The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. VII, 10/07

in this issue

The Problem with Ground Rules

Responses to "Restorative Practices"

Restorative Practices Workshop in November

Richard Cohen Interested in Working Abroad in 2008

About Us

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The School Mediator's Field Guide:
Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges
by Richard Cohen
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Students Resolving Conflict:
Peer Mediation in Schools

by Richard Cohen
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Welcome to the October issue of The School Mediator.

This issue explores the common practice of setting ground rules for peer mediation sessions.

As always, please send along your thoughts and experiences.

Wishing you the best, wherever you are,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

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  • The Problem with Ground Rules

  • During a peer mediation training at East Boston High School last week, a number of students bristled at our standard recommendation that mediators create and enforce ground rules.

    Lest you assume we have a book full of rules, you should know that we suggest that mediators ask parties to agree to follow only two rules as a requirement to participate in the process: no putdowns and no physical violence. (Many peer mediation models have more ground rules.)

    These insightful students, however, felt that applying ground rules in this way was condescending, and thereby created an unhelpful atmosphere at the outset. They preferred to present the ground rules as "suggestions" or "guidelines," not as rules enforced by the mediators.

    From my earliest days in the field, I have shared these students' discomfort with the way ground rules are applied in peer mediation.

    I remember in particular one common ground rule for elementary-aged peer mediators, attributable (I think) to the pioneering Community Board Program. The ground rule was simply "Be Honest."

    To my ears, this ground rule had the same patronizing tone that the East Boston mediators identified. And worse, it sounded like the mediators were presuming that parties weren't going to be honest.*

    I certainly can't imagine applying such a ground rule when I mediate with adults.

    One objection to ground rules, then, is that their use can make it appear as if mediators are talking down to parties and expect the worst of them.

    But I have a more serious concern about ground rules:

    When mediators create ground rules that anticipate and preclude potential problems, we may actually prevent the parties from solving those problems themselves.

    Let's be clear: although some mediators work in contexts in which there are significant substantive issues to resolve--dividing the assets of a business partnership, agreeing on who will pay for employees' health benefits, determining the location of a boundary between two warring nations--the school context is generally not one of them.

    In fact, in many peer mediation sessions, the disrespectful manner in which student parties have been relating to one another is typically one of, if not the major issue that they hope to resolve.

    For example, assume that prior to coming to mediation, two student parties have been calling each other hurtful names.

    Instead of using a ground rule to forbid these students from calling each other names during mediation, it might be more beneficial to:

    1. allow them to communicate as they typically do, including calling each other names during the session,

    2. help them reflect in real time about the impact that this behavior has on them and on their ability to get what they want, and

    3. help them figure out their own way to address the "problem" of name-calling.

    Though it seems counterintuitive, if our goal is to enable parties to resolve their own disputes now and in the future, relying upon ground rules potentially does them a disservice.

    In my own practice as a mediator, I tend to not create ground rules anymore. Experience has made me more willing to trust that parties will treat each other respectfully. If they don't, I similarly trust that they will be able to resolve any difficulties that arise.

    This is not a black and white issue, however. Despite the potential disadvantages of using ground rules, there remain a number of compelling arguments for mediators, especially student peer mediators, to create and enforce them. They include:

    Student mediators have a limited time to do their work; usually both mediators and parties are missing other important responsibilities while they mediate. Precluding certain counterproductive behaviors during the session can save time.

    It takes more finesse to help parties address disrespectful behavior during a session than it does to create and enforce rules that prevent that disrespect from occurring in the first place. Many mediators, adults as well as students, may not be up to that task.

    It is possible that in and of itself, being in a setting where certain destructive behaviors are not allowed has a significant positive impact on parties. Certainly Robert Harris' research seems to suggest that this is true.

    Ground rules are a mixed bag. They offer some clear advantages, but they can also compromise one of the fundamental goals of mediation: to empower parties to resolve their own disputes.

    One way to reduce this tension is to involve parties as much as possible in the creation and upholding of ground rules.

    Ask parties if they have any suggestions for ground rules. And, taking a tip from the East Boston mediators, present ground rules as guidelines for consideration rather than as rules that mediators will enforce.

    What do you think? Please share your thoughts and experiences with this issue. How do your mediators use ground rules?

    *I have continued to recommend the use of this ground rule for elementary school mediators, however, assuming that there is an explanation, related perhaps to developmental psychology, that makes this appropriate. Does anyone know whether this is true?

  • Responses to "Restorative Practices"

  • Below are the responses we received to last month's newsletter...

    We are very fortunate in Maryland to have the Community Conferencing Center. They promote the use of restorative justice through community conferences and help to resolve some of the matters that are not appropriate for peer mediation.

    I have facilitated powerful meetings in which the "victim" and his/her supporters, the "offender" and his/ her supporters, and one or two school administrators reach excellent agreements that resolve conflict and repair harm.

    Referrals come from schools and the Department of Juvenile Services. Though I am a strong proponent of peer mediation, I am a big believer that we need varied "tools in our toolbox" for addressing the wide range of conflicts that arise in our lives.

    Barbara Sugarman Grochal, Deputy Director
    School Conflict Resolution Education Programs
    Center for Dispute Resolution (C-DRUM)
    Baltimore, Maryland

    I find that Restorative Justice and Restorative Practices are very helpful as a theoretical frame work for my work with peer mediation in schools. In Sweden we are finding more and more common ground between RJ and peer mediation, and in my project we are continually exploring its possibilities.

    I am going to a conference in Australia in October to explore these issues with other practitioners. You can find information on the conference at

    Linda Marklund
    Project Manager Peer Mediation
    Lulea, Sweden

    I was excited to read the latest copy of The School Mediator. I always find it worthwhile and informative reading.

    I am sending you information about Peacebuilders International, a Restorative Justice program with which I have been involved.

    They trained me as a circle keeper. I presently volunteer with their "Circle Project," which offers services to youth ages 12 to 17.

    I personally have used this process in schools both for creating a safe space for dialogue as well as for addressing specific conflicts.

    I feel their work provides a very important tool in the spectrum of conflict management best practices.

    Niki Bledin
    Toronto, Canada

  • Restorative Practices Workshop in November
  • Richard Cohen will be presenting a dynamic workshop, "Introduction to Restorative Practices," on November 28th. The workshop is sponsored by Project Alliance and will held in Lowell, Massachusetts. Cost is $25. Visit the link below for more information.

    More info on the Restorative Practices Workshop...

  • Richard Cohen Interested in Working Abroad in 2008
  • Richard Cohen is hoping to work outside the United States for four months between July 2008 and January 2009. If you or your organization would benefit from having Richard's expertise close at hand, please follow the link below.

    More Info...

  • About Us
  • For twenty-three years, School Mediation Associates has been devoted to the application and promotion of mediation in schools. SMA's mission is to transform schools into safer, more caring, and more effective institutions. Our books and training programs have been utilized by tens of thousands of people around the world.

    Call us: 617-926-0994
    Email us:
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    Post us: 134w Standish Road,
    Watertown, MA 02472 USA

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