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Conflict Resolution Using Pretzels

This weekly activity allows the exchange of compliments and criticism among the students in your class. It can help resolve conflicts and teach children how to properly handle conflict.

"Pretzels" is written by Ruth Sidney Charney, author of Teaching Children to Care: Management in the Responsive Classroom and Habits of Goodness: Case Studies in the Social Curricula, and co-founder of the Northeast Foundation for Children. This article first appeared in The Foundation's newsletter, The Responsive Classroom.

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I created "Pretzels" to develop stronger social skills in a particularly rambunctious first-grade class that was rife with daily tears, tattling, and teasing. I wanted a technique that allowed the children to be more perceptive of their own hurtful behaviors, while recognizing their abundant generosity at the same time.

Basically, "Pretzels" goes something like this.


Before beginning, make sure you have a bag or box of pretzels (the ordinary stick variety will do) and a supply of tokens or chips with which children can barter. Gather your students in a circle, and distribute ten tokens (or chips) to each child. Announce that each token is worth one pretzel.

Begin by introducing the activity and setting the stage:

Today, we are going to begin a new activity that has a funny name but a really serious purpose. It's called 'Pretzels,' and pretty soon you'll find out why.

'Pretzels' is a way for us to learn to be friendlier and kinder to one another in school, which I think is very serious. I believe that in order for us to do our best work, we all need to feel safe and good in school, and teachers can't make that happen alone.

Only when we do it all together do we make it safe and good. That is what I want us to learn and that is why we are going to try this serious activity with the funny name.

First, I see people acting in friendly and kind ways in our class. I see people help others open a thermos that is too tight. I see people say nice things like 'I like your drawing of the house.' Who else has noticed nice and friendly comments or actions?

The children respond and the teacher records responses on a chart with the heading "Ways We Are Helpful and Friendly," for example: "Sometimes Sheila shares her jump rope with me when I ask" or "Robert gives me some of his cookies."

Pay close attention to children's kind and thoughtful acts. Teachers need to model this behavior and incorporate its language into the classroom.

After brainstorming helpful, friendly behaviors, the teacher continues:

Sometimes, I notice ways that you hurt each other with your words or your actions. I see people push in line. I hear name-calling and teasing. I notice tattling and bossiness. What do you notice that we do in the classroom that hurts other people and isn't kind or friendly?

At this point, the teacher creates a new chart under the heading "Ways We Hurt Each Other." Taking care not to create a list of personal accusations, the teacher produces a list of key words, such as "unfair," "teasing," "put-downs," and "bullying," then writes down examples for each. Typical responses from the class might include: "Kids pick their friends to be on teams" or "Kids say you're stupid when you make a mistake."

Then, teacher and students review both charts together, and the teacher says, emphatically: "My goal is to help, not hurt. What is your goal? What do you think makes us all feel good and like to be in school?"

The teacher asks these questions to different children, directly. Eventually, everyone responds and agrees to a shared goal: to help and to be friendly.

Once students agree, the teacher then explains "Pretzels," which involves these simple steps:

  1. Going around the circle, each student can make two statements, each accompanied by an appropriate gesture.
  2. The first statement thanks someone for helping or for a special kindness that week. The student then presents a token to the person who performed the thoughtful act.
  3. The second statement tells about a hurt or upset by someone in the class. The child making the statement then collects a token as a symbol of apology or reparation (from the child who committed the offense).
  4. After children who wish have had a turn, the teacher allows students to cash in their tokens for pretzels.


When I first started "Pretzels," I felt that it was a risk. I wasn't sure what would happen when children were singled out consistently for hurtful behavior. I wasn't sure if there would be an increase in resentments and retaliation. I wasn't sure if children would be intimidated by the bullying or be able to confront it. Mostly, I worried that there would be far more complaints than compliments and thank-yous, and that "Pretzels" would turn into endless gripe sessions, with little affirmative relief.

Happily, with the aid of teacher modeling and reinforcement, children came to love noticing the kind and friendly contributions of their peers. They enjoyed exchanging pretzels (in the early days, we used the real things), and often volunteered extras if someone made an especially kind remark ("She made me feel good when I cried").

Children were highly observant and very specific in their comments. Clearly, they enjoyed the role of giving praise and seemed motivated to receive it from others.

You may discover, as I did, that children want particularly hurtful perpetrators to pay more. If so, allow them to create their own scale, such as three tokens for hitting or calling bad names, but just one if a person is joking when they tease, or if something was an accident.

My fear that some children would be singled out was inaccurate. One child, for example, went into "deficit-pretzels," while two others discovered the world of negative numbers. Fortunately, the perpetrators paid up, until empty-handed of all pretzels.

It also became apparent that hostilities were decreasing, not increasing. The class seemed more appeased, and the boy who racked up deficit pretzels appeared to be generally less aggressive. In fact, one week I paid him a pretzel for helping me clean and set up the paints. Other children followed suit, so that he received many pretzels for helping others out. Some time later, he exclaimed with obvious pride, "Look, Miss Charney, I got six pretzels this week!" And then he did a funny thing. He went to another child and handed over his pretzel stash. "Here, you can have these. I don't like pretzels," he said.


When children participate in "Pretzels" once a week, they learn to identify and express positive and negative feelings about each other in a ceremony that's carefully managed by the teacher.

As children proceed, they develop the courage to articulate feelings toward others without fear or embarrassment. This leads, in turn, to both assertiveness and empathy, which are foundations for mediation strategies they can apply in and out of the classroom.

In short, "Pretzels," when used successfully, functions as one of life's important rehearsals. It's a powerful tool that not only teaches children to compliment others, but to constructively criticize and call others to account in an appropriate manner.




  • Help children identify and name positive social interactions.
  • Build group trust and cooperation by creating, modeling, and reinforcing friendly and kind interactions.
  • Provide a safe and concrete form of appreciation when children help each other.
  • Provide a safe and concrete form of reparation when children hurt each other.


  • Everyone must take time to stop and think in order to recall a special kindness or hurt.
  • Children may only talk about what happened during the week.
  • Children may only talk about things that happen to ourselves.
  • Children use a "tagger's choice" rule. If someone thinks you bothered them, it is what they feel, so you pay. You do not argue.
  • "Pretzels" is confidential. This means that you do not talk about what happens in the activity with other students in different classes. The teacher asks, "Will you say to your cousin in fifth grade, 'Guess what happened in Pretzels today!'?"
  • "Pretzels" is over when everyone who wishes has taken a turn and the teacher announces "'Pretzels' is closed." Discussions are finished.
  • If some children have difficulty following rules at first, the teacher exempts them from the group, allowing them to observe but not to participate. In some cases, it is useful to set up a "pretzel bank," which accepts and pays out pretzel credits on behalf of non-participants. Usually, after one or two observations, non-participants will rejoin the group and act appropriately.


During the first few weeks, focus on positive comments and rewards only. Later, use judgement as to when to allow negative comments and reparations, if at all. Dealing with negative allegations requires considerable teacher expertise. Some teachers use "Pretzels" successfully all year long without advancing to negative issues.

Do not use candy or sweet snacks, as these may have unwanted psychological implications.
You can, if you wish, eliminate tokens and have children exchange items directly. If using snack items in this manner, do so only if they are individually packaged. For health reason, it's best to avoid exchanging unwrapped food items.

NOTE: This description of "Pretzels" is adapted from Teaching Children to Care: Management in the Responsive Classroom by Ruth Sidney Charney (Northeast Foundation for Children, 1992, pp.89-92).


The Northeast Foundation for Children, a private, non-profit educational foundation, works to improve the quality of classroom teaching through its professional development programs, summer workshops, long-term collaborations, and teacher resources. The foundation operates a K-8 laboratory/demonstration school, The Greenfield Center School, in Greenfield, Massachusetts, as a place to try new methodology and classroom practices in furtherance of the Foundation's goals. The Center School provides opportunities for educators to see developmentally appropriate teaching practices and the various components of The Responsive Classroom's social curriculum integrated in a mixed-age classroom.

The foundation publishes The Responsive Classroom newsletter for teachers. Subscriptions are free to educators.

Article posted by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © Education World

Last updated 06/04/2012