Group sessions can help teens resolve conflicts
If high school students understood what caused their conflict with others who are different from them, they would be better prepared to work with people from diverse backgrounds, according to a new study.
Interactive small groups can assist them in uncovering prejudices and biases by allowing them to trust others and to learn they have more similarities than differences, says Charles Garvin, professor emeritus of in the School of Social Work.
"They will succeed in working with people of other backgrounds because they were able to solve problems in this high school project," he says.
The program, "Enabling Adolescents in Culturally Diverse Environments to Peacefully Resolve Ethnic Group Conflict," developed out of the researchers' concerns about the divisions between social groups experienced by youths. The researchers wanted to know if young people who were aware of these conflicts could be trained to manage them, especially in high school.
And unlike previous intergroup dialogue and conflict resolution interventions in colleges, this project incorporated an action component so that students could put into practice what they learned, Garvin says.
"The small group format is an excellent setting for an examination and exchange of views and attitudes and behavior related to intergroup relations," he says.
The researchers used interviews from 10th-graders who were nominated by teachers and staff in two Michigan high schools to evaluate the program. One-hour, once-a-week sessions occurred during and after school, and they occasionally visited the other participating school.
Sessions consisted of four activities:
• Building trust and developing relationships;
• Intergroup dialogue in which members clarify self identities, consider identities of others, and recognize differences and conflicts resulting from these differences;
• Conflict resolution activities so members can learn strategies and begin to apply them within the group, then later to the larger school environment; and
• Assessing the results of conflict resolution activities and considering future application of what they learned.
Students initially were apprehensive about disclosing their feelings or opinions to others in the group setting. They learned they shared more similarities than differences with students from the other school, Garvin says.
"Students confronted stereotypes about the other school, as well as having a greater recognition of issues in their own school," he says. The stereotypes often dealt with race and household income.
The intergroup project has led to positive changes at the participating schools. Garvin said one year, for example, students successfully changed the rules regarding behavior at graduations that they saw as culturally biased. In another year, students modified the school's "tolerance day" by replacing the teachers' talk with their own presentation based on what they learned in the intergroup workshops.
The four-year research continues as Garvin obtains feedback from participants to modify the project.
The project's findings appear in the new issue of Small Group Research. One chapter that evaluates the project was written by Michael Spencer, associate professor of social work; Mikel Brown, a trainer for the State of Michigan Family Independence Agency; and doctoral students Shayla Griffin and Shabana Abdullah. Henry Meares, assistant dean in the School of Education, served as a liaison to the schools and functioning as co-director of the project.
For more information on Garvin, visit www.ssw.umich.edu/about/profiles/profile-charlesg.html.