Mediation Helps Kids Handle Conflict

By Wendy Northup and Paul Fleisher

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Too often, young people faced with a conflict turn to physical violence.  How can we teach children to settle their differences civilly, with words instead?  There’s a tested technique that can help kids settle conflicts peacefully.  It’s called peer mediation.  This program features problem-solving sessions moderated by other kids.  It’s been used both here and abroad for decades with young people from elementary school age through college.  Here’s how it works:

In a mediation, kids with a dispute voluntarily sit around a table with a pair of trained mediators about their own age.  The job of the mediators—also sometimes known as “conflict managers”—is to help the disputants resolve their problem, not to solve it for them.  Arguments about shared space, possessions, insults, threats, jealousy, rumors, and disputes over girlfriends and boyfriends are all appropriate for resolution through the process.  A responsible adult is always within easy calling distance in case problems arise that the mediators can’t handle.

Both disputants must first agree to a few basic rules:  Listen to one another and speak one at a time.  Use no put-downs or foul language.  And most importantly, agree to work towards settling the problem.  Mediators inform the disputants that the discussions in the mediation will remain confidential; but that information about anything dangerous or illegal must and will be reported to a responsible adult.

Each child takes a turn describing his or her side of the complaint, without interruption from the other party.  Both mediators listen carefully.  Without making judgments, they restate the problem to show they understand.  As they summarize, the mediators are trained to reflect the disputants’ feelings and values, as well as the facts of the disagreement.  If they need more information, or don’t think they’ve heard the whole story, the mediators can ask for clarification.

The mediators then ask the disputants how they want the situation resolved.  Each child gets to propose a solution.  Often, once both parties have been heard, the conflict is easily settled.  Student resolutions can seem simplistic to adults.  For example, kids who have been teasing each other may simply decide to avoid one another.  A student worried about a rumor that she cheated on a test may just want an apology.  What’s important is the disputants’ satisfaction.  If they consider the problem to be resolved, it is solved.

Sometimes a resolution takes more time.  The mediators may ask the disputants to brainstorm a variety of possible solutions.  The mediators listen, and make sure that the discussion remains civil and constructive.  After the parties agree on a solution, the mediators write it out and everyone signs the agreement.  If the settlement later fails for some reason, the parties can return and try to repair it.

Not every conflict can be mediated successfully, of course.  Some problems are too serious, or too intractable.  At that point, the student mediators pass the dispute on to adults for a more traditional treatment.  Interracial conflicts, bullying, and conflicts rooted in sex or class issues often call for a broader, systemic solution.  Mediation is not appropriate to use with children who have come to blows or committed other serious infractions such as theft or possession of illegal substances.  Such infractions require more serious administrative sanctions—although an administrator may later use mediation to help resolve an underlying dispute between the parties.   Nor is mediation used to settle disputes between a child and an adult.

Top students don’t necessarily make the best mediators.  In fact, if only “good kids” are selected, the program is unlikely to succeed.  Mediators need leadership ability.  Successful programs include kids who may lead others in the wrong direction now and then.  This provides an extra benefit.  “Troublemakers” who become mediators begin channeling their leadership potential in more positive directions.

Training is an essential step in the process.  Prospective mediators need extended time to learn the specific steps of the process, and the interpersonal skills they need to make it work.  Most importantly, they practice role-playing mock mediations.  Once mediators have been trained, they advertise their services to the rest of the population.  Mediators should continue to meet with their adult mentors regularly for additional training and to address and questions or problems that may arise.

Peer mediation isn’t just for schools.  Recreation centers, church youth groups, youth athletic programs and summer camps can also use the process to resolve conflicts while teaching important life skills at the same time.

Active support from a committed adult sponsor is essential for a successful program.  Mediators need continued training to build and maintain their skills.  And other adults must guide young people towards mediation, instead of trying to impose their own solutions.  Resolutions that kids decide for themselves tend to be more effective and longer lasting anyway.

When a mediation program is first instituted, skeptical students and staff may be reluctant to participate.  But as students begin experiencing success in settling their conflicts, confidence in the program will grow.  Teachers find they can refer students to mediation, rather than wasting precious instructional time trying to solve every dispute themselves.  Kids learn mediation is not a new form of punishment, but a real opportunity to settle their own problems peacefully.

Peer mediation is empowering  It’s wonderful training for democracy..  It teaches kids to be independent, self-reliant and responsible for their own actions.  An active peer mediation program supported by teachers, administrators and students can even change the underlying culture of a school.  Of course, peer mediation won’t resolve the social ills and inequities that are the root of much of the violence in young people’s lives.  But it can make children’s environment safer and more peaceful.  If your school or youth group has a commitment to educate the whole child, and not simply cram his or her head full of data to be regurgitated on a standardized test, a peer mediation program is worth supporting,.  Urge your school administrators or youth leaders to institute one, or get trained to become a sponsor yourself.

The Richmond Peace Education Center has a team of peer mediation trainers who would be happy to talk with you about steps your school or youth program can take as you consider instituting a mediation program.  Contact us a or 804-232-1002.


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