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Excerpted from Chapter 6: Training and Outreach in Students Resolving Conflict: Peer Mediation in Schools by Richard Cohen
Selecting Peer Mediation Trainees
After you have determined how you are going to obtain training, the next task is to select your trainees. As previously mentioned, student mediators form the core of a peer mediation effort. Not only do they mediate cases, they are also your biggest resource for implementation, helping to design the program, conducting outreach campaigns, following-up on cases, and even training new mediators. A dedicated and skilled group that works effectively together will go a long way towards ensuring that your program is a success. Consider five main criteria when selecting trainees: diversity, personal skills and abilities, commitment, grade level, and availability.
Student mediators should represent a cross-section of the school community. This includes diversity along the lines of race, ethnicity, physical capability, socioeconomic background, academic ability, grade level, sex, home neighborhood, cliques represented ("jocks," "nerds," and so on), and even personality types. A diverse training group benefits the program in many ways:
- Itmakes for a richer training experience because trainees work with those with whom they would not normally associate.
- It demonstrates to the trainees and to the school that diverse groups of students can work, learn and have fun together.
- It prepares trainees for their work as mediators, where they will have to feel comfortable with and win the trust of all kinds of students.
- It provides the program with a resource to understand as well as reach out to all groups within the school. (People see that mediation is not just for this or that "type" of student.)
- It provides the program with greater flexibility and depth when assigning mediators to a case.
- The greater the diversity of your trainees, the more energy and power they will have when they learn to work together. When schools make the mistake of stacking the training group with one type of student, they limit their program's effectiveness.
2. Personal Skills and Abilities
Trainees should have personal qualities that will make them good mediators. These might include communication skills, the respect of their peers, self-confidence, empathy, leadership potential, willingness to receive feedback, ability to speak in front of groups, and so on. Excellent mediators can spring from unlikely places, and so you should be open-minded in this regard. But especially in the initial year of the program, it makes sense to select students who show great promise as mediators.
You should select mediation trainees according to the strength of their commitment to the program. With few exceptions, they should participate in the training voluntarily and be willing to serve as mediators for at least one year. Stress to potential trainees that a commitment to one thing often involves giving up other things, and mediators might have to stay after school or occasionally miss one of their favorite classes. Student mediators must also be responsible for attending all meetings and mediation sessions as well as for making up any school work they miss as a result of the program. Some programs ask students to commit to a certain number hours of work for the program each month, regardless of whether they are mediating or not.
4. Grade Level
To maximize your investment of time and energy, select a majority of trainees who will be enrolled in the school for at least one school year after the training is complete. Most programs train a predominance of students in the middle grades of their school. In a high school, a group of 20 trainees might include 2 freshmen, 6 sophomores, 6 juniors, 2 seniors, and 4 staff. The same number of student trainees in a middle school might include 3 sixth-graders, 9 seventh-graders, 4 eighth-graders and 4 staff. These rough formulas will vary according to the design of the program and the time of year that the training is conducted. Even though in some schools being a mediator is a privilege reserved for the oldest students, this approach is not advisable for a program's first year because it leaves the school with no skilled mediators after graduation.
The relative importance of this last criterion also depends upon the design of your program. If you are only going to mediate during study halls, you want to select trainees that have study halls scattered throughout the school day. If you are only holding mediation sessions before and after school, select a large number of trainees who can get to school early and who don't have commitments directly after school. The same concerns apply to the schedule of the training. If you will hold training predominantly after school, on weekends, or during the summer, you must find trainees who are available at those times. As a general rule, avoid selecting students who are already over committed and involved in many other extra-curricular activities.
One guide you can use to create a strong group of trainees is "Noah's Rules." Like the biblical Noah who included all known animal species on his ark, you want to bring together as diverse a group of students in your training as possible. In addition, follow Noah's lead by striving to include at least two of each "type" of student in the training. Participating in mediation training is a risk, and if a trainee is the only representative of his or her self-identified group — the only Vietnamese, ninth-grader, athlete, teacher, heavy metal fan, and so on — that trainee is more likely to feel isolated and uncomfortable. (This is one reason why students drop out of peer mediation training.) Having someone else like oneself in the training provides an anchor in a sea of difference, and this helps trainees weather their initial discomfort until they are able to form relationships with other trainees.
Because of spacelimitations, however, sometimes you can only include one representative of a particular group in the training. In these cases, try to select someone with the minimum number of additional characteristics that set him or her apart from other trainees. If you can only have one gang-affiliated student in the training, don't select an individual who would also be the only Haitian or the only eighth-grader in the training. Each additional difference will magnify his or her initial discomfort.
Most school mediation programs include approximately 20 trainees in their initial training, although the number depends upon the setting, the type of program being implemented, and the philosophy of the trainers. The training group should be small enough to allow for the individual attention that mediation training demands, and large enough to provide the school with an adequate pool of qualified mediators. On average, 85 to 90 percent of trainees are ready to begin mediating upon completing the training. After the initial year, the size of your training groups will be determined by considering the caseload, the number of experienced mediators available from previous trainings, and the training resources at the program's disposal.
Sometimes one or two trainees drop out of the training for one reason or another. Because of this, either arrange for "alternate" trainees who can be called upon if someone drops out, or begin the training with a few more trainees than you'll need in the end.