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.
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.
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.
One critical factor in the success of peer mediation programs is the active support 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.
See also Conflict resolution
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.
American Bar Association. Special Committee on Dispute Resolution, 1800 M Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036.
Educators for Social Responsibility. 475 Riverside Drive, Room 450, New York, NY 10115.
National Association for Mediation in Education (NAME). 205 Hampshire House, Box 33635, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003–3635, (413) 545–2462.
School Initiatives Program. Community Board Center for Policy and Training, 149 Ninth Street, San Francisco, CA 94103.
School Mediation Associates. 702 Green Street #8, Cambridge, MA 02139.