Anti-bullying part of the curriculum at Friends school

Vivienne Plewa (left) and Nora Butcher, 5-year-old kindergartners, demonstrate the ice-cream-cone model for resolving conflicts.
Vivienne Plewa (left) and Nora Butcher, 5-year-old kindergartners, demonstrate the ice-cream-cone model for resolving conflicts. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 05, 2013

A tiny Main Line school that prides itself on its peaceful environment is waging a small private war against what experts view as a national epidemic - bullying.

Starting with kindergarten, along with math, reading, and writing, anti-bullying is part of the curriculum for the 140 pupils, said Michael Zimmerman, head of Friends School Haverford.

Recent well-publicized incidents locally and elsewhere have made bullying a national issue. According to, 30 percent of U.S. students in grades six through 10 have participated in "moderate or frequent bullying" - as bullies, victims, or both. In 85 percent of the cases, no adults intervened.

Zimmerman said adults needed to do more than just throw up their hands.

"There seems to be a profound sense that we are at a loss for what to do," Zimmerman said. "That is nonsense. We know what we need to do. It's just that it is hard to do it."

He insists that what works in an insular environment such as Haverford's would also make a difference in larger schools.

"We focus on the social curriculum the same way we do the academic curriculum," Zimmerman said.

'Have to solve it'

Conflict resolution begins right away, he said, and kindergartner Vivienne Plewa confirmed that assertion. "When we fight, we have to solve it," she said.

In Benjamin Bull's class, the kindergartners employ the "ice cream cone model." Just as the layers of ice cream are stacked on a cone scoop by scoop, problems are solved one colored "scoop" at a time. A complete ice cream cone, with four scoops and a cherry on top, represents the entire process of problem-solving.

In the classroom, a peacemaking space is equipped with two chairs for a debate, and on the wall hangs that paper ice cream cone - about the size of the typical kindergartner - listing each of the steps.

Step one, the cone, calls for talking about the problem. Step two, the first scoop, involves listening; step three, sharing feelings; step four, discussing solutions; step five, agreement; and finally, the cherry on top, putting the agreement into practice.

"First we talk about our problems and then we listen to each other and share our feelings," Vivienne said.

Bull said the most important scoop of the cone is the sharing of feelings.

"The model recognizes the role of feelings in conflict," Bull said. "Most of the time, when someone is upset, once they express those feelings, it can help come to a solution."

Bull said although addressing conflicts over sharing a book or toy might seem trivial, it will create powerful foundations for peaceful problem-solving in the future.

"In kindergarten, it was the ice cream cone; that idea has stayed with me," said Henry Reed, a sixth grader. "It is just, in middle school, some of the conflicts can get a little harsher."

Overpowered by friends

Henry said those old conflicts over who got to color with the popular blue marker become more complicated as years go by. For example, older children might have to grapple with peer pressure to gather the courage to intervene in certain situations.

He recalled when his teammates made fun of a student at soccer camp who had no knowledge of the sport. "They made fun of him; we all laughed," Henry said. "I knew that it wasn't the right thing to do."

Classmate Chloe Wheeler agreed conflict resolution was difficult at their age. "I look for ways to solve problems," she said, "but sometimes I feel overpowered by my friends."

In a peer-mediation class, middle school students participate in role-playing to practice conflict resolution and learn to consider and discuss the impact of words and actions.

Zimmerman said he understood the pressures that lead students and adults to look away when they see bullying, but he argued that schools - including large public schools - must confront the problem.

"The kids feel that pressure, and I think that in larger schools there are adults who feel that pressure," he said, "the pressure to move on with the curriculum and not address social issues, the pressure to just let it go and not to make an issue of things rather than to take the time required to do this difficult but vital business of attending to the social fabric of the school community."

He said the key to making conflict resolution effective, no matter the setting, was to start it at an early age and stay with it.

Said Zimmerman: "It just takes time."

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