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Student Mediation: Opportunity and Challenge

This article was orginally published by School Safety,
Winter 1996.

Most adults have been taught either by example or by instruction that confrontation or avoidance are effective ways to resolve conflicts.When these methods fail, parties that disagree often turn to the adversarial process in which each side tries to prove in a court of law that its position is right, and a judge rules on the matter and imposes a decision upon the disputing parties.

Many people are beginning to realize, however, that there are benefits to settling one’s own disputes.Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly apparent that disputes settled by judges or arbitrators often create even more dissension and animosity between the parties than did the original issue.

Mediation as a means of resolving conflicts has gained credibility and acceptance in many areas of society, ranging from divorcing couples to warring nations. Teaching young people in school to use conflict resolution skills is producing significant results in reducing school confrontations and violence.Mediation training conveys the concept that each person is responsible for resolving disputes in a rational, peaceful manner. To young people who have not been reared in the tradition of solving conflicts through confrontation, avoidance or arbitration, mediation makes sense.

In the early and mid-1980s when many school peer mediation programs were developed, the goal of such programs seemed to be simply to set up alternative ways to settle school-ground arguments, to free up the school administrators to deal with more serious problems and to reduce the number of student suspensions.However, current school mediation programs have gone far beyond those somewhat superficial objectives.When young people are trained to be mediators, they develop not only more effective ways to help others, but also more practical ways to use conflict resolution skills in their own lives.

At first many school mediation trainers believed that only a core group of students should be trained in mediation skills. These students would then act as mediators for other students who had disputes.More recent developments include expansion of mediation training to all students, K-12. All students benefit from training because mediation skills are life skills.

Parent/student mediation classes
One of the most exciting additions to school mediation programs is parent education class. Here, both parents and children are taught basic mediation skills.Such dual instruction is significant because it creates a shared background, an atmosphere of problem solving in the home that is consistent with that at school. Techniques learned give parents the option to use mediation rather than arbitration to help their children work out problems.Perhaps an even more significant result of the parent education classes is that preschool children in these participating families are exposed to mediation strategies prior to entering school.

Another aspect of student mediation training is the emphasis on ‘being your own mediator.’Some may ask, ‘Why teach young people to be mediators instead of teaching them anger management and basic conflict resolution skills?’

In answer to such a query, consider the following example. A group of oppositional, hostile boys and girls are gathered in a class.The instructor says to them, ‘I am going to teach you how to manage your anger.’How do you think the majority of such students will respond? Now, imagine instead that the teacher says, ‘I am going to teach you how to help other people work out a problem.’ The focus of the two statements is quite different.In the first statement the listener’s attention is turned upon him/herself; the second statement leads the listener in considering others with an outward, cooperative focus. One can imagine that responses to the two statements would understandably be quite different, that receptivity and reactions of the listeners would also differ appreciable.

The concepts and skills taught in mediation training are in fact very similar to those taught in anger management training. The difference is the receptivity of the audience. Once young people have learned the skills of mediation, many can easily transfer these techniques and apply them in their own lives.The most effective student mediation curricula include sessions on being one’s own mediator.In such classes, students are explicitly shown how mediation concepts and skills can be used when they have conflicts with another person.

Multi-phase mediation programs
A successful student mediation program is multi-phased.The first phase of CRU’s program is to educate key school administrators regarding the type of time and energy commitments needed to ensure a positive outcome for the program and to obtain the administrators’ support.

Student mediation programs do not run themselves. Therefore school counselors and others who will be involved in the operation of the mediation program must in the second phase also be informed and committed to making the program a success.

The third phase focuses on presenting the program concepts and practices to the school faculty and securing their cooperation. At the presentation, teachers are told how the program works, how and when the student training will be conducted and how the students will be chosen.It is also important to point out that particular disciplinary and legal issues with such as those arising from school weapons or drug seizures – are not appropriate incidents for resolution by student mediation.

Invariably some teachers will want to know if they will be compelled to allow students to be taken out of their classes to participate as mediators. The answer is no. It is important to respect the concerns of teachers who feel the program might disrupt their classes. Teachers should be assured that all student mediators must receive their teacher’s permission to be released from class.

During the forth phase of establishing the mediation program, prior to training a core group of students to be mediators, at least three faculty members are trained at a regional faculty workshop so that they can fully understand the program and help supervise role plays during the subsequent student training.

Training student mediators
Selecting and training student mediators is the fifth phase of the mediation program.Student mediators should represent a cross section of the school’s student body. This cross section includes students with anger management problems, shy students, learning-disabled students, bright and bossy students as well as students who are good listeners and natural problem solvers.A good mediation program holds special therapeutic value for students in each of these groups:

For the angry, oppositional students, mediation offers a way to channel energy in a positive direction. For shy and learning-disabled students, mediation programs can help raise self-esteem. For bright and bossy students, serving as a mediator involves being able to wait for the disputants to arrive at a satisfactory solution, a scenario that can present a real challenge for such students.

At elementary schools, conflict managers are usually nominated by teachers.At secondary levels, choosing students is best accomplished by making brief recruiting presentations to each classroom.A good way to recruit volunteers is to conduct a brief discussion of how discipline is currently administered and then describe how student mediation works as an alternative. Usually hundreds of students volunteer, and the challenge becomes how to choose the 30 students to be trained. Student training is best conducted in four sessions over a two-week period. The training sessions last two hours at the elementary level and three hours at the secondary level. Although the sessions may be conducted back-to-back over a two-day period, the wealth of information presented is best assimilated when the sessions are a few days apart.

Training components include:

  • Ways to deal with conflict;
  • The mediation process;
  • Listening skills
  • Feelings and ‘I’ messages;
  • Diversity and conflict;
  • Mediation techniques;
  • Dealing with difficult situations
  • Being your own mediator

Mini-training for faculty
Once student mediators complete their training, faculty then take part during the program’s sixth phase. This three-hour introduction to mediation concepts and skills gives faculty members the opportunity to learn about mediation and to observe what their students have already learned. Newly trained student mediators help supervise the faculty role plays during this training session.Most teachers are surprised and impressed to see what their students know about mediation.Additional goals of the faculty training are to obtain appropriate referrals from the faculty for the mediation program and to create an awareness that mediation concepts and techniques can be taught by classroom teachers as part of the regular school curriculum.

Many schools are now using their team of trained student mediators to teach mediation skills to all students in the school, a seventh phase of the program.With support and assistance of the faculty, sessions emphasizing ‘being your own mediator’ are conducted during class time.In addition to teaching problem-solving concepts to others, student mediators reinforce the skills and concepts they have learned in their initial training.

CRU’s mediation model is comprehensive since it provides a core group of intensively trained faculty and students and ultimately reaches the entire school population to educate and inform them about mediation as a dispute resolution tool.After the completion of first year of the program, most schools can progress to the eighth and final phase ñ that of ensuring continuation and revitalization of the program by using CRU’s manuals and videos to reinforce concepts of mediation and to provide training for students and faculty members new to the program.

Student mediation programs offer both challenges and opportunities. Such programs are challenging because training and implementation of the program requires skill-building with as well as significant time commitment and dedication on the part of faculty. Conflict resolution training offers opportunities to positively impact students at all levels and to ultimately reduce violence in schools and in society. Mediation training is a proactive way to help young people learn positive life skills ñ and thus is a means of making a priority investment in this nation’s future.

Students receive unexpected benefits from student mediation training
One of the most exciting things about student mediation training is its therapeutic effect upon young people.In the following true stories about students who have participated in mediation training, names of the individuals have been changed to protect their identities.

Darrel was a sensitive, insightful eighth-grader with multiple behavior problems.In fact, he was suspended from school during the course of the mediation training. However, Darrel was so intrigued by mediation that he came back to school to participate in the training, which was conducted after school. Darrel became one of the school’s most effective mediators. At last report, he had significantly changed his behavior, gone on to high school and graduated in 1995.

Samuel was the most disruptive member of his elementary school mediation training class.CRU trainers were especially frustrated by Samuel’s incessant kicking of a musical instrument that he brought to class. Two years later, CRU trainers were conducting middle school training and to their dismay, Samuel was again in the class. Amazingly, his behavior had changed dramatically. Samuel was now able to use his intelligence in a constructive manner, and he became a major contributor to the mediation training class.

Some students who benefit from mediation training are very shy and withdrawn. Diane was a high school student who hardly said a work during the mediation training.About two weeks after student training, CRU trainers returned to her school to conduct a faculty mini-training session.Diane was chosen to help CRU trainers by supervising faculty role plays. After observing Diane calmly and confidently instructing faculty on the process and techniques of mediation, the school counselor and CRU trainers could hardly believe the transformation. Such dramatic turnarounds can result from investing in young people.


Nancy Kaplan

Nancy Kaplan, MSW is the Executive Director of CRU Institute, a non-profit organization that teaches mediation skills to students, faculty and parents. In addition to developing the peer mediation curriculum and original videos, Ms. Kaplan has directed CRU’s peer mediation program for over 12 years. She has trained in numerous… MORE >

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