get along with others are important parts of growing up. We invite them to look through the windshield at where they are going and growing, rather than through the rearview mirror at their past hardship and mistakes.
“The purpose of the Productive Conflict Model is to help students grow up, and education and learning how to get along with others are important parts of growing up.”
Some of our kids are looking at where they are growing between breakfast and lunch. They had such a horrendous weekend, so much turmoil and hardship at home, that just making it from the morning to lunchtime is a forward way of thinking. For others it may be looking at how they have succeeded in this school and are ready to go back to their home district or to graduate. Looking through the windshield is key, so how do we accomplish that with our students?
One way is to always make sure they are seated. It sounds basic, but when students aren’t seated, they can’t do their job. If a mechanic is in the waiting area, not the garage, cars don’t get fixed. If a cook is in the dining area, not the kitchen, meals don’t get prepared. If students are not in their seats, work doesn’t get done. So that’s one proactive strategy.
Another has to do with being prepared. We call it the three p’s: planning, preparing, promoting. We want our teachers to have lesson plans prepared ahead of time that engage the students to promote their best efforts.
Another proactive strategy is the preemptive intervention. This means explaining to them when they first get into their seats how the day is going to go. You review expectations with them, which puts the ownership on the students. That preemptive way of interacting gets them to look through the windshield and puts success in their field of vision.
Monitoring students and giving feedback is another key part to helping them grow. Again, it always comes back to helping them grow up. Sometimes our kids say, “Well, I don’t like to hear it.” We say, “I get that. But just because it’s hard to listen to doesn’t change the fact that you’re being disruptive, your voice is too loud, I need you to stay seated, I need you to keep trying.” Sometimes kids struggle with that, but that’s why we call it growing pains; it’s hard to keep working at it. These discipline strategies are designed so that students get positive reinforcement when they experience success.
Now, when students are not responding in a positive way, we have a continuum of responses. Step one is to give them a replacement behavior. If we just tell them, “Stop that,” they may not know what they need to do. So we say, “Stop that, sit down at your desk, and begin working on the assignment.” If they choose not to do that, then we direct them in a time-out designed to help them go from their heart to their head; they have time to think about their decision, about how to handle the situation with skills that show they are growing up. If the time-out is refused or they aren’t doing it properly, then we use the Behavior Intervention Program (BIP); I really like the BIP because it moves a student out of one environment to another, but the purpose is not to shame them or make them mad. Truly the purpose is to say, “Your decision-making, your behavior, is faulty. You’re not a problem, but your behavior is. We want you, while you’re in the BIP, to think about how you can handle these situations differently.” Then we get together with our clinicians, and if there is a personality conflict, for example, they can bring us together to work through it. This affords students (and staff) a way to practice those skills in a real-life situation.
JB You’re helping the students learn from their behavior, and you’re also removing the behavior from the classroom.
MR Yes, it protects the integrity of the learning process, and when you send a student to BIP, you say, “I want you back, but come back with a renewed focus.”
JB What are some of the shortcomings of traditional discipline that inspired you to develop this model?
MR I think traditional discipline methods assume that children are to be seen, not heard. The authority figure says this is how it’s to be done and so be it. They tend to be more punishment driven. The teacher or parent is in the role of correcting and at times scolding. Part of it can work, but I think kids become less and less inclined to put forth effort. They become more passive: “Tell me how I need to be.” They feel like they can’t make mistakes, because they’re worried about getting in trouble. In this model we understand the developmental process that happens when we make mistakes. That’s essential for learning to occur.
Kids do have to learn how to respect authority figures in situations involving conflict. It’s healthy to respect your elders and to respect authority, but we need to help students understand the meaning behind that. They learn respect in a variety of ways. The more traditional idea is that “I tell you once and you should learn from it and then act appropriately.” In this model we anticipate that they are going to make mistakes and are more tolerant of those mistakes—not accepting the negative behavior but being tolerant of how kids learn and giving them a context for how this will be beneficial to them.
“That’s what I really like about our program. It shows them how to treat themselves fairly in the midst of unfairness; to be angry and yet not compromise their dignity; to be respectful even though they are disappointed; to be wounded and still productive.”
A lot of these students have experience based on the “Do this, or else!” approach. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students come to me in tears and talk about how rotten their family situation is, to the point where they say, “I don’t know what else to do.” Then we talk about surviving vs. being victimized, so they don’t end up in an institutional setting. There are so many risk factors that can cause them to act out in ways that violate rules and laws. That’s what I really like about our program. It shows them how to treat themselves fairly in the midst of unfairness; to be angry and yet not compromise their dignity; to be respectful even though they are disappointed; to be wounded and still productive. These juxtapositions of feelings versus behaviors require a great deal of effort and maturity.
JB What are some of the success stories that keep you motivated?
MR Success is relative. For one student it might be that they are not in BIP 30 percent of the time but only 20 percent. That’s a huge decrease and a really significant step. They still may behave in disrespectful ways, but they have decreased that disrespect by a third.
We have a fifth grader who has been hospitalized twice at a psychiatric facility for unhealthy behavior. When he gets upset, he becomes very negative toward himself and acts out in hurtful and unsafe ways, including running out of the program (the school is near a canal and a busy road). The staff have invited him to start thinking ahead and saying, “Hey, I’m starting to feel stressed. I need to disengage from this assignment, and I need to put myself in a time-out.” He is now taking more ownership of how to cope in a healthy way. Recently he went to the teacher and said, “I’m having a hard day today. I’m giving you my shoes so I don’t run out of the program.” It’s a huge success to see him advocate for himself and give up his shoes, knowing that he’s feeling that way. That type of success happens every day.
I also see success stories looking at the growth of the staff and my own growth because of what these kids have taught us about ourselves and our capacity to help. The school is a success story. I see the face of God daily when I walk around this school and see students smiling, learning and growing.
JB Would you say you’re practicing the principle behind James 1:27—“Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble”?
MR Trying to, yes. That’s a big part of who we are as an organization. We reach the hard-to-reach student. Some days you leave here thinking it was a really tough day. Those days can matter more than the ones where everything seems to go extremely well. They could be horrendous if we weren’t there to support these kids. I really do feel like we are accomplishing that principle.
“Titus 2:6–8 says: ‘Encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech.’”
There are so many parts to Scripture, Old and New Testament, that have a bearing on the work we’re doing and the meaning of this kind of work. For instance, Titus 2:6–8 says: “Encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech” [New International Version]. I like this verse, because I think it sums up what we’re trying to do with the behavior model. Self-control is really what we are trying to get these kids to learn. And we call it a behavior “model” because we try to demonstrate the behavior ourselves.