Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Promoting Peaceful Classrooms

31 May 2022 6:24 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

In the aftermath of World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt traveled to Paris and in a Voice of America radio address (November 11, 1951) stated, “I think that what you want to know—especially you, the women of past-war Europe—is whether you shall be able, tomorrow, to tell your children that peace is at long last, a reality. For it isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”   I’ve thought a lot about this quote over the past few weeks, as the United States (US) has once again experienced a wave of mass shootings including the Tops grocery store in Buffalo and the Uvalde elementary school massacres.  Certainly, there is very little that I can say here that hasn’t already been said in other forums (I’ve added some links below to my writings on this topic, a column by Dr. Dave Myers, and APA resources).  These deaths are horrific, are difficult to predict, and should never happen.  Our hearts bleed for the victims, their families, and communities. All of us want to be able to tell our students, our families, that maybe tomorrow, “peace is at long last, a reality.”

All of us want an end to this war of violence, the pandemic of hate, and domestic terror. I think all of us would agree that there is much work to be done culturally and politically. 

Now please realize that I in no way want to diminish the atrocities of mass killings. Regardless, when it comes to my teaching and my classroom, I know that the odds of a lone gunman coming into my classroom or even my campus are small—not impossible but low in probability.  Most schools and colleges provide training for faculty, staff, and students to spot issues and have increased security measures. Yet every day, I most likely have untold numbers of students entering my classroom who have experienced violence and trauma.  Whether victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, muggings, a friend’s suicide, or gun violence within their neighborhoods, violence is not new to their lives but rarely makes a headline.  The focus largely on school shootings is an all too sad example of the availability heuristic.  Although, we may be relatively helpless to address mass shootings, we can be there for our students who experience violence as part of their everyday lives. We can know the resources at our institutions and communities so as to provide support for these students.

Promoting Peaceful Classrooms

In 1999, following the school shootings at Columbine, STP President Jane Halonen put together a task force entitled, “Promoting Peaceful Classrooms.” The task force members included Christopher M. Hakala, PhD, Gail Matthews, PhD, Virginia Ryan, MS, Michael Van Slyk, PhD, Janie Wilson, PhD, and me (Chair).  I went back and reviewed the materials we put together for a presentation at the APA Convention in 2000, which included: a discussion of the research concerning building cooperative and positive classroom environments; specific strategies that professors can use to facilitate a positive learning environment; and an introduction to programs and methods of conflict management and violence prevention. We just began to scratch the surface of how we can make our classrooms safe and inclusive.  So, let’s explore a little further how promoting peaceful classrooms relates to the topic of school violence. 

Peace scholar John Galtung (1969, 1996) differentiated between positive peace and negative peace. Too often, individuals conceptualize peace as an absence of direct violence or conflict. For example, a teacher may assume that they have a peaceful classroom simply if the classroom is orderly and no one is bullying or hitting another student. However, this characterization only defines the concept of negative peace and does not encompass the equally important concept of positive peace (Shields, 2017).  Negative peace addresses interventions during times of violence—interventions designed to prevent destructive actions such as bullying, harassment, physical fighting, or school shootings. Such interventions are important and necessary components in an effort to build safe schools.

In contrast, the aims of positive peace focus on reducing structural and cultural forms of violence and enhancing social equality and opportunity. Positive peace focuses on building schools and classrooms characterized by conditions of enablement, social equality, justice, and respect for human rights. Positive peace in schools cannot be attained unless we address issues of racism, sexism, ageism, anti-LGBTQ+ bias, ableism, classism, Euro-ethnocentrism, and other forms of bias and discrimination within what we teach, how we teach, and the classroom environment. Additionally, positive peace involves addressing social, political, economic, and ecological injustices within our educational systems. The ramifications of educational disparities and differential availability of services in the US are not insignificant. For example, a clear connection exists between crime—and most likely violence—and literacy.  According to the Literacy Project (2022), “85% of juvenile offenders have problems reading; 3 out of 5 people in American prisons can’t read.”

Eleanor Roosevelt speaking at a luncheon in Stuttgart stated, “More than ending war, we must put an end to the conditions that cause war,” to which I would add that we must also put an end to conditions that inherently cause destructive harm. All of us want our students to be in classrooms and schools where they feel safe. A key component of that sense of safety is that they feel valued, respected, and included.  There is a lot in the world for which we have little control. However, we can work to create classrooms characterized as peaceful.  Although not a definitive list, here are some important elements that I think are important.

·        Build an inclusive classroom and curriculum

·        Recognize the importance of teacher immediacy

·        Model respect, empathy, and kindness

·        Engage in difficult dialogues

·        Teach conflict resolution skills

·        Teach and model restorative justice

·        Service learning

·        Teach collaborative work skills

It is important to recognize that how we interact with the students in the classroom is just as important as what we teach in the classroom. As you can see from the above, the list focuses on promoting peaceful classrooms through the development of positive peace. If our focus solely is on addressing negative peace, we may only sow fear, helplessness, and a sense of despair.

Now you may look at this list and think, “what now?” Good ideas, but how do I go about taking these ideas and transforming them into practice within the classroom? Fortunately, there are many within STP who have been researching and writing on these topics for many years.   Simply, log into your STP membership and begin your search through our STP journal, Teaching of Psychology, which is available on our website.  But wait—there’s more! Look under the Resources tab and you will find a range of eBooks and other teaching resources related to the topic or included as chapters (e.g., in the Compendium of Conference Presentations). Also, come to Minneapolis and learn at the APA Convention this August, as STP has a full schedule of relevant programming.  Also, at Convention there are programs from other Divisions related to topics such as peace and school shootings. And don’t forget to check out STP’s Annual Conference on Teaching—more information will be coming soon!

In the meantime, remember that although we cannot control all that is happening in the US related to increases in mass shootings, we can have a daily positive impact in the lives of our students. We can engage in promoting peaceful classrooms that are havens of learning, discovery, relationship, and excitement—all in an inclusive and safe space for everyone.  And let’s remember, “For it isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”   Let’s all get to work for peace.


American Psychological Association. (2022).  APA resources for coping with mass shootings, understanding gun violence.

Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, peace and peace research. Journal of Peace Research, 3, 176–191. doi:10.1177/002234336900600301

Galtung, J. (1996). Peace by peaceful means: Peace and conflict, development and civilization. Sage.

Literacy Project. (2022). Illiteracy by the numbers.

Myers, D. (2019). Do something! Stop mass shootings and prevent suicides! But what can psychology contribute? Macmillan Learning.

Shields, P. M. (2017). Limits of negative peace, face of positive peace. Parameters, 47(3), 5-12.

Woolf, L. M. (2018, February 15). Mass shootings: What role do guns play. Psychology Today.

Woolf, L. M. (2018, March 4). Arming teachers: Good or bad idea? Psychology Today.

Woolf, L. M. (2019, August 4). Mass shooting: Shifting blame and shifting focus. Psychology Today.

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