De-Escalating Confrontation at Chess Club

How to De-escalate Conflict in Chess Class

By Guest Blogger Coach Jay Stallings

It’s going to happen. A child will be embarrassed about losing to a younger player. A student will accuse another of cheating and you of allowing it. You will offend a student without even realizing it.
What you do next is critical!

First…What NOT to do:

  1. Lose control.
  2. Give the teacher glare
  3. Talk, talk, talk.

If you lose control of yourself, you will lose control of your class, and you will lose the respect of many of your students.

Giving the teacher glare challenges the student and the class and demonstrates that you don’t have the ability to do anything more than that.

Talking (lecturing) is not effective because students are caught up in the moment of the confrontation and your talking will usually just prolong it. They aren’t in the mood to listen. Especially ineffective are harsh tones, attempts to reason or persuade, threats and accusations, and the minimization of hurt feelings.

There can be more than a few unpleasant by-products that come from the escalation of a confrontation at chess club. Besides the drama there is lost instruction time, lost respect for the teacher, possible cancellation of the program, and possibly emotional trauma for those involved.

 So how do we keep these events from escalating? Here is a list of methods that you can try. Use one, use all. Combine them or keep them separate.

Twelve Methods of De-Escalation

  • Prove you care. Build positive relationships from Day One. This starts with knowing their names. If you aren’t good at names, then take a video of the class on the first day (starting with you) – “Hi, I’m Coach Jay…” – and study it until you know the name of every kid in that program. Other simple ways to prove you care are to ask about a bandage or missed class, recognize an accomplishment or a new haircut, or simply give a genuine smile.
  • Stay calm. The hotter the child, the cooler you are. Never take it personally. Children who act out usually want to provoke a response or argument. Your level of calmness should match the student’s level of demonstrativeness. Utilize neutral body language and stick to your guns. Don’t allow the student to dictate the class demeanor.
  • Be clear. Post expectation (words and pictures) and model what you want.  If you don’t have your own classroom, you might not be able to easily post your expectations. Ask your students to recite your most desired behaviors from time to time. Don’t use generalities like “Be respectful,” and instead use a few expressions to convey more precisely what you expect. “Don’t interrupt the instructor,” and “Play quietly when asked to do so,” will let the students know exactly what you want.
  • Pause silently. Stay silent. Don’t repeat the statement. They heard it. If the students think that your instructions are only mandatory when said for the third time, they will never respond on your first two attempts. Point firmly and quietly to what you want the child to do (focus on their game, or get in line, for example). Keep your hand still (unwavering). Nod sympathetically (you realize this takes effort on his/her part).
  • Back off. Give the child space and time to cool down and “reset”. Like you, kids need a break from the underlying tension (no matter how small) that can build up in a teacher-student situation. Understand that. Take a break yourself!
  • Loud then soft. Get attention with a sudden short sound, then speak in a soft, engaging voice. Yes! That’s the kind of move I want to see!” The loud room becomes quiet, curious. Everyone buckles down trying to get that kind of attention for their own great moves.
  • Teach virtues. Recognize their greatness. This isn’t a lecture, but can be a genuine story. The best kind are those that occur in the class. “The next story could be about me!” thinks each child as you relay the story of Joey’s (perhaps single) moment of deliberate thought. Virtues that relate to chess are endless: being patient, careful, respectful (of their opponents and their chess skills), logical, resilient, pragmatic, diligent, resourceful, optimistic, timely, practical, and many more that relate to sportsmanship.
  • Move slowly. Nod slowly. Walk gracefully. Gesture gently. Just as a park player tries to get their unsuspecting opponent to play quickly at critical moments, the calm, connected (eye contact) demeanor of a teacher can keep the class more focused.
  • Take a refreshing break. Invite student to walk a bit. A common suggestion is to ask the student if he/she wants to get a drink of water. You can also genuinely ask him/her to check to see if it’s raining, or who’s winning the game between Sally and Joe.
  • Practice in advance. Figure out where trouble often starts, and practice that situation. At Chess Club, unexpected losses often result in overly physical handshakes (or perhaps the hurling of a chess piece). Talk each meeting about someone losing unexpectedly, and how maturely they responded (or how shocked everyone was when they didn’t respond maturely). Practice shaking hands. Have extra staff or volunteers on the first day to help the students practice their transitions as well (going from lessons to free play, for example).
  • Ask for help. Give him/her a real job. This method can be very effective at Chess Club. Asking a demonstrative student to teach Scholar’s Mate to a new player will often diffuse an outburst, show respect to the student’s skills, solidify their skills, and give the new student some one-on-one attention.
  • Change position. Get side-by-side. When you talk, use a kind voice and long, patient pauses. Don’t maintain eye contact. They don’t want you “staring” at them. Questions, not directives. A gentle and sympathetic “Chess can be pretty challenging sometimes, can’t it?” helps them know that you respect the mountain in front of them.

Like an ill-conceived pawn move, there are some actions that you cannot fix. Practice these methods at home on your own children (or in the mirror) because any hesitation or trepidation could cause some students to lose faith in what you are saying. Most importantly, be sincere.

All of us coaches would love to see our students become Grandmasters, but more importantly, we want them to learn from the wonderful lessons that the royal game will teach them.

Coach Jay” Stallings loves to laugh about all of the wonders of being a teacher. Through the non-profit that he and his wife founded in 1996 (California Youth Chess League) and through numerous camps, afterschool and evening classes, and more, Coach Jay has taught chess to over 35,000 young players. Most of his dozen employees were students of his when they were in Kindergarten! He has developed a chess passport system, curriculum that is used worldwide, and a popular instructional app. Check out his page www.ChessParentResource.com.

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