Published: Jan. 23, 2023

The ideal classroom, lab or lecture fosters thoughtful discussions between you and your students. These collaborative conversations and debates empower students to develop and grow their own ideas.

That being said, classroom conflict is inevitable. It is important to remember that conflict is normal and there are effective ways to navigate difficult conversations with your students. 

Here are some strategies instructors can use to support students and promote conflict resolution.

Two people talkingProactively discuss classroom expectations

Conflict with students may take various forms. Some disagreements may be disruptive to the whole class, while others might be a conflict directly between you and a student. 

Some examples include classroom interruptions or behavioral concerns, disagreements over a grade, late assignment, or missed exam, or the use of technology that is not allowed or interferes with the class.

Many times, these conflicts do not arise because a student is trying to cause problems. Rather, the student may be feeling confused, stressed, or unsupported. Instructors and professors can help lessen these concerns by having proactive discussions around course expectations and classroom behavior. 

These expectations could be included in your course syllabus, mentioned at the beginning of the semester, and put into practice while teaching or during office hours. Communicating the behavior you expect from students will mitigate conflict before it starts and help create an environment for healthy conversations to occur.

Listen to students for understanding

Strengthening your relationships with students can help prevent conflict. If students feel comfortable sharing their concerns with you, faculty and staff should take those opportunities to listen.

When conflict arises, give your students space to share their point of view. If you are the one to initiate the dialogue with a specific student, make sure to do so privately. This could be done during office hours or other scheduled meetings.

Enter these conversations with an open mind. Recognize that there may be something going on in the student’s life outside of academics that is impacting them. It would be a disservice to the student to discount the role that life experiences have on student behavior and your interpretations of the conflict.

For the student to feel supported, take the time to acknowledge and validate how they are feeling by listening fully without judgment. You can help the student feel like they are being heard and valued by asking questions to understand what they are trying to say.

Reflect on your own impact

Since professors and instructors are in a position of power when speaking to students, recognize that you likely have the authority in the conflict resolution process. It is your responsibility to be aware of that control and employ it in an honest way that supports the student.

Due to this power imbalance, there may be times when your intentions do not align with your impact. Take the time to understand the impact of your words and actions on students. Ask yourself if your message or delivery was disproportionately demanding or hurtful.

We encourage faculty and staff to take this a step further by taking accountability for adverse impacts. Take responsibility for the harm caused and discuss actions you will take in the future to ensure it does not happen again. You can serve as a role model by showing students a positive example of taking ownership over your impact and working to repair harm.

Noticing conflict among students?

While faculty should work to resolve disagreements between themselves and students, they do not need to be responsible for mediating conflict between students.

If students in your course are having a disagreement that impacts the greater class, faculty are encouraged to listen to their concerns, recommend Student Conduct & Conflict Resolution resources, and refer the students to mediation or conflict coaching.

Email to refer students or learn more.

Find common ground and follow up

When looking for a resolution, get the student’s perspective. Ask if they have ideas for a solution. Faculty and instructors can reflect on and discuss:

  • What outcomes do you and the student each hope come from the resolution?
  • How can you and the student work together to meet each other’s needs?
  • What steps can you and the student take to achieve these goals?

After coming to a resolution, make sure you follow up with the student. These difficult conversations may hold a greater weight to them than they do for you. Check back in and recommend Student Conduct & Conflict Resolution (SCCR) resources if the student could benefit from additional support. 

Take advantage of available resources and trainings

Any faculty or staff member can reach out to SCCR for conflict resolution support. You can submit a SCCR incident report if conflict with a student escalates or email to discuss strategies, schedule trainings, and access resources such as:

  • Conflict coaching for individuals.
  • Mediation services for two or more participants.
  • Circle dialogues for small groups.
  • Conflict resolution skills training for groups of any size.

You and your students can also take the conflict styles quiz to reflect on the various ways we respond to conflict.

If you are concerned about a student, refer them to Student Support & Case Management. However, if there is an immediate safety concern, contact the CU Police Department.