Jessica Babcock, DRC Youth Trainer, reflects on her experience co-facilitating the DRC’s first Peaceamker Club at Hansen Elementary School in Olympia. The one-hour after-school clubs are led by trained DRC Facilitators. Students learn communication skills, emotional vocabulary and awareness, conflict resolution techniques, and restoratives practices through circle conversations, games, art, and interactive activities.
We all have the potential to learn from one another, no matter the age or rank. This is how I approached working with our first group of 5th graders at Hansen Elementary in the DRC’s afterschool Peacemaker Club. At times, I felt like I was the student (re)learning how to express my emotions or respectfully listen to others, the students, when I didn’t want to discipline them or was frustrated by their behavior. Working with twelve 11 year olds is incredibly rewarding, and it’s also extremely difficult. After school is a time to unwind, recharge with a snack, and let loose. The last thing I wanted to do as a kid after school was to sit in a circle and talk about my problems. But that’s essentially what we did, with some fun stuff too.
For an hour after school, 2-3 days/week for 4 weeks, my co-trainer Nick Rawson and I would sit in a circle and talk to these kids. We taught them a talking circle process that allowed them to not only learn about each other in a deeper way but also what to do if a conflict came up, and conflicts did come up.
One afternoon during the talking circle, Nick and I asked the students to describe a difficult time in their lives. Most students described a problem with their parents or running away at the grocery store. But one student described a time when he accidentally broke his dog’s legs. He told the story with some discomfort in his voice, masked as laughter, and as a result the other students started laughing thinking it was a joke. When the student starting crying it became clear it was not a joke. The entire circle was quiet. These kids hadn’t been that silent in the circle, ever! But when one of their own showed genuine emotion they were all engaged and actively listening. After a few minutes of silence each student, in their own way, tried to comfort the boy. Some apologized for laughing, some offered their snack, some acknowledged the hurt. It was a turning point for not only the boy who cried but for everyone to show empathy and truly grow as a group.
There were so many other turning points during the club as it was a challenging four week program. These kids got a crash course in conflict resolution training and did what most adults would shy away from if given the opportunity.
A month after the program we met up with the students during lunch on one of their last days of school. They were just as rowdy and loud as the first day we met them, probably excited to be done with school for the summer. You could tell there was a difference in how they interacted with each other. While the silliness and loudness remained, the teasing and meanness did not. They missed the club, mostly the snacks, and they missed us. When asked if they would like to have a Peacemaker Club in Middle School there was a unanimous shout of “YES!” They didn’t specify as to why, but I think it would be safe to say these kids just appreciated someone listening to them about their needs.
Nick and I received a card and some chocolate as a ‘thank you’ from the students. One student who showed particular growth wrote, “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to learn different ways to settle my problems and how to be a good person. It was nice meeting you both!” Providing these kids with a healthy outlet and skillset to talk about their problems is the most beneficial part of us being there. I look forward to future clubs and hope that more schools will consider integrating conflict resolution skills and emotional intelligence into their curriculum or start a club. These are essential life skills that we all need and if they are taught at a young age it can truly help minimize conflict in the future.
To the 5th Graders at Hansen Elementary I say; Thank you for teaching me to be patient, silly, and careful with my words. Thank you for teaching me that having a plan is important but knowing when to be flexible is equally as important. Thank you for teaching me to trust in the process.
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