WINTHROP – How can an eighth-grader confront a friend who’s cheating on a class assignment without inflaming the situation?

How does another student ask her classroom partner to stop slacking off and take responsibility for his portion of the work?

Those types of conversations are difficult for people of any age, says Patrice Putman, director of employee development at MaineGeneral Medical Center.

But Winthrop eighth-graders and a handful of teachers, school administrators and community members in town should be better equipped to broach those touchy topics, after participating in a program MaineGeneral uses with its employees.

Winthrop’s 60 eighth-grade students are learning how to initiate those “Crucial Conversations,” using a book by the same name that’s commonly used in the workplace to facilitate sensitive discussions.

“We want people to talk to each other. It’s as simple as that,” Putman said. “We want people to be able to talk to each other about hard things.”

Putman is bringing the lessons to the eighth-grade students with the help of a grant from VitalSmarts, the company that developed the “Crucial Conversations” book.

“We wanted to see if we can reduce risky behavior by helping them have some skills to have hard conversations,” Putman said.

One group of Winthrop eighth-graders participated in a “Crucial Conversations” session Monday, along with their school principal, several teachers, a school board member and some parents.

A number of high school juniors in town are also participating in the sessions, said Karen Criss, principal of Winthrop’s middle and high schools.

Come fall, she said, “we’ll have this group of freshmen and seniors who can have conversations, whatever it is.”

The group learning those conversation skills on Monday was told to approach touchy situations by bringing up facts, and not jumping to conclusions. If you stick to the facts, Putman told the group, the people you’re approaching are less likely to become defensive.

“There are ways to have the conversation that don’t make it worse,” she said.

If a student suspects a classmate of stealing a computer, for example, that student shouldn’t start with an accusation of theft.

Instead, Putman suggested, start by saying, “I saw you walk out of the room with that computer.”

“If you can stick to the facts and not fill in information,” Putman said, “it’s going to be a lot easier to have that conversation.”

The students and adults taking part in the two-part “Crucial Conversations” training said they’ve picked up skills they’ll count on frequently.

Keirra Anzivino, 14, said she might rely on those skills to put a damper on rumors circulating around school about romantic connections.

“It’s a pretty good program,” she said.

Micaela Hajduk, 14, said fights with her sister or sensitive talks with friends could be easier if at least one of the participants is versed in carrying on hard conversations.

“Instead of turning into violence,” she said, “it’d be calming down and talking.”


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