How to act in everyday life conflicts In a residential living group
In: R. Soisson
Aktuelle Probleme Jugendlichen in der Heimerziehung in
I. INTRODUCTION: CONFLICTS IN EVERYDAY LIFE
When a childcare worker or houseparent in a residential living group goes on duty, he usually reads the journal (diary or daily report) first. To begin with, let us read such a journal
Example 1: Bad morning
"Good morning. – That is: Bad morning. Damn. What a riotous tribe.
This morning I was busy for an hour giving them serious warnings and telling
them off. I got very annoyed with them. Especially with Otto and Ferry. First
they played some rock music at a deafening volume; then I could only just
prevent them from throwing the laundry basket down the stairs.
This is one of over five thousand entries about conflicts that I have analyzed in my research project and discussed with the house parents in question. Here are two others:
Example 2: Back from school
"At half past twelve the all came back from school. It was quite a tense affair again. Gilbert, William and Bertie were very mischievous and noisier were hardly approachable. We ate sandwiches in a very unpleasant atmosphere. We hardly knew how to break through this situation." (A child care worker wrote this in the journal for a Wednesday afternoon.)
Example 3: I failed once more
"At half past five everybody sat down under to dinner. I was a very sociable company and they were enthusiastic about the food… Up to the point where a few plates were empty, and in no time it was noisy and rebellious again, and the was much laughter. They were damn hard to manage. I failed once more." (Another worker from the same team.)
And here are two examples from the discussion with the child care workers:
Example 4: I reach my limits:
"In conflict situations I reach my limits. I get depressed and anxious and I withdraw within myself. I let nothing affect me and only try to make the boy see my standards. It becomes a struggle for power then, and any contact is lost." (A chief child care worker at a team session.)
Example 5: Primitive feelings
"When I am angry, I get stuck with my primitive feelings. My whole thought gets influenced by my anger. I am afraid I will go too far, become unreasonable. And that is not all what I want. Later, I regret it all." (A child care worker).
II. THE RESEARCH PROJECT
"Action research" is a form of investigation which is carried out in cooperation with field workers. Levin is considered one of its founders. In the seventies, notably in the German language area, the conviction spread that this kind of research required a specific methodology and philosophy of knowledge. Moser in particular contributed these, enabled to do this also through the insights of the Frankfurter School, and especially those of Habermas.
In the Netherlands these notions have taken root in form of research that wants to be an alternative to the traditional empirical-analytical approach. I have conducted such research in eleven residential living groups in the Netherlands. Conflicts in daily life have been described by child care workers immediately after their shift. I have analyzed these conflicts and discussed them with the workers. The purpose of this was: finding possible modes of action, supported by insights, for child care workers. The modes of action developed in the first four groups, were tested for their usefulness in seven other groups and supplemented.
Action is a central concept in this research, and it is meant to be the counterpart of Behavior. In behaviorism. Behavior is considered to be caused by factors. Action is regarded as a purposeful choice made by actors in a given situation.
In this research project Action is conceptualized as: "Performing deeds which are meaningful, purposeful, chosen in freedom and on the basis of, to a certain extent, rationally founded knowledge and standards; which deed can produce a change in the environment, and are performed by persons who know themselves responsible for them." Action progresses process wise; in this process seven successive elements can be distinguished:
The insights intended under (6) can be used in actions to perceive and interpret the situation, to state aims, etc. This type of insight enables one to act. The insights intended under (7) can be used in going way to come to new insight. With this type of insight one can come to better action.
The method of research can be outlined in the same cycle of action in a threefold way:
A. In a daily cycle:
About 2.500 of such daily records were written and analyzed; they contained over 7.500 "events", which in their turn contained more then 5.000 conflicts.
B. In a number of monthly cycles:
C. In a cycle of an average 9 months per group:
In every group, entries of conflicts were found in the journal. Many had a bad ending: the conflict escalated and/or worker and child par ten both angry. There were always some that did turn out well, though they were very scarce sometimes, and these ended with the solution of the conflict, even with improvement of the contact.
Comparative analysis of the mode of action revealed the differences:
The reasoning is that of the practical syllogism of Aristotle:
It is also the reasoning of John Dewey’s pragmatism: that which works, I take for valid for the time being.
In every group the comparative analysis has been reported out to the team, using their own journal entries so that they could always draw their own conclusions is their own terminology: Let us try that way.
§ 4. Concerning methodology, the following can be added:
In short: the methodology of action research differs fundamentally from that of positivistic and deductive research - and consequently from what is usually called: empirical-analytical research. It has a different underlying philosophy, a different conception of knowledge and ultimately a different concept of man: man as an actor who deliberately chooses his actions, and not man as a reactor to stimuli or factors working causally and therefore determining him. I said "man" and not "man except the children". I see children as acting people too. They differ from adults gradually, but not essentially.
In addition: For about seven years I worked as a child care worker in residential living groups. After that I supervised child care workers in special residential treatment settings in the Netherlands for about then years. I did professional training and research at the university of Nijmegen for about five years. At the moment I am engaged in research into training methods for professional care workers and writing my doctor's dissertation: the report of the research project I am discussing here. In my everyday life I always have children around me, it is simply the way of the life I have chosen.
Let us return now to the conflicts and the possible modes of action in everyday life conflicts between children and child care workers.
III: SOME DATA FROM THE RESEARCH PROJECT
Let us go back to the first example, "Bad morning", and analyze it, i.e. paraphrase it tersely. The seven elements insofar they are rendered, on the basis of the narrative of the worker.
The insights that form the basis of such action, the philosophy of care so to speak, have been put into words during the team sessions as follows. The starting point, the way of looking at the boys, was that they had a disturbance, a back-log in their social and emotional development, reflected in motor over activity and the inability to make contact and to have relationships with other people. So treatment is necessary and this begins with offering "safety" by means of "structure". Starting from this safety the boys would venture to begin relationships. In daily practice this "structure" was given the form of rules, setting limits and confrontation with unacceptable behavior, while the team adopted an attitude of detachment. For the boys had an inability to make contacts.
These insights are well-known: they are taken from professional literature. They can for instance be found in Adler's work as well as in Trieschmann's, Whittaker's and Brentro's.
Of the group where the events of the example occurred, over one hundred journals containing several hundreds of entries on conflicts have been analyzed. In this way an idea can be given of the actual way of action of the team by means of abstraction per element of action. Some important data of this picture are the following:
As I mentioned before, after the first stage of visualization and the stating of aims an action phase followed in which there was an active search for a different mode of action, particularly in dealing with conflicts in everyday life situations.
At this stage it became clear that conflicts in which the boys were not sent to their rooms had a better outcome. Moreover, and this is striking, conflicts were solved in a better way when only one care worker was on duty than when there were two. Both cases corresponded in this respect: the worker makes less or no use at all of his power and authority to put an end to the conflict, but he has to "live through" it with the boy and the group: he must keep communication going and the time will come that he has to point one clearly his personal limits at a specific moment and in a specific situation.
And that is precisely what leads to the solution: pointing out one's personal limits. As soon as such a message has been received, things quiet down, and there is room for trying to find a substantial solution to the conflict. The team had to make clear where their limits lay and possibly very clear. "Clarity" in this group before the action stage was translated as "uniformity of rules" and the limit was set by sending a boy out of the group and up to his room. In the action stage we realized what sort of clarity the boys were asking for: personal clarity and setting personal limits. I give a short summary of a long extensive journal entry:
Example 6: Really angry
Kevin has been pestering and provoking all afternoon. The care
worker tries to find out what is the matter with him but he does not respond.
When the boys kick up a row about some cello tape, the fat is in the fire:
"That really made me angry. I gave Ferry a terrible broadside because he
started calling me names. Some time later I reflected that Ferry had got the
scolding that was actually meant for Kevin, and I was sorry. I went after them
and told Ferry, pretty emotionally and openly, that I had been wrong to put the
blame on him instead of on Kevin. He obviously noticed that I was being sincere
and quieted down again. And so did I. Kevin was clearly at a loss with the
In this example, as in many other entries about conflict situations, we can observe a sudden change in the story immediately after the worker has pointed out his limits in the I-form. The message "You must..." simply does not work; the message "I have enough" is received. Gordon has also pointed this out in his work.
Example 7: My anger not in the way of contact
On another morning, Kevin and Otto are bothersome and provoking.
(I make the entry slightly shorter).
In my opinion he owes it to his anger. Anger can indicate a limit in a personal, contact-stimulating manner. The team of his group fairly abruptly cased putting the boys in separate rooms and, in the presence of the whole group, went through the conflict in a personal and often emotionally charged manner, together with both boy and group. The number of conflicts diminished and the percentage of solved conflicts are increased. And in four weeks' time the climate improved enormously.
In another group the team punished the children in 70 percent of the recorded conflicts, and they rarely uttered their personal anger (13 percent). Other methods, like extra care or explanation, amounted 26 percent. (This adds up to more than 100 percent, but sometimes punishment and danger coincided.) Now it apperceived, that those conflicts in which there were no penalties, were ended in a much better way: those conflicts where no power or authority was used, but where the child care worker indicated his personal limits at a specific moment, and/or where the needs of the children were attended to.
Penalties were reduced drastically after this insight had dawned to about one third of a considerably smaller number of conflicts. The number of "angry" cases increased to about a third in the remaining third neither anger nor punishment were necessary.
Immediately after the report had been made and the data had been discussed, working with punishment was reduced from 70 to 36 percent in the action stage, and to 20 percent of a reduced number of conflicts in the final stage. The cases of anger increased from 13 to 33 percent in the action stage, and in the final stage anger was no longer necessary: 0 percent. Alternative methods increased from 26 percent, via 46 percent in the action stage to 80 percent in the final stage. And meanwhile, the climate had fundamentally improved. See figure 2.
In a third group, penalties were often given when the children were unquiet at bedtime. It appeared that the children went to sleep better, more quietly and faster when no penalties had been used and extra personal attention and warmth had been given: i.e. when the exertion of power and authority was omitted, and the needs of the children were attended to.
Attending to their needs, however, does not mean always giving in to their wishes. It does mean that these needs should be taken seriously and there is communication about the needs of the child, the limits of the worker and the demands made by the environment. Methods that stimulate this communication, often emotionally charged in conflicts, lead to the solution of the conflict.
But there is more to it. Meanwhile something very fundamental has been said. Namely, that needs have to be taken seriously. Needs can be extended to: the will of the child, its interests and its feelings. And "taking seriously" is preceded by recognition and preferably also acknowledgement of needs, will, interests and feelings. When the worker hears and acknowledges the needs -etc- of the child, i.e. when he receives the message from the child - thereupon recognizes the content of that message in his own framework of experience AND is able to transmit that back to the child - then the communication circle is closed and there is contact. See figure 3.
These methods that stimulate this contact and this communication bring conflicts to a solution. And this is even valid when some force has been used to archive a calm in the situation and to evoke communication. The connection I just described emerged time and again in thousands of conflicts; see again figure 1.The use of constraint, power and authority will at most lead to temporary adaptation of behaviour and to angry partings, but more often to an escalation of the conflict. The use of contact-and communication stimulating methods leads to recovery, often ton an improvement, of the contact and to a solution of the conflict. And ultimately to a better group climate.
The developed method is called: The contact and confrontation model. And this model works: from all the journals and utterances of the child care workers of the eleven groups in the research the following can be verified:
One of the eleven groups showed no change for six months, but id did in the following six months. That is the reason why I have counted this group for two groups in the diagram so they number twelve. See figure 4.
Figure 4: Changes
Statistic is not required to be able to read this diagram: it is a matter of course.
IV. THREE METHODS OF ACTION
In the meantime it will have become clear that with attending to needs and working contact and communication stimulating I do not wish to say that the requests of children should always be given in to, nor that there should be all-understanding talks. Especially in conflicts talk can be very fierce. One of the most fundamental needs of the children is in my opinion to meet men of flesh and blood. Men and women who sometimes get angry, fed up, frustrated, intolerant or unwilling, With such people, whom they can recognize as human beings - limited human beings -, they need to have contact. And limits become evident notably in conflicts, so that is where this kind of contact and confrontation can take place.
Child care workers can also seek to avoid confrontation and wish to evade conflicts. This is the second mode of action in dealing with conflicts that I mention: evasion of conflicts. Always being nice and sweet and tolerating more than you really cope with. Up to the point where the inevitable bomb does burst.
The third mode of action is the one I mentioned in the "Bad morning" example. I call this method the control model. Now we can compare the three ways of dealing with conflicts. By continuous analysis of the journal entries according to the seven elements of action, by summarizing each element separately and making a résumé of these summaries - by means of induction - the following overall picture comes about: see figure 5*
Three ways of dealing with conflicts
Method 1: CONTACT & CONFRONTATION
Method 2: AVOIDANCE
Method 3: CONTROL
The resident and I are alike
Varying: fear colors perception
The resident and I are not alike
2. Will, aim
Making contact, recovering/maintaining it
Contact-stimulating, limit-setting I-messages
Swallowing, keeping limits obscure
Use power and (verbal) authority
Conflict does arise anyhow
Adaptation, or: conflict escalates
5. Retrospective feeling
Tired, but satisfied
Stress, tired and dissatisfied
Widening the limits for both
This does not work
Narrowing the limits for both
The given examples can be put into a diagram now and it may be a useful diagram to remember. You can ask yourself: "What am I doing? Where am I?" You can find your place in the diagram and if you do not like it, you can move. For of course that is possible: there are moments when you cannot do without some use of power and authority; there are occasions that require regulation. But with the usually temporary quiet that is achieved, you have not reached your goal yet; you do better to keep working until you find yourself back in the contact and confrontation model again. I claim that this functions better because the outcome and the retrospective feeling are better. You can also start from the avoidance model, just to wait and see, and then make a deliberate choice which way you want to go. From the contact and confrontation model you can also make a short trip to methods from the control model, without adopting that model entirely. You can return to the base, the contact and confrontation model. I conclude from the comparison of often humorous conflict narratives that in fact that is the best basis.
V. THE CONTACT AND CONFRONTATION MODEL
Very essential in this is the first element of action: perception and interpretation of the situation. People cannot perceive without interpreting at the same time. And this usually happens within a framework of interpretation. Whatever does not fit in we do not see; what is correct we cannot but see as not correct. And this influences our aims, our methods, our interpretation of the outcome, in short, our action.
The next example (nr. 8)
is about a boy who refused to go to school. Albert, one of the care workers, sees this refusal as resistance so he tells the boy to go to his room and wants him to do some odd jobs. But the boy refuses to do anything and totally secludes himself. Another worker, Ben, interprets the same behaviour in a different way, namely as the expression of depression, particularly where the boy's chances for the future and concerned. Ben does some work together with him and while they are at it, he finds out how dejected the boy really is: he is even thinking of suicide. Ben does not punish him but goes to his school and talks to his teachers, negotiates, discusses prospects with the boy, who musters up his courage and goes to school again.
Albert's frame of thought is that of control an it makes him see the refusal as resistance, "consequently" rewarded with behaviour that he sees again as resistance. Ben's framework is that of contact and confrontation. It makes him regard the refusal as a sign of depression, and thereupon he can take action. The first framework apparently narrows the limits of the worker; the second widens them.
It is the task of the orthopedagogue to develop a framework of interpretation that is useful for practical work. This has often been done by means of deduction: starting from a theory, a frame of thought for practical action was deduced. Trieschmann, Whittaker and Brendtro for instance did this starting from the psycho-dynamic theory and the theory of learning: a theory for the consultation room of the therapist and the class room of the schoolteacher respectively. In the practice of the residential child care worker in the living-room this leads to the model of control, as we observed. We saw too that this model gets stuck in itself. The avoidance model does not work either.
By working inductively I have found the contact & confrontation model in the every-day practice of child care workers and I have developed it an put into words. This model appears to be very workable and to produce a better group climate than the other two models. If the model is workable, it is worth the trouble to remain on the inductive path and to see which theory fits in and which does not.
In order to find the answer to this question we can reason back from the main action method, which decides on the success of dealing with conflicts: making, maintaining and recovering contact. "Contact" as it is defined here, is the central issue in the method. The key words in the definition were:" recognition and acknowledgement of the needs, the interests, the will and feelings of the child and the transmission of these".
This transmission is a matter of communicative ability. Recognition and acknowledgement are a matter of perception and interpretation, and a concept of man, child and theory. So a child care worker is required to acknowledge signals and to recognize in his personal framework of experience as human phenomena: anger, grief, abuse, nagging, messing, shouting, disobeying rules, hunger between regular meals - just to name a few occasions for conflicts.
Required is a child care worker who perceives the children, also and especially with that kind of behaviour, as "like himself, or like he or she could be."
A concept or theory is necessary, and it should acknowledge such behaviour and describe it recognizably as a phenomenon peculiar to man. A worker or theory that recognizes man as a limited creature with contradictions and feelings, with a will is needed. There should be room for conflicting interests and feelings. This theory should recognize the ambivalence of human existence - as we can see it described for instance in Gehlen, Bollnow and Sartre. We need a science of education that does not regard adults as mature and therefore perfect; that does not identify maturity with harmony. A pedagogy that regards children as human beings and acknowledges the short comings of grown-ups.
Otherwise: in the contact and confrontation model it is necessary to see the doings of the child as action that is meaningful and deliberate, and not as behaviour determined by stimuli or factors.
This is a thesis with far-reaching consequences. It certainly means a rejection of Behaviorist theory with its staring points, its practice and the directions for child care work based on it. This theory, derived from experiments with animals by people in laboratories, is not suited for children in a living-room. It obstructs the actual contact and confrontation between worker and child.
In the discussion with the workers terms have come up that state in short what was said above. We talked about the "sun- and shadow sides" of people. On the shadow side there is anger, laziness, restlessness, stiffness, fatigue, etc. The children are not in the institution because of their sunny characters, but because their educators did not know what to do with their shadow sides. A child's need is to meet a complete human being: contact and confrontation of their shadow side with that of the worker. For the satisfaction of that need they provoke and challenge. A method that wants to banish the shadow side, get it out of the way, is inadequate. Notably orthopedagogy should take this shadow side very seriously and should see to confront it. An orthopedagogue in particular should be willing to show that side of his character too.
VI. SOME IMPLICATIONS
VII: SOME QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS FROM THE CONFERENCE
3. And what if you do not want to talk or go
through the conflict?
4. What about punishment as a logical consequence of an
5. Do you distinguish between the fundamental
needs of the child and its momentary wishes?
VIII. SOME FURTHER EXAMPLES
Example 9: Homesick 1.
Chris is a little boy of eight years old, when he arrives at an institution for the first time in his life. He is put in a group of ten children. The example is from stage one, i.e. before the beginning of the action stage, and it covers the first four nights at bedtime. Listen to how the worker deals with what the child shows of his shadow side, namely sorrow and homesickness.
05-01-1983 Chris' first night.
06-01-1983 The second night.
07-01-1983 The third night.
08-01-1983 The fourth night.
Homesickness and sorrow are apparently hardly accepted by this worker. The first two nights they are still tolerated, but no more than that. After that she no longer interprets them as such, but in her interpretation they are "merely" asking for attention and pathetic behaviour. She is obviously concerned with behaviour and, at least after the second night, not with the feelings behind it. In and after the action stage in this group, from which figure 2 has been derived, the team have changed their mode of action: their interpretation, aims, methods etc.
Example 10: Homesick 2.
"In bed Edward felt very homesick. Lots of tears, great sorrow. First I let him have his cry out for a bit. At a certain moment, when I was sitting on his bedside, Chris joined him. I was busy handling out hankies all the time. Later we talked it over for a while. They both were happy to be back, but when they thought of home, they also wished they were there. I told them that saying goodbye to people hurt me too sometimes. Then I told them something funny. After this little story they said they would try and think about something pleasant and go to sleep. Now it is Brigitte who, shortly after her arrival, feels homesick:
Example 11: Homesick 3
"At bedtime I stayed with Brigitte for a while. She had been very quiet all evening and after a good cry she confessed that she missed her mother now an then. Brigitte told me that she appreciates our taking care of her and comforting her. She had not expected this. Whenever she draws back into herself very quietly, she likes us to be around. She needs us very much then."
1. Literature which I referred to in this article.
Adler, J., 1976: The child care worker: Concepts, Tasks and Relationships, New York
Adler, J., 1981: Fundamentals of group child care, New York
Gordon, T., 1976: P.E.T. in action, Inside P.E.T. Families: Problems Insights and Solutions in Parent Effectiveness Training, Wyden Books
Habermas, J., 1973: "Wahrheitstheorien" in: Fahrenbach, H., Wirklichkeit und Reflexion, Pfüllingen
Lewin, H., 1975: Aktionsforschung, als kritische Theorie der Sozialwissenschaften, München
Moser, H., 1977a: Methoden der Aktionsforschung, München
Moser, H., 1977b: Praxis der Aktionsforschung, München
Trieschmann, A; Whittaker, J & Brendtro, L.K., 1969: The other 23 hours, A reasoned, authoritative guide to managing disturbed children in residential treatment centers. Child care work with emotionally disturbed children in a therapeutic milieu, Chicago.
Watzlawick, P; Weakland, J & Fisch, P., 1973: "Change"
2. Literature about action research
Blankhertz, H & Gruschka, A., 1975: Handlungsforschung: Rückfall in die Emperiefeindlichkeit oder neue Erfahrungsdimension? In: Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, Jrg. 21, Nr. 5, Pag. 677-687
Galtung, J., 1977: Methodology and Ideology. Theory and Methods of Social research Volume 1, Copenhagen.
Haag, F.; Krüger, H.; Schwärzel, W. & Wildt, J., 1972: Aktionsforschung. Forschungsstrategien, Forschungsfelder und Forschungspläne, München
Haeberlin, U., 1975: Emperische Analyse und pädagogische Handlungsforschung. In: Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, Nr. 5
Klafki, W., 1976: Aspekte kritisch-konstruktiver Erziehungswissenschaft. Basel
Klüver, J & Krüger, H., 1972: Aktionsforschung und soziologische Theorien, in: Haag, e.a., München
Mollenhauer, K & Rittelmeyer, C., 1975: "Emperische analytische Wissenschaft" versus "Pädagogische Handlungsforschung", in: Haeberlin und Blankhertz/Grushka. In: Zeitschrift für Pädagogik.
3. Literature about conflicts
Baulig, V., 1984: Konfliktverminderndes Erzieherverhalten. In: Zeitschrift für Heilpädagogik, Jrg. 35, Nr. 5, Pag. 333-339
Dalferth, M., 1983: Konfliktbearbeitung in der Heimerziehung, eine Möglichkeit zur Effektivierung der Alltagspädagogik. In: Jugendwohl, Jrg. 34, Nr. 1, Pag.14-21
Holt, R., 1970: On the interpersonal and intrapersonal consequences of expressing or not expressing anger. In: Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psuchology, Jrg. 35, Pag. 8-12
Kluge, K., 1977: Sind autoritär - dirigistische Erzieher veränderbar? Aktuelle Einstellungsänderungen von Heimerziehern, in folge einer partner schaftlich-kollegialen Heimleitung. In: Praxis Kinderpsychologie und Kinderpsychiatrie, Jrg. 26, Nr. 8
Konopka, G., 1966: The adolescent girl in conflict, Prentice Hall
4. Other recommended literature
Jungjohan, E.E., 1983: Das regionale Behandlungszentrum fÚr das Kind und seine Familie; die Aprather Alternative, Marhald, Berlin
Mendel, G., 1971: Pour décoloniser l'enfant, Soci psychanalyse de l'autorité, UNESCO, Payal, Paris
Traber, J., 1979: The child, guide for the educator. In: cet enfant qui nous éduque/The child as teacher...the world as learner/Was das Kind uns lernen kann, Bureau International Catholique de l'Enfance, Genève