A process by which students act as mediators to resolve disputes among themselves. A form of conflict resolution used to address student disagreements and low-level disciplinary problems in schools.
Peer mediation is a form of conflict resolution based on integrative negotiation and mediation. Disputing parties converse with the goal of finding a mutually satisfying solution to their disagreement, and a neutral third party facilitates the resolution process. The salient feature of peer mediation as opposed to traditional discipline measures and other forms of conflict resolution is that, outside of the initial training and ongoing support services for students, the mediation process is entirely carried out by students and for students. Due to the rise of violence in schools, the sharp increase in serious crime committed by youths, and the increasing awareness of the need for social skills instruction in education, peer mediation programs exploded in the 1980s. In 1984, when the National Association for Mediation in Education (NAME) was formed, there were about 50 mediation programs in school districts nationwide. Eleven years later NAME reported over 5,000 programs across the country. Peer mediation programs that have gained national stature include the early Educators for Social Responsibility program, San Francisco's Community Board program, New York's School Mediators Alternative Resolution Team (SMART), and New Mexico's Center for Dispute Resolution.
Purposes of peer mediation
In accordance with the principles of conflict resolution, peer mediation programs start with the assumption that conflict is a natural part of life that should neither be avoided nor allowed to escalate into verbal or physical violence. Equally important is the idea that children and adolescents need a venue in which they are allowed to practically apply the conflict resolution skills they are taught. Peer mediation programs vary widely in their scope and function within a school or system. In some schools, mediation is offered as an alternative to traditional disciplinary measures for low-level disruptive behavior. For example, students who swear at each other or initiate fights might agree to participate in mediation rather than being referred to the playground supervisor or principal. In other schools, mediation takes place in addition to disciplinary measures. In either case, peer mediation is intended to prevent the escalation of conflict. Serious violations of rules or violent attacks are not usually addressed through mediation.
Although peer mediation is primarily carried out by students, at least a few staff members and teachers are actively involved in training and facilitation. Ideally, peer mediation will encourage a culture of open communication and peaceful solutions to conflict. According to the NAME, five of the most common purposes of a school mediation program are:
- to increase communication among students, teachers, administrators, and parents.
- to reduce school violence, vandalism, and suspensions.
- to encourage children, adolescents, and teens to resolve their own disputes by developing listening, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.
- to teach peaceful resolution of differences, a skill needed to live in a multicultural world.
- to motivate students' interest in conflict resolution, justice, and the American legal system, and encourage active citizenship.
Training of peer mediators
Programs vary in whether they train all the students in the school to act as mediators, or only as a "cadre" of selected students. The cadre approach may be used initially with the intention of expanding later. Mediators either volunteer or are nominated by teachers or other students; often, students who are "troublemakers" turn out to be the best mediators. Many programs have a required conflict resolution course sometime during the middle school years. Training is done by teachers, counseling staff, or outside consultants, and ranges from the semester-long course (15-20 hours of training), to a two-day workshop for middle or high school students, to a three-hour workshop for elementary students. Through discussion and role play, students learn conflict resolution skills such as active listening, cooperation in achieving a goal, acceptance of differences, problem-solving, anger management, and methods of maintaining neutrality as a mediator. They also practice the structured mediation process they will be following in actual dispute resolution.
The mediation session
Elementary mediators usually work in teams, visiting designated school areas and responding to signs of antagonism between students as they arise. They will approach the disputants, ask if they need help, and take them aside for mediation, if the students agree. Middle and high school programs may employ resident mediators in the cafeteria or public areas, using a more formal procedure for students to refer themselves or others for mediation. There is usually a separate mediation room or rooms set up to facilitate private communication among the disputants and the mediator.
It is essential that disputants voluntarily agree to participate in mediation, and ground rules for the process prohibit name-calling or interrupting someone who is talking.
Success of peer mediation programs
It is difficult to measure the success of peer mediation programs. Almost all teachers and administrators report that their programs are extremely successful, and that they perceive a more positive climate and see less destructive behavior in the school. When measuring success in reaching or maintaining agreement between disputants, rates vary between 58-93%. A few studies show reductions in suspension rates, suspension rates for fighting, or incidence of fighting by as much as 50%. Even elementary students learn and retain the knowledge of conflict resolution techniques, and those who participate in mediation, either as mediators or as disputants, benefit from the experience. The NAME found that peer mediation programs reduce the amount of teacher and administrator time spent on discipline, reduce violence and crime in schools, and increase the self-esteem and academic achievement of students trained as mediators.
PEER MEDIATION PROCESS
The process varies, but most programs use the following general format:
- Introduction—The mediator introduces him or herself and explains the rules. The mediator tries to make the disputants feel comfortable.
- Identifying the Problem—The mediator listens to each party describe the problem and writes down an agreed-upon "agenda" that includes all the elements of a dispute.
- Identifying Facts and Feelings—The disputants tell their sides of the story to each other. The goal is to "surface" all of the underlying facts and feelings pertaining to the problem. The mediator asks many questions with the goal of helping to refocus the problem by viewing it differently.
- Generating Options—The mediator asks both parties to brainstorm how they might solve the problem. The mediator writes down all the solutions, marking the ones that are mutually agreed upon. If none are forthcoming, participants return to previous steps. Sometimes, individual sessions with each disputant and the mediator are necessary.
- Agreement—The mediator writes a contract using the solutions to which both parties agree, and everyone signs it.
- Follow-Up—After a period of time the former disputants will report back to the mediator on whether the contract is being upheld by both parties.
One critical factor in the success of peer mediation programs is the activesupport of the school principal, and in some cases of the local community. A comprehensive planning process is necessary to outline goals and administrative accountability for each phase of the program. Provision for the ongoing support of the peer mediators is especially important. At minimum, a weekly meeting should be held for the students to debrief, engage in guided reflection, and receive continued training.
One of the reasons for the success of peer mediation is the fact that it is student-run. Children and adolescents build a culture of positive peer pressure within which they can begin to establish independence from adult guidance. When given the opportunity, they are capable of using their own judgment to creatively solve disputes, and often their solutions are less punitive than those of adults. Research shows that children's solutions to conflict are more aggressive when adults are present. As children grow older they rely increasingly on their peers as models and measures of correct behavior. The potential judgment of peers during the mediation process may have a higher degree of moral significance to a teen than would the same judgment coming from an adult. In peer mediation, students have the opportunity to conform to positive social standards without sacrificing their identification with the peer group.
A PEER MEDIATOR IN ACTION
Roslyn wasn't sure it would work. She had explained the ground rules in her Introduction speech and recorded all the elements of the dispute in the Identifying the Problem phase, just as she had been taught in peer mediation training. What had happened was that one of the disputants in this session, Tera, thought that the other disputant, Sarah, had stolen her purse earlier that morning. Later, when Sarah gave Tera a dirty look ("dogged her out") in the cafeteria fourth period, Tera's suspicions were confirmed—she thought. So, Tera got in line behind Sarah and pushed her to the floor when the bell rang.
When they were first given the options of going to the principal or to resolve the conflict through peer mediation, Sarah said she preferred to go to the principal. Roslyn thought this was typical of the victim of an attack who had never been through mediation before. Mediation appeared to be a way for the attacker to avoid punishment. But in this case Tera was also a victim—of theft.
Roslyn felt sure she could help them forgive each other's dirty looks and the attack. She had been through situations like this before, and found it was almost miraculous the way that helping disputants put things in perspective could change their attitudes. But Tera was out for blood. Though she was talking to Sarah and Roslyn, she was not actually facing them in her seat. Roslyn was worried about her. How could they determine whether Sarah stole the purse, and in any case prove it to Tera's satisfaction? What they needed was a courtroom instead of this mediation kidstuff.
Roslyn decided to remind the disputants of the mediation ground rule that everything, including information about the theft, is kept confidential unless it poses a danger. Then she launched into the next phase of the mediation, Identifying Facts and Feelings. She began to feel more comfortable as she recalled her goal in this phase: to uncover everything pertaining in any way to the dispute or the disputants' feelings about the dispute. She had to get Tera and Sarah to talk.
It took all of fifth period to get through the next phase. Although she was uncertain whether she would be able to help Tera and Sarah resolve their dispute, Roslyn's skilled questioning uncovered more than was first apparent. It turned out there were two other elements in the dispute, a sophomore named Anthony who was Sarah's ex-boyfriend and Tera's friend, and a bottle of nail polish that looked like Tera's but wasn't. Unknown to Tera, Anthony told Sarah that Tera had accused her of the theft, which was why Sarah had dogged Tera in the cafeteria. The bottle of nail polish was out on Sarah's table, and when Tera saw it she was positive it was hers.
By that time they were able to discuss how the facts had been distorted by both girls, based on their assumptions about what was true. Neither of them had spoken directly with the other, only with Anthony.
Sarah and Tera also began to realize that their feelings about him were also influencing their assumptions about each other.
Roslyn felt it was necessary to move on to the next phase, Generating Options. It was difficult because Tera's first brainstorm was that Sarah could return the purse and Tera would forgive her. Though she personally believed that Sarah had not stolen it, Roslyn wrote it down on the board. Sarah suggested Tera could find the real thief and have him or her apologize to Tera. They seemed to be back at the beginning. Then Sarah, fed up, suggested they could take it to the principal. She said that she wanted to be relieved of the blame for the theft of the purse, and the principal was the only one who could do that.
Roslyn looked at Tera, who was much calmer now than she had been at the beginning. As Roslyn was writing down "Take it to the principal" on the board, Tera asked Sarah why she wanted to do that when she'd only get into trouble. She looked Sarah straight in the eye, and said, "You said that when we were in the cafeteria, didn't you? You really want the truth to come out, don't you? Maybe you're not the one who did it."
"It's about time you see that," Sarah said, and a small smile appeared on her face. The tension melted as Tera smiled back.
"Is this the solution you both agree on, then?" Roslyn asked, giving them an opportunity to clarify the change that had just happened.
Sarah said, "We don't have to, if Tera's willing to drop me as her suspect."
"I think I'll be going by myself, to try to get to the bottom of this," Tera said. "I know it wasn't you."
"OK, so what solution do you both agree on?"
They wrote up a contract (Agreement Phase) specifying that each girl would always confront the other one directly about any suspicions she had or rumors she had heard about the other, especially information obtained from friends such as Anthony. Sarah and Tera wanted to bring Anthony in for another mediation session with all of them together, but Roslyn suggested he might be more willing to come if they approached him individually to hold separate mediation sessions with each of them. Also, Sarah agreed to go with Tera to report the stolen purse.
After they set the follow-up dates (Follow-Up Phase) and put the chairs and easel back, Roslyn felt pleased with herself and with the disputants. The students themselves had achieved an agreement without involving the principal.
Ferrara, Judith M. Peer Mediation: Finding a Way to Care. York, ME: Stenhouse Publishing, 1996.
Robertson, Gwendolyn. School-Based Peer Mediation Programs: A Natural Extension of Developmental Guidance Programs. Gorham, ME: University of Southern Maine, 1991.
Sorenson, Don L. Conflict Resolution and Mediation for Peer Helpers. Minneapolis, MN: Educational Media Corporation, 1992.
Townley, A., and M. Lee. Training for Trainers: Staff Development in Conflict Resolution Skills. Amherst, MA: National Association for Mediation in Education, 1993.
Wolowiec, Jack, ed. Everybody Wins: Mediation in the Schools, Chicago: American Bar Association, 1994.
American Bar Association
Address: Special Committee on Dispute Resolution
1800 M Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036
Educators for Social Responsibility
Address: 475 Riverside Drive, Room 450
New York, NY 10115
National Association for Mediation in Education (NAME)
Address: 205 Hampshire House
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, MA 01003-3635
Telephone: (413) 545-2462
School Initiatives Program
Address: Community Board Center for Policy and Training
149 Ninth Street
San Francisco, CA94103
School Mediation Associates
Address: 702 Green Street #8
Cambridge, MA 02139