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Using a Transformative Approach in an Elementary School Peer Mediation Program

by Lisa Hershman
July 2007 Lisa  Hershman

Peer mediation programs are credited with promoting empowerment, self-control, responsibility, self-confidence, and academic achievement (Johnson, Johnson, Dudley, & Acikgoz, 1994; Wilson Gillespie & Chick, 2001). As students learn ways to handle conflicts constructively, relationships with teachers and peers are strengthened (Johnson & Johnson, 1996). Teaching students conflict resolution skills at a young age promotes social development in ways that can improve the quality of school-life, family-life, and even affect eventual job prospects (Johnson, et al., 1994).

Peer mediation programs traditionally work within a problem-solving framework: Conflict is viewed as a “problem” that can and must be solved (Spangler, 2003). But what happens when there is no solution? Or, better yet, when the conflict isn’t really a problem? Faced with these dilemmas, the problem-solving approach can become frustrating and demoralizing – especially for young children. This article looks to the experience of the PAZ Peer Mediation Program to demonstrate how incorporating elements of transformative mediation can address some of the pitfalls of the problem-solving approach.

The PAZ (Peace from A to Z) Peer Mediation Program

PAZ is an afterschool program that is run by the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, a nonprofit organization that works to integrate conflict resolution and intercultural understanding into New York City’s public schools. PAZ is based in an elementary school located in an ethnically diverse neighborhood of Brooklyn. The program serves approximately 400 students, in kindergarten through fifth grade. On weekdays, from 3:00 to 6:00 pm, students receive homework help, arts instruction, participate in recreational activities, and receive biweekly lessons in conflict resolution.

In the 2006-2007 school year, I was asked to help start a peer mediation program within PAZ. During the school day, students in third through fifth grade serve as “lunchroom mediators”. They take turns mediating conflicts that arise in the cafeteria and during recess. These mediators are trained using a traditional, problem-solving model. In an effort to promote consistency and cohesion, I began training the PAZ peer mediators using a similar approach. Unsatisfied with the results, however, I transitioned to the transformative model discussed here. Over the course of the school year, 49 students in grades three through five were trained as PAZ peer mediators. Twelve fifth-graders were trained in a problem-solving model, while 21 fourth-graders and 16 third-graders were trained in a transformative approach.

The Traditional Approach to Peer Mediation: A Brief Overview

In schools that use a problem-solving orientation, the primary goal of the mediation session is to help students in conflict solve the problem between them. Student mediators are trained to lead parties through a series of steps that focus on defining the problem, moving from positions to interests, generating possible solutions, and finalizing an agreement (Kreidler & Poliner, 1999; Alson & Roderick, 1997). It is assumed that if an agreement was reached during the mediation, the students’ problems were addressed (Burrell, et al., 2003).

In practice, however, the process does not always go as planned. In training and observing students in the PAZ program, as well as other elementary school mediators, I have noticed three common characteristics in mediations conducted by children using a problem-solving approach. First, the student mediators rush the parties through the “steps” of the mediation process, rather than letting them progress at their own pace. Second, the mediators focus the mediation on “solvable” issues, rather than exploring potentially intractable differences. Third, the mediators discourage the sharing of emotions, especially if they are viewed as threats to resolution. Consequently, many ensuing agreements are unlikely to hold. Moreover, the core values of mediation are compromised in ways that undermine the importance of the process for the mediator, the parties, and the school community.

Transformative Mediation: An Alternative Approach

Transformative mediation is often viewed as an alternative to the problem-solving model (Bush and Folger, 2005). While popular among adult mediators, it has rarely been used in conjunction with peer mediation programs, particularly not with elementary-age children (Parnica, K., personal communication, May 24, 2007).

Compared to the problem-solving approach, transformative mediation views conflict as a “crisis of deterioration in human interaction” (Bush and Folger, 2005, p. 46). Conflict is when people’s typical dealings with each other go awry. A transformative mediator does not aim to help the parties solve their problem. Instead, by fostering empowerment and recognition, a transformative mediator helps the parties “get past their bitter conflict experience and move on” (Bush and Folger, 2005, p. 52).

At the PAZ Peer Mediation Program, I found that the idea of moving on, opposed to reaching an agreement, was often more responsive to what the parties desired from mediation. Take the following example:

Tatiana is in the fifth grade. Normally a lighthearted girl, she arrived at the afterschool program looking upset and distraught. When her classmates asked her what was wrong, she replied that she had been in an argument with another student, Natalia, on the playground earlier that day. The two girls agreed to try mediation. The girls were not able to come to an agreement. Yet, they returned to class holding hands. The two student mediators watched and shook their heads in disbelief. One of the young mediators said, “I don’t get it. They fight like this all the time! What are we supposed to do?”

This case demonstrates the practical difference between a problem-solving and transformative approach to peer mediation. In a problem-solving model, this session would be viewed as unsuccessful – not only was there no agreement, but it was likely that the parties would continue to have conflicts in the future. In the transformative model, however, it was a resounding success – Natalia and Tatiana had the conversation they needed to have in order to feel better and move on. Even had the girls not walked away holding hands, the simple act of returning to the classroom and participating in the day’s activities is laudable from the transformative perspective. The hope is not that Tatiana and Natalia will stop having conflicts, but rather that they will approach future conflicts with a stronger and more open view.

Toward a Better Fit

Transformative mediation naturally complements many of the goals of school peer mediation programs, particularly in areas where the problem-solving approach can fall short. When conflict is viewed as an episode to be addressed, rather than a problem to be solved, the idea of conflict is normalized. Children are able to understand conflict as an ordinary occurrence in everyday life and not a cause for shame. Once conflict is normalized, children release their natural desire to connect with others.

In the PAZ program, children are taught to conceptualize conflict using events and feelings they have experienced. During the initial training, students are given an index card and told to decorate the card so that one side depicts how they feel during a conflict and the other depicts how they prefer to feel. They are asked to look at these cards prior to each mediation. The cards are meant to promote empathy and to remind the mediators of their role.

Rather than establish a dichotomy where conflict is bad and resolution is good, the transformative model allows young mediators to focus on the relationship between the parties. In the PAZ program, students trained in transformative mediation do not use a step-based approach. Instead, training focuses on the values and skills required for conflict transformation. Students learn many of the same techniques taught in traditional programs, like active listening, reflecting, and paraphrasing. Unlike problem-solving models, however, students learn to refrain from giving suggestions, to avoid interrupting the parties, and to take their lead from the parties throughout the process.

Without a list of steps to follow, student mediators are freed to remain “in the moment” of the mediation. They are able to listen effectively, connect empathically, and experience a sense of pride in their work, regardless of whether an agreement is reached. The parties benefit from a collaborative process where their voices are heard and they are responsible for the outcome. The school community gains as well. Transformative peer mediation programs can help schools become “conflict-positive” environments where “conflicts are encouraged and managed constructively” (Johnson & Johnson, 1996, p. 324).

Tips for Training Peer Mediators in the Transformative Model

Below are some strategies that helped me when I began training students in transformative peer mediation. I do not expect them to work for all trainers or all groups of students. However, I believe that it is important for anyone looking to move toward a more transformative model to consider the extent to which their training style reflects the principles and concepts being taught. Here are some suggestions to ensure that your program’s form and content are consistent:

1. Focus on Values. The PAZ Peer Mediation Training is focused on three core values: voluntariness, impartiality, and confidentiality. These values are represented by a cartoon character, named VIC. Each week, the students receive “VIC Sheets” that offer practical pointers and help them connect their mediation skills to the core values.

2. Follow Their Lead. The less directive you can be, the better. Allow yourself to take your cues from your students. At the PAZ program, trainers are advised to write down one or two objectives that they would like to accomplish during the session. For the most part, the students are given the opportunity to decide how they would like to approach these goals. Some possibilities might include direct instruction, role play, or a game. By highlighting choices and supporting the decision-making process, PAZ trainers promote empowerment and mutual recognition among the students.

3. Debrief, Debrief, Debrief. The average peer mediation training is about fifteen hours, spread over the course of days or weeks (Burrell, Zirbel, & Allen, 2003; Johnson & Johnson, 1996). Basic training at the PAZ Peer Mediation Program is eight hours, one hour a week for eight weeks. Once the students begin mediating, however, an attempt is made to debrief every mediation within 24 hours. These meetings allow the peer mediators to process their work. They also provide opportunities for skill-building and review. Students also have the chance to debrief with their peers during monthly Mediation Tune-Ups.

4. Make It Fun! One of the hallmarks of the transformative approach is that it preserves the informality and consensuality of mediation. PAZ trainers bring these values into each training session by encouraging the students to make up games to help them engage with the material. Students have invented Mediation Simon Says, Mediation Red Light Green Light, Mediation Charades, and Mediation Trivia. Over the course of creating and playing these games, students take ownership of the content and results of the training process.

Conclusion

The purpose of this article is not to discredit a problem-solving approach to peer mediation. Instead, it is meant to begin a discussion of possible ways to use current mediation theory to enhance the benefits these programs have to offer. I hope that sharing my experience at the PAZ program is a step in that direction.

References

Alston, S., & Roderick, T. (1997). Training Student Mediators in Elementary Schools: A Manual. New York: Educators for Social Responsibility Metropolitan Area.

Burrell, N.A., Zirbel, C.S., & Allen, M. (2003). Evaluating peer mediation outcomes in educational settings: A meta-analytic review. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 21(1), 7-26.

Bush, R.A.B., & Folger, J.P. (2005). The Promise of Mediation (2nd Edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R., Dudley, B., & Acikgoz, K. Effects of conflict resolution training on elementary school students. (1994). The Journal of Social Psychology, 134(6), 803-817.

Johnson, D.W., & Johnson, R.T. (1996). Teaching all students how to manage conflicts constructively: The peacemakers program. The Journal of Negro Education, 65(3), 322-335.

Kreidler, W.J., & Poliner, R.A. (1999). Conflict Resolution in the Middle School: Student Workbook and Journal. Cambridge, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility.

Spangler, B. (2003). Problem-solving mediation. In G. Burgess & H. Burgess (Eds.), Beyond Intractability. Boulder, CO: Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado. Retrieved June 19, 2007, from http://www.crinfo.org/CK_Essays/ck_peer_mediation.jsp.

Wilson Gillespie, C., & Chick, A. (2001). Fussbusters: Using peers to mediate conflict resolution in a head start classroom. Childhood Education, 77(4), 192-195.

Biography


Lisa Hershman, J.D., M.S.W. is a mediator with training in community, parent-child, and custody-visitation mediation. She is a Conflict Resolution Specialist with the Morningside Center Teaching Social Responsibility in New York City. She teaches conflict resolution skills to children in grades 1-5 and manages a peer mediation program for elementary-age students. Lisa is also an adjunct professor at Purchase College, where she teaches Conflict Resolution and Family and the Law.

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