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In the early 2000’s I dedicated my teaching practice to facilitating conflict management lessons with small youth groups in detention centers, alternate schools, and crisis shelters.
With two very young daughters at home, I would pack up my lessons and head out to work with youth who did not have a healthy parent figure in their lives.
This work was heartwarming, heartbreaking, and touched my soul.
In short moments of connection, these children inspired me and lit a fire to advocate for self-empowerment, self-love, and the self-acceptance destined to bring us home.
This work exhausted me emotionally and physically. After two years of doing these sessions, I shifted my focus to parent-teen mediation and anti-bullying curriculum in schools.
I commend those of you who continue to carry the torch for these children.
This video shares my journey from teaching high-risk youth conflict resolution skills to masters of education and teaching multilingual learners.
Life Lesson in Children’s Books
As adults, we often become detached from the simplicity of the key lessons in children’s books.
Working with people of all ages throughout my career has taught me the importance of the messages we find in storybooks.
In 2022, I decided to be a children’s author and published my first book!
With the life lessons I learned from working with teens in detention centers and parent-teen mediation, my books provide values-based education.
A Walk Down Memory Lane
Twenty years later, I still feel the intensity of my emotions from the first day I walked into a youth detention center to help teens learn conflict resolution skills.
I remember some of their faces but not their names.
The correctional system assigns numbers to children to protect their identity. They categorize to provide the most appropriate intervention measures, including what facility they will be housed in for the duration of their time in detention.
In my first of many experiences with countless children in this situation, I found myself profoundly struck by the consequences of the path they found themselves on.
The guards removed every item from my bag as I checked in at the gate. It was stuffed to the brim with pencils, pencil crayons, markers, wax crayons, handouts, and children’s books.
I vividly remember standing at the security table and being scanned.
One of the guards was setting aside my pencils and markers and pulling off the paperclips on my handouts.
“You can take the wax crayons and paper.” He said.
“I don’t understand,” I replied.
“They will use the pencil crayons, the plastic from the markers, and paper clips as weapons.” He stated matter-of-factly.
“Oh,” I responded, feeling a heavy sense of dread washing over me.
Sensing my unease, the other guard said, “We will have someone in the room with you.”.
“Ok, thank you,” I responded.
One guard held my children’s books and asked, “will you use these with them?”
“Yes,” I replied.
The guards handed the books between them while I watched as they pulled the staples out of the children’s books.
Gravity. All I felt was gravity.
Once they were done scanning everything, they piled the wax crayons, handouts, and boundless children’s books on a small table with my bag.
I packed what was left into my bag and followed the other two guards who waited for me into the building.
“You can get the rest of your things on the way out, ” the gate guard told me.
I remember walking and thinking, “who are these children? What happened to them?”
How Teens are Classified in Prison
After a long walk through many corridors, we arrived at the door in the section of the detention center designated for youth who were assessed as high-risk.
My understanding of high risk in these centers is it typically means high risk for potential escape, self-harm, and violence. I don’t recall the specific language at this moment, but it is all part of Canada’s correctional systems classification process.
The two guards who escorted me introduced me to the guard at the door we would pass through.
They told me one of them would stay with me in the classroom.
“I Just Want to Help Teens Learn Conflict Resolution Skills!”
We entered the classroom, and the guard stood at the door he closed behind us. There was another guard outside of our classroom.
I walked to the front, scanned the room, and put my bag on the table. There were seven youth, dressed in orange jumpers, and leaning back in their chairs with their chins tucked into their chests.
I greeted them, introduced myself, and smiled.
I walked around the tables and attempted to make eye contact and get a response.
I felt the sweat beading down my back and looked desperately at the guard.
He stood expressionless.
This went on for what felt like hours but was only a minute. Wiping the sweat from my top lip, I sighed and said, “You know what? Actually, it’s ok.” I was rattled.
I walked over to the guard, told him I would be okay, and asked if it would be possible for him to stand outside the door.
He hesitated, and I said, “if I need anything, I will call for you immediately.” I assured him I was okay as I nodded, sweating profusely.
He agreed, scanned the room, and opened the door to step out into the hallway.
It’s Go Time!
I walked back to the front of the classroom and noticed the group was now looking at me.
I introduced myself again and asked them if they had been told why I was there.
One youth told me they have assigned classroom hours and never know what they will learn in the evenings.
Starting the Sessions
I started the session by setting basic ground rules.
I found it necessary to establish how we all speak to each other with respect, free of interruption, and we each have an opportunity to share our own opinions.
It was something I did in each session, and even though I didn’t anticipate a bustling session of chatter with this group, it gave me an anchor to go through the motions as I did with every group.
I also told them I only had wax crayons and why. A few laughed. Then I cracked a joke, and a few more laughed. It was a much-needed icebreaker.
I was with these kids once a week for two hours over a period of seven weeks.
To this day I am struck by how child-like they allowed themselves to become during our sessions.
Trust the Process
At one point, we were reading ‘The True Story of The Three Little Pigs’ (Smith, 1996) from the antagonist’s perspective.
I remember saying, “Okay, children, we are going to have storytime!” in my very best sing-song voice.
Reading a Children’s Book to High-Risk Teens
They laughed, some rolled their eyes, and they moved closer to me.
I invited them to gather in front of me because it was a children’s book with pictures.
They pulled their chairs closer with little encouragement, and a few took seats on the floor directly in front of me.
I held the book high so all could see and read the story with my very best effort voice impressions.
They were immersed, and I felt like I had reached a tipping point in my time with them. This was session three.
Wait for It
Halfway through reading the children’s book, one of the boys started talking to another boy beside him.
Without hesitation, a boy in front of them jumped up and yelled, “Shut the F%@* up. She’s reading a story!”.
Like lightning, the boy punched the other one across the face.
I jumped up and yelled, “Guard!”. The door flung open, and two guards rushed in and immediately restrained them.
They told the others to settle down and took the two boys out of the room.
Reality Sets In
I sighed, looked at the remaining kids looking at me, sat down on my chair, and continued the story.
The next week the two boys who had been previously removed were back in class.
I approached them and told the one boy who had started the altercation the week before, “So, thank you for wanting to remind your mate about our ground rules about not interrupting.”
They both laughed.
I said, “But next time, no fists, okay?”
They smiled and nodded.
I asked them if they wanted to finish where we had left off the previous week. They nodded, so I read them the rest of the story.
Exploring Valuable Lessons in Children’s Books
The lesson I developed using the children’s books entailed the participants writing their own story from the antagonists’ perspective.
They could re-write a story or fable using popular fiction to tell the other side.
This was a hugely impactful session, and I learned years later this method in my lesson is called bibliotherapy.
I was doing a Keynote at a conference for educators, and one participant, a teacher, and a librarian explained the bibliotherapy process to me.
You will find information about bibliotherapy below.
Finding a Peaceful Balance
As the weeks went on, we had no other outbursts between the kids.
They would engage and laugh and tell stories in each session.
When we did the lesson on expressing creative writing through art, they all participated.
I will reserve my explanation about this activity for another post as it is an interesting learning piece and resource for educators.
Bibliotherapy with Children’s Books to Help Teens Learn Conflict Resolution Skills
Re-writing children’s books helped these kids learn conflict resolution skills.
During the fourth session, they wrote their stories. They were immersed in the activity and produced stories from the antagonists’ perspective with profound life lessons.
When they were writing the stories, I gave them feedback on their writing style, sentence structure, and grammar. They were willing to incorporate changes because they were committed to the activity.
After writing each story, we read them out loud and discussed them. The conversations were rich with sharing life experiences relating to each story.
Sample Stories from Children’s Books to Help Teens Learn Conflict Resolution Skills
I have express permission to use these stories, and no names are affixed to identify who authored them.
They are in their original form and have not been edited from their original versions.
Here are three of the stories they wrote.
I have always been known as the evil stepmother. However, I have a name. My name is Lucy Lou and I am going to tell you the real story of Cinderella.
I found a wonderful man named Joe who was widowed with a young baby girl named Cinderella. We soon married and had 2 daughters together. However, after 5 years of marriage I realised that he was having an affair with another woman. He ran off with her leaving behind myself with our 2 girls and Cinderella.
As years went on I struggled working 3 jobs to be able to provide for my girls. I always ensured my girls had what they needed – even if it meant I went without. And I always treated Cinderella as my own.
After some time it became it became apparent that Cinderella blamed me for her dad leaving. She never wanted to listen, never did her chores and eventually dropped out of school. After I tried everything I knew of I eventually sought out some help from a family friend. She suggested that I firm up the rules for Cinderella and give consequences for the negative behaviour.
They was a ball coming up that all the girls were invited to attend. I told Cinderella that she could go if she attended school regularly for 1 month.
One afternoon before the ball I was called into the school by the principal. I learned that Cinderella had been skipping class to smoke pot and hang out with her boyfriend. I don’t have a problem with her having a boyfriend but only if she keeps her grades up.
Because of this I needed to punish her. As much as I hated to do it, it hurt me more than it hurt her, I would not allow her to attend the ball. When we went to the ball she was to stay home and catch up on her homework.
You will never believe what happened next. Once again, Cinderella defied me, she convinced her friends to help her make a dress and give her a ride and she showed up at the ball. Around the corner I saw her kissing the prince. When she saw me she ran off and lost her slipper.
When the ball was over my daughters and went home to find Cinderella doing her homework and trying to cover up. She lied right to my face – trying to pretend she was home the whole time.
The next day the prince arrived. Can you believe it? Surprisingly, the slipper matched Cinderella’s foot. We thought it was a mistake and so we told him to leave. She ran out after him and we haven’t heard from her since.
Im a person with feelings
I want people to except me for who I am (very short)
I want somebody to like me and to love me for who I am
It’s not what’s on the outside but what really matters is what’s on the inside (baby)
I have feeling like everybody else
Size doesn’t matter
Everybody should be treated equally, including me
I get really annoyed when people tell me I’m small
I get butterflies when I see this very beautiful girl, her name is Fiona
She is fine; I really, really, really, want to make her mine and only mine
She’s one of a kind when I see her picture I knew she had a different mind
“I was destined to make her mine”
She looks so kind well share a different kind of bond.
She has red hair and her skin is really fair
We’ll make the perfect pair.
I never meant for anyone to get hurt. People always ask me why did I do it? I guess you could say the old green-eyed monster got to me. When I was younger, people would always say that I was the most beautiful person they had ever saw. I know it may sound vain, but it’s true. She stopped talking and took a deep breath.
“For the record, Snow White was very kind. She never did anything to hurt me. I just want to make that clear. It was never her fault.” Beauty was always something that brought me power. It gave me things that I could never have dreamed of. Thanks to that lying son of a cracked mirror. I never dreamed that a cracked mirror could lie about someone being beautiful. When I found out that the mirror had lied and Snow White was prettier than I was, I flew into a jealous rage. To be honest I literally went crazy. However, that won’t happen again thanks to these new pills the doctors have me on. Anyways, before I knew it, I had hired a hit man to kill her.
“Visiting hours are over” the guard had come in. I stood up and bowed to the Queen and thanked her. “Your quite welcome, my dear, would you like an apple before you go?” As I left I replied, “no thank you they look too juicy” and her shrieks followed me as I left.
Inspiration to Use Children’s Books to Help Teens Learn Conflict Resolution Skills
At this time, and with these children, I wrote the curriculum for TACT (Teens and Conflict Together): A Facilitator’s Guide for Empowering Youth to Engage in Creative Problem-Solving.
Inspired by our shared experiences in our sessions, I wanted to help teens learn conflict resolution skills throughout my province.
TACT is a program providing teens with opportunities to explore conflict and problem-solving. The goal is to empower them to use a conflict management process and effective communication skills when faced with conflict.
Lessons in TACT
Fun, educational games and exercises are designed to reinforce learning by providing a safe environment for the participants to explore conflict while meeting the following program objectives:
- To provide participants with a fun, educational learning experience about conflict and conflict in communication;
- To provide participants with the awareness of their own conflict management and communication styles;
- To promote change and to provide participants with the skills needed to enable change.
Teaching Literacy Skills
In my previous example, the literacy component is supported through a narrative approach using traditional storytelling.
This concept is applied to encourage teens to use their creativity in processing the meaning conflict management has in their lives.
Classic fairy tales, from the villain’s perspective, are written to provide a familiar example from the villain’s perspective of how perception and assumptions influence and impact conflict management and problem-solving.
When required to write their own perception stories, the participants in the program use stories such as:
- Peter Pan
- Goldilocks and the Three Bears
- 101 Dalmatians
- Little Red Riding Hood
- Snow White
- Hansel and Gretel
- The Lion King
Some participants used songs to express the villain’s perspective in a conflict situation.
The exercise is not limited to using a specific format but rather for them to think creatively about what the villain’s perspective would be if a story were rewritten from both sides.
Another example, in addition to the ones I have already shared, is from one of the participants who chose Spiderman and the Green Goblin.
He wrote about how the Green Goblin felt he was left out of superhero stuff because he didn’t look all buff like all the other superheroes.
The only way to get noticed was to do bad things.
This is an example of the potential lessons the participants can convey to one another to assist them in feeling safe and connected.
These experiences with children in high-risk situations shaped my teaching practice. They also continue to inspire me to help teens learn conflict resolution.
I discovered connection, belonging, and security are key ingredients for a healthy classroom setting, regardless of the environment.
I believe everyone can become their potential.
The children I shared about in this post were creators. They created impactful stories and beautiful artwork during our time together.
They also created the lives they were living through the choices they continued to make. I believed in them.
In my adult brain, I fell short by believing in an outcome beyond their reach to make healthier choices for themselves to live the lives they wanted.
They needed resources, intervention, and practical step-by-step instruction on a case-by-case basis, moment by moment.
Most of all, they needed a willingness, and these children felt defeated.
Their family was their peers. In most cases, adults were not to be trusted, and these kids lived in a dog-eat-dog world.
I offer no solutions other than what I know to be true. Be love, be kind, be light.
Thanks for stopping by!
Until next time,
Psychology Today- Bibliotherapy
TACT (Teens and Conflict Together): A Facilitator’s Guide for Empowering Youth to Engage in Creative Problem Solving: Petryshyn, MA., Chartered Mediator, Suzanne: 9781451516593: Books – Amazon.ca. (2022). Amazon.ca.
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