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Excerpted from Chapter 3: Peer Mediation in Students Resolving Conflict: Peer Mediation in Schools by Richard Cohen
The Benefits of Peer Mediation
Educators who have implemented peer mediation programs attribute many benefits to them. Hundreds of educators, separated by many miles and vastly different circumstances, report similar experiences. Although it is essential to be cautious because most of these claims are unsubstantiated and based on anecdotal evidence, it is likely that peer mediation programs have some degree of positive impact on all of the areas listed below.
- Peer Mediation Resolves Student Conflicts.
The most fundamental benefit of peer mediation is that it effectively resolves student conflicts. Close to 90 percent of all mediation sessions result in an agreement that satisfies not only the parties, but teachers, administrators, and parents as well. And when students choose to end a conflict in mediation, it is resolved for good. This is because mediators encourage their peers to discuss all issues in dispute, not only the precipitating incidents. Even in cases where written agreements do not result, parties often learn enough about the situation to defuse their conflict.
- Peer Mediation Teaches Students Essential Life Skills
"The emerging Global economy requires workers....who can analyze new situations, come up with creative solutions, and take responsibility for decisions relating to the performance of their jobs." Smart Schools, p 27
Just as reading and writing are essential skills for leading a productive life, so too are conflict resolution skills. Young people need to be able to communicate effectively, appreciate the consequences of their actions, generate and evaluate alternative solutions to problems, and co-exist with people with whom they disagree. Peer mediation teaches these fundamental skills and attitudes to both mediators and parties.
- Peer Mediation Builds Students' Conflict Resolution Skills Through Real-life Practice
All skills require practice to master, and peer mediation enables students to develop their conflict resolution skills where it matters most: on real-life conflicts. This makes the skills come alive with a power and relevancy sometimes missing from school. Mediating real conflicts at school also encourages the transfer of the skills to life outside of school. Being a mediator helps students approach conflict in their own lives and in their communities with new perspective and skill. Comments like: "My husband and I can't argue without Glenda coming in to help us resolve it," or "What have you done to my son? He listens to me now!" are not uncommon from parents of mediators.
- Peer Mediation Motivates Students to Resolve their Conflicts Collaboratively
Peer mediation motivates students to talk things out rather than fight things out. Programs accomplish this in a number of ways. Outreach efforts convey that mediation is the students' process. They are in control, the proceedings are confidential, and there is much to gain and little to lose. Students learn from friends who are mediators or who have been parties that mediation works. Disciplinarians and teachers guide students towards peer mediation as an alternative to arbitration. Eventually, a significant percentage of mediation sessions are initiated by students themselves.
- Peer Mediation Deepens the Educational Impact of School
Peer mediation uses an essentially extra-curricular distraction — interpersonal conflict — as a teaching tool. While mediators model pro-social methods of resolving conflicts, student parties practice resolving their differences using criteria of fairness and mutual benefit rather than brute strength and intimidation. Confronting their adversaries in a non-punitive forum like mediation encourages students to accept responsibility for their actions.
- Peer Mediation Empowers Students
Just as teachers don't teach students algebra by solving problems for them, adults don't teach young people to resolve conflicts by doing it for them. Peer mediation teaches students the skills and then encourages them to resolve their own conflicts in a supervised setting. It also gives students a forum for resolving conflicts that might never have come to the attention of adults. And, although mediation enables students to resolve their own conflicts, it does not exonerate them from responsibility for their behavior: the school disciplinary system remains uncompromised.
- Peer Mediation Increases Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is increasingly regarded as essential to students' success, and peer mediation enhances self-esteem in a variety of ways. Mediators experience their ability to make a profound difference in the lives of others, and their contribution is valued by adults and students alike. Parties participate in a process that enables them to take charge of their lives and leaves them feeling successful rather than diminished. When a mediation session is "successful," every person involved feels like they have done an honorable thing.
- Peer Mediation Gives Students Greater Insight
Students gain many important insights from their involvement with peer mediation. Most significantly, students learn that many conflicts cannot be reduced to right vs. wrong, us vs. them, but are instead the result of misperception, misunderstanding, and legitimately differing needs. Peer mediation also helps students appreciate diversity. Students of different races, classes, ages and religions communicate and work together to resolve important problems in mediation. At the conclusion of one peer mediation training, a tenth-grade girl explained that when she first saw girls of a different race on the training team, she thought to herself: "I am going to beat those girls up." After the training, she understood how "stupid" this was, and how one "should not judge people by the way they look."
Other insights accrue to students who participate in the mediation program. They learn how to give and accept criticism. They appreciate the necessity of taking risks and making mistakes to learn something new. They understand the power of helping people help themselves. Taken together, this explains why experienced student mediators display an uncommon level of maturity and poise.
- Peer Mediation Expects the Best from Students
One perceptive middle school student, commenting on the mediation process, put it succinctly: "Mediation asks us to do the best that we can; this doesn't happen alot in school." Many school structures — hall passes, seating assignments, disciplinary policies, adult-generated curricula — implicitly assume that students are incapable of acting responsibly. In contrast, the mediation process provides a forum in which young people can rise to their highest potential. In this setting, students regularly impress educators with their creative thinking, their willingness to forgive, and their propensity to act upon motives other than self-interest. This is as true for parties as it is for mediators. Mediation challenges students to be the best that they can be, and they usually respond to the challenge.
- Peer Mediation Engages All Students, Even Those Considered "At-Risk"
Peer mediation enables students to learn from and manage a most vital part of their lives. As such, it stands out against a curriculum that sometimes seems abstract and divorced from their real concerns. Even students who have chronic behavior problems come to appreciate mediation. It provides them with a face-saving way to settle their disputes, and many of these same students excel when they are trained as mediators. Becoming a mediator gives "at-risk" students more than important life skills — it gives them a badly needed way to contribute to their school.
- Peer Mediation Creates More Time For Learning
Although difficult to measure, it appears likely that peer mediation programs create more time for education. The decrease in suspension rates that can follow the implementation of a peer mediation program means students spend more time in class. The timely and lasting resolution of conflicts means that students are less distracted when they are there. Disciplinarians need only spend time on conflicts that involve the violation of a school rule or are beyond the capabilities of student mediators. (One school reported a 50 percent decrease in office referrals after operating a peer mediation program for one year.) And with students resolving their conflicts in mediation, teachers spend less of their valuable time disciplining students and more of it teaching them.
- Peer Mediation is Preventive
Peer mediation is not only used after a conflict has erupted into violence, it works in numerous ways to effectively prevent violent conflict. The development of conflict resolution skills in both mediators and the students-at-large enables them to resolve more of their own conflicts. Outreach efforts encourage students to come to mediation soon after conflicts develop and before they escalate. Even after a conflict has erupted, mediation can prevent it from leading to more or greater conflicts. Most large-group disputes can be prevented if the interpersonal conflicts at their core are resolved in a timely manner. Peer mediation can also can be a boon to other prevention efforts. Many of the factors that contribute to problems like substance abuse and teen pregnancy (low self-esteem, lack of decision-making skills, negative peer pressure) seem to be positively effected by peer mediation programs.
- Peer Mediation Improves School Climate
Peer mediation seems to have a positive impact upon "school climate." The program fosters feelings of belonging, ownership, and control over school life. It decreases the tension that results from unresolved and escalating conflicts. It improves communication among students and between students, teachers, administrators, and parents. It preserves old friendships and begins new ones when former adversaries become friends. All of this helps make schools safer and more productive places.
- Peer Mediation Suits Both the Psycho-Social Needs of Students and the Professional Needs of Educators
Young people require an ever increasing degree of autonomy and control over their lives. At the same time, their immaturity and lack of experience can lead them to make mistakes, behave irresponsibly, and hurt one another. Educators must therefore find a balance between autonomy and supervision. Peer mediation accommodates these competing needs by providing a structure within which students are free to make their own choices. As long as they obey the rules of mediation, students control their own destinies. Young people are happy because they are in control; educators are satisfied because their students are supervised — a win/win solution!
- Peer Mediation Offers a "Gender-Balancing" Method of Conflict Resolution to Schools
Recent research suggests that males and females conduct their lives in reference to a different moral center. Males seem to decide what is morally appropriate in reference to what has been called "fairness" — abstract concepts of rights, rules, or laws. Women appear to use a standard based more upon "caring" — one's relationship with and responsibility to others. Whereas men might explain that stealing is wrong because people have a right to their possessions, women might explain that stealing is wrong because it harms another person.
American schools, mirroring American society, use predominantly rights-oriented conflict resolution processes (for example, administrators arbitrating according to school rules). It is therefore important for schools to utilize conflict resolution processes that incorporate the female as well as the male "way of knowing." Student bodies are usually 50 percent female, and young people, regardless of their sex, develop their moral framework during the years they attend school. With its emphasis upon relationships, and because it allows students to act according to their own needs, peer mediation represents an important addition to the way schools approach to conflict management.