Minimizing & Handling Student Conflict

By Josh Frahm posted 02-18-2020 07:03


When dealing with other human beings, conflict is inevitable, and in fact, necessary for growth. This is especially true with students who are constantly learning new things and having new experiences. While conflicts may be inevitable, there are ways to limit them through effective communication, setting expectations, and proper follow-through.  

Today, our focus will be on how to minimize student conflicts with tips on understanding how to act and resolve them when they occur.  

Creating an Environment of High Expectations 

Too often we underestimate students because of their age and set the bar too low. Low expectations lead to low performance. Minimizing conflict starts with setting expectations high and preparing students to hit those expectations through clear policies, procedures, and proper communication from day one.  

One thing we must remember about students is they are often inexperienced and going through professional situations for the first time. We need to put ourselves in their shoes and ensure we don’t take for granted that they know the little things. Policies, procedures, and expectations—especially professionalism expectations, should be made available in writing and gone through thoroughly. From day one, students should know not only what to expect, but how to achieve those expectations. Clear cut expectations in writing makes potential conflict conversations much easier when they happen. My recommendation is to get students to read through and sign these expectations before beginning employment. 

 Address Situations Swiftly & Consistently 

When students make mistakes, and they will, address them head on and immediately when possible. Approaching everything from a coaching tone and not an accusatory or punishment tone will assist in them receiving the message and learning from it. These quick conversations can ensure the student knows that a mistake occurred, understands why it’s a mistake, and can learn from it while it is fresh in their minds. If the mistake is addressed verbally, follow-up with email documentation. Protect yourself from a future dispute by writing everything down. If it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen. 

Students talk to each other. Consistency in treatment and how you address mistakes from one student to the next can limit future conflicts and an erosion of the culture you are trying to create. Treat each employee equally, fairly, and the same! Students will know who your “favorites” are if you don’t complete conversations the same way for similar situations. Execute professional judgement for “gray areas,” but hold true to the values and goals you set out for students on day one. Don’t get lazy! If you don’t enforce policies maybe you don’t need them at all.  

The end goal of these swift conversations is not to punishbut provide the opportunity to improve and take ownership of mistakes. If students need additional support, provide them the tools they need to succeed.  

Manage Relationships, Manage Situations 

Relationship building and creating a trusting environment where students feel they can talk to you is crucial to minimizing conflict. If you have consistent check-ins both on a one-on-one and team meeting basis, take advantage of that opportunity. Students have busy and often stressful lives, and if you know them well enough to sense something is wrong, you can communicate and help them through it before the outside noise affects their performanceWhen thinking through performance issues, I always treat it as 80 percent situational, and 20 percent personal. By being aware of body language and sharp performance changes, we can minimize potential conflicts by understanding what situations are causing the behavioral change. 

To learn more about your students, have them fill out communication preferences and strengths inventory sheets (I have examples if you want them!) when they start which can help you learn how they prefer to be communicated with and what they want to get out of their experience with you.  

Conflict Conversation Follow-Through 

To get through a conflict conversation effectively, you need to do three things: 

  1. Use “I Statements” effectively.
  2. Understand your conflict management styles and their implications for supervising. 
  3. Apply a problem-solving process to difficult conversations. 


I-statements are a great way to keep your tone positive and your approach viewed as coaching rather than punishment. The I-statement is a simple four-part conversation starter in conflict situations and looks as follows:  

  • I feel (state your emotion) 
  • When you (state the specific action you are concerned about) 
  • Because (state the impact on your work/others) 
  • And I want (state the change in behavior you want)  

To be clear, you don’t have to approach each conversation exactly as shown above, but the format can help prepare you for the conversation and help lead it in a positive direction. The last thing you want is for the student to immediately get defensive when approached. From there, allowing the student to share is crucial. Use this road map below as a conversation guide: 


Conflict Management Styles: 

A key method in helping minimize conflict is understanding your own conflict style. What tends to happen is we use the style that we are most comfortable with, not the most appropriate method for the situation. Below, you will find a visual to help you understand the importance of selecting a style based on understood goals and relationship objectives: 


By determining your conflict style based on the situation, seriousness of the matter, and potential previous conversations, you can maximize the value of the interaction and improve future performance. 

Use Resources to Solve Problems 

While setting high expectations, communicating effectively, and following through quickly can help minimize conflict and solve problems, issues will still exist. Be aware of resources on your campus that can help, such as your university ombudsperson. While your goal is to create a culture that minimizes conflict, be ready for anything and everything with students. By treating conflict as a necessary part of the learning process for them and you, all sides can win!  

Coming in the March Blog: Evaluating Student Performance