Conflict Transformation: Unit 6: How Do Conflicts Escalate?

Conflict Transformation

Standards-Based Lesson Plans for Middle School Students



A calm disagreement can transform into a violent confrontation with surprising speed. Emotions, polarization, stereotypes, and enemy images all can trigger a process of escalation that breaks down communication between parties and builds ideological walls that are difficult to bridge. In this unit students will discover how escalation works, what triggers it, and some approaches to reversing the process.

Middle school students love to be self-righteous. Both socially and politically, students seem to welcome "us vs. them" and "good vs. evil." This unit encourages them to think critically about issues by challenging stereotypes and enemy images. Asking students to create propaganda in the whaling debate is, perhaps, an edgy assignment. However, the exercise is designed so that students can witness the gap between the parties widen with the use of enemy images. The teachable moment grows out of the guided reflection the class will do after the experience. Often, when students acknowledge the seductiveness of scapegoating after a controlled experience, they are be better equipped to check themselves outside of the classroom when the temptation to scapegoat arises.

Background Reading For Teachers:


  • Students will be able to identify conflict escalation and the reasons it occurs.
  • Students will be able to determine the role stereotypes play in conflict escalation.
  • Students will analyze propaganda as an example of "enemy-images" and polarization.
  • Students will construct and use their own propaganda in a simulation in order to evaluate its effect on a conflict.
  • Students will employ strategies to reject stereotypes and deescalate conflicts.
  • Students will write a personal essay reflecting upon an experience where "enemy-images" were deflated.

McRel Standards:

  • Behavioral Studies
    Standard 2 (Level III. 4) Understands various meanings of social group, general implications of group membership, and different ways that groups function
  • History, World History
    Standard 44 (Level III. 4, 9) Understands the search for community, stability, and peace in an interdependent world
  • Geography, Human Systems
    Standard 13 (Level III. 1) Understands the forces of cooperation and conflict that shape the divisions of Earth's surface
  • Language Arts
    Standard 1 (Level III. 1, 8) Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process
    Standard 9 (Level III. 1, 2, 4) Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media
  • Life Skills, Working with Others
    Standard 2 (Level IV. 7) Uses conflict-resolution techniques


Procedure: 3 hours

How do conflicts escalate? (hour 1):

  1. Show a muted clip from a movie that includes a fight scene. Make sure that it includes a build-up. Ask students to make up their own dialogue before the fight occurs in their conflict journals.
  2. Give students several minutes to share their dialogues.
  3. Watch the clip a second time with the movie's original dialogue.
  4. Write the word "escalation" on the board. Discuss the word's definition and how the movie clip illustrated the escalation of a conflict into a fight.
  5. On the board, write: How do you know that a conflict is escalating? Brainstorm together. Clarify and summarize after the brainstorming session. If the following points were not included, please write them on the board as well. Ask students to write these signs of escalation in their conflict journals (please see "Destructive Escalation" by Michelle Maise for more information).
    • Those involved use more serious tactics
    • More issues are added to the original conflict
    • Issues move from specific to general
    • Number of parties involved grows
    • The party's goals change from "doing well" to "winning" to "hurting the other"
  6. Watch the clip one more time. This time, ask students to answer the question: Why does this conflict escalate? Ask students to write their answers in their conflict journals and then discuss it as a large class. Again write up their ideas and ask them to write the summaries in their conflict journals. Make sure students understand all the concepts discussed. If it has not already been elicited from the students, make sure the following is included:
    • Anger
    • Fear
    • Negative Attitudes
    • Stereotypes
    • A bid for attention
  7. Explain that today you will be doing an improvisation activity. The teacher will supply the students with a conflict. Each pair will act out the same scene in front of the class. Before the first pair goes up, give them a slip of paper with one of the following words or phrases on it: Anger, Fear, Negative Attitudes, Stereotypes, A bid for attention. The pair who is acting will use that concept to escalate the conflict. When the students have ended the skit (at the point of violence) the audience can guess which of the words they drew. Allow each pair a turn. Select another scenario and let all the pairs act it out.
    • A boy / girl thinks the other likes his / her boyfriend.
    • A customer is sure that the cashier gave him / her incorrect change.
  8. Pass out "Real Indians Eat Jell-O and other things my Granny taught me" by Laurie Carlson. Ask students to fill out the Real Indians worksheet that accompanies the article.

    Homework: Reflect in your conflict journals on the following questions:

    • Have you ever been stereotyped?
    • Have you ever had one of your stereotypes about another group of people shattered by an event or personal interaction?

How do conflicts escalate? (hour 2)

  1. Pass out pictures of propaganda posters or war cartoons that demonize the enemy. Ask students to describe the stereotypes that they see.
  2. Discuss:
    • How do stereotypes like these help fuel conflict?
    • What ways can we help to break down stereotypes?
  3. Ask students to assume the Identities that they held in lesson five's whaling debate.
    Directions: While the actual conflict we debated was based on fact, this exercise will be pure fantasy. Get into character again. Imagine that no common ground was found in your debate over whaling. Tensions have risen. Because of increased polarization, the Japanese Representatives and the Native Alaskan Representatives have joined forces on the pro-whaling front. Greenpeace and Sea Sheperd have joined forces against commercial whaling.
  4. Begin the discussion again, with students in character, but ask students to intentionally escalate the issue, in their roles.
  5. Debrief out of character what occurred and how it felt.
  6. Hand out "Enemy Images" by Heidi Burgess and ask them to complete the accompanying worksheet.
  7. Now give students a few minutes before the end of class in their simulation groups. Their homework is to mount an enemy-image campaign against the other side.
  8. Homework: Create a piece of propaganda against the other side that contributes to the enemy-image. It could be a short article, a cartoon, an advertisement or a poster. You will share your work the next day.

How do conflicts escalate? (hour 3)

Model Personal EssayPersonal Essay Rubric

  1. Ask students to share propaganda.
  2. Discuss the effects of enemy images.
    • What were your original goals?
    • Do enemy images get you closer to these goals?
    • What happens to your group as the enemy images get worse and the conflict escalates?
    • What happens to the other group?

    Make a note that internal cohesion in a group increases dramatically when there is a shared scapegoat. Also note that enemy-images gives the group focus and energy, but makes the separation between sides greater and harder to bridge. Goals often are harder to reach when the parties cultivate this deep separation.

  3. Ask students to read "Peacebuilder Profiles: Ivo Markovic" and complete The Bridges of Ivo Markovic worksheet in pairs.
  4. Now ask students to create a cartoon strip of Ivo Markovic's life. The exercise will be enjoyable for students and allow them to both see the escalation of the conflict and Markovic's refusal to engage in the culture that dehumanizes and stereotypes enemies in a complex conflict. Use the Cartoon Strip Rubric to explain the assignment.
  5. Homework: Write a reflective essay on one of the following prompts:
    • Describe a shattered stereotype and how your thinking changed.
    • Describe a time you or someone you know bridged a conflict and how the dynamics of the conflict changed.
  6. Read the and fill out the accompanying prewriting form. The outline should be passed in along with the essay. Also use the to help you write your own reflective essay.

Optional Activity: Read "Polarization" by Michelle Maiese and Tova Norlen. Use the worksheet supplied.