The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen April, 2002

in this issue

No, Peer Mediation Does Not Change Schools

Student Mediators are Born, Not Made (cont.)

About Us

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Welcome to the April issue of The School Mediator.

The responses to last month's issue (see below) are a small testament to the thoughtfulness and passion of this community. It is a great pleasure serving you.

This month's feature story discusses the limited ability of peer mediation programs to create fundamental change in schools.

Wishing you the best, wherever you are,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

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No, Peer Mediation Does Not Change Schools
To renovate a house, you need a hammer. For certain tasks, a hammer is essential. But it would be lunacy to think that you could refurbish an entire house with a hammer alone.

When educators first discover peer mediation, many believe that simply implementing this program will change their school. Back in 1984, I was one of them. I assumed that the efforts necessary to make mediation programs successful would inevitably and fundamentally transform the schools in which they were implemented.

Almost 20 years later, I understand how na´ve I was. I expected that I could renovate a house with a hammer alone.

Now if peer mediation is a hammer, it is certainly an impressive one: It is a powerful tool that can serve both as a means to reinvigorate schools, and as an end in itself.

But experience has taught me that peer mediation's ability to influence change is most clearly felt not on the institutional, but on the inter- and intra-personal levels. Here are two examples of such change:

*Many students and adults integrate the skills, attitudes and understanding about people that they learn through mediating into the way they live their lives. Significant numbers report that they are "never the same," and that this work has enabled them to manage life's challenges more skillfully.

*Parties--young people as well as adults--often make decisions during mediation that change them. Most basically, the overwhelming majority choose to resolve their conflicts peacefully. In addition, however, many parties choose to learn about themselves or their adversary, alter their behaviors or attitudes, take responsibility for their mistakes, and even forgive themselves or another person. All are potentially transformative actions.

Some might argue that these changes within and among individuals add up; that simply having a peer mediation program in school indicates to students that their voices are valued; that the education of administrators and teachers required to make peer mediation viable might lead to more fundamental changes within schools.

I agree. Taken together, these factors can lead to a shift in the way people feel about their school, and in a small way make schools safer and more caring places to work and learn.

But change schools? Peer mediation hardly touches the guts of a school, essentials like the content that students are taught, the methodologies employed to teach them, and the processes used for evaluation. (Not to mention, among other factors, who students are required to learn with, who chooses the content educators must teach, and the setting in which students are obliged to learn.)

I am not alone in suspecting that many core elements of the contemporary school are worthy of re-evaluation and potentially radical change.

But it is folly to expect that implementing a peer mediation program does more than scratch the surface of such change.

Every school year, thousands of students are trained to be mediators, and these students in turn assist tens of thousands of their peers to resolve interpersonal conflicts. The schools in which they operate, for better and for worse, fundamentally remain the same.

Peer mediation programs do provide educators with a process that effectively resolves conflicts so that students and teachers can focus on the task at hand.

Peer mediation programs do enable students and teachers to convert their disputes into opportunities for empowerment and a deep kind of learning we sometimes refer to as personal growth. And the programs do this within an environment that, sadly, is often lacking in such opportunities.

Although there is much more to be done, for me, that is enough.

I like a good hammer.

Send us your thoughts...

 Student Mediators are Born, Not Made (cont.)
Once again we received many responses to last month's feature article in which an experienced peer mediation coordinator described his difficulty teaching students to be effective mediators. Here are just a few. (These opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of School Mediation Associates.)

The comments in "Student Mediators are Born, Not Made" are refreshing in their honesty, if somewhat discouraging. It certainly does seem true that not everyone is cut out to be a mediator, but I'm not sure the problem rests solely with the mediators.

Much of the school peer mediation training I've seen is heavily focused on skills, process and technique. I think mediators will use any intervention techniques more skillfully and genuinely if they have thought carefully through why they are mediating, have explored what they believe about what parties in conflict need, and understand how the techniques and skills being taught fit with the principles that underlie the approach.

Yes, this is (yawn) theory, but it's also the "why" that underlies the "what" that mediators are doing.

Donna Turner Hudson
Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation
Charleston, Illinois, USA

What an incredibly arrogant and European opinion expressed by the author of "Student Mediators are Born, Not Made." The author may be a superb mediator, but he is obviously not an educator.

If he were knowledgeable of the laws of learning, he would understand when and how student mediators are ready to perform the functions of a mediator. Just because he has "trained," doesn't mean they have learned! The learning process requires: readiness, exercise, effect, primacy, intensity, and regency. If these laws of learning are not incorporated into the mediation training process, he has not taught and the students have not learned.

I also find it interesting that his comments concern non-European students. Could there be a bias? Again, such a bias would suggest that his training is not even culturally adequate.

He himself sounds wonderfully effective in his ability to mediate. I'm so disappointed that he doesn't strive to facilitate his student mediators to be just as wonderful and effective.

Hannah Dillard
Office of Education, Mayor's Office
Columbus, Ohio, USA

I have been a volunteer mediator for a local agency for about 5 years now. During that time I have taken several mediation trainings, including neighborhood, schools, juvenile offender-victim, workplace, and several mediation conference trainings. I am "certified" with our local program, and am at their highest "level" of mediators. I also coordinated a workplace mediation program for a year.

My own perspective is that it takes lots more than one or two or three trainings to "make" a mediator. There may be a few people who take to it instantly, but they are rare, and whether they had some "mediator gene" activated at birth, or simply other relevant life experience, is besides the point to me.

I think mediators can be trained, but for most I think it takes a lot more time and experience than typical mediation trainings provide. I have observed, or mediated with, other "top level" mediators who made what I consider egregious errors in the mediation process. They didn't follow the guidelines, and did not recognize their errors. I am very sure I have done the same.

It is interesting to think that in 20 to 40 hours we would expect to undo a lifetime of learning non-listening skills. Actually, I think we can figure out ways to unlearn and relearn, but I am not sure the trainings I have participated in have been able to do that in those few hours. Nonetheless, they have provided a very valuable beginning, for me at least.

What I think is worth pondering is whether the student trainings currently being given are producing worthwhile results, even if they are not the best results possible. Are student programs doing more good than harm? And how can we change trainings to be more effective, or have the courage to ask trainees who are not effective to stop mediating until they can be more so?

Kathy Scott
Vancouver, Washington, USA

I'm not sure that I would say mediators are born not made. I would say that the skills that mediators must possess are skills that need to be learned and instilled long before young people reach the age when they can mediate. Social skills education should be taught schools and more importantly at home starting early on.

Last night at a school event I noticed that a friend of my 7-year-old daughter felt left out by her and her other friends.

I found it necessary to point this out to my daughter, as I have with other similar situations, and to explain the significance of her behavior. At this age, I do not believe it comes naturally to children to think about other people's feelings. We adults must bring it to their attention.

I know many adults who feel that children should be left alone to work these things out and figure out socially acceptable behavior, but I couldn't disagree more. Helping your child see another perspective and understand where another person is coming from is as important as teaching a child how to read or write.

The bottom line is, mediation training alone is not enough. There needs to be more emphasis on "compassion training." This I believe can be learned and should become an integral aspect of all conflict resolution and peer mediation efforts.

Valerie Turner
School Mediation Associates
Newton, MA USA

I often feel the same frustration about inadequate peer mediators. I have weekly after-school meetings with the mediators and their attendance is sporadic and attention wandering. However, I have tried to keep two things in mind in regards to the peer mediators:

First, when I am observing mediations and I notice that the mediator is leaving steps out, I take silent, deep breaths and try to wait until the last possible second before stepping in to do the steps myself. My reasoning is this: sometimes "failure" is the best way to learn from our mistakes.

Also, I try to detach my ego from the outcomes of the mediation. I have no idea if what I perceive as a positive outcome is what all parties involved actually need or receive.

I feel that as mediators, we are planting seeds. Who knows how long it will take the seeds to germinate, both for the student mediators and the students receiving mediation?

For some students, mediation my be the first time in their lives that they are in a controlled setting where they can talk about conflict in a calm and rational way. In my opinion, there is no way to quantify this experience. There are no failures in peer mediation as long as we enter the experience with an open heart!

Melissa Williams
Peer Mediation Coordinator
Hughes Center
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA

As a trained mediator who has trained adults and children, I can say both groups can have a number in their ranks that have the innate ability to mediate all kinds of conflicts.

As for children, I have found that most schools have short (1-2 weeks at maximum) training periods. Substantive follow-up training must occur--having not only the teachers reinforce skills, but also outside trained mediators to assist (e.g., lawyers, other trained mediators from the courts and the business sector).

Children quickly get the impression that what they have learned is just for them and their peers in their particular setting. Outsiders add that little extra to the training and enables children to see that these skills truly follow them from their school setting into the real world.

Undoubtedly, some cases (Luis and Maria, for example) should be mediated by an adult--simply because of the nature of the content. This is why I emphasize lots of training for the teachers so they can assist in the mediation of certain disputes in the schools, even those involving adults.

Bobbie Sparks
Mediator/Student Trainer
Houston Harris County, Texas, USA

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