In the UK, peer mediation is an initiative which has struggled to take off. Peer mediation – students mediating their own grievances – has the potential to empower young people to reach mutually beneficial outcomes in the presence of a respected peer, away from the prying and judgemental eyes of teachers and without risk of further reproach. It avoids arbitrary punishments and decisions imposed by adults, allowing students in a conflict to come to a solution themselves.
So what is the problem and why has it not really taken off? It’s all in the implementation. Unfortunately, peer mediation requires more proactive effort than just setting up a simple spelling competition and takes a lot more long term ‘TLC’ than looking after the class hamster – it is a process which involves whole-school change and incorporation. Like all innovations, peer mediation needs to have a sponsor with a vision and a willing staff who support that vision. If more institutions in the UK could realise the power of this incredible program, they could surely utilise the vast benefits which come with it. So why is peer mediation the innovative tool people should, but aren’t, talking about?
Preamble – Altercations & Arbitrary Punitive Action
I have witnessed first-hand just how dangerous it can be to leave conflict unmanaged. There are students, and we have all been there and seen them, who develop animosity towards each other in school and tend to express and resolve their issues with dangerous consequences. This can take the form of violence or hurtful, verbal conflict. It’s one thing to deal with isolated incidents, but if the resentment is left unresolved, it can inflate until a new kind of rivalry is created which isn’t easily extinguished. In UK schools, teacher arbitration and discipline plays the largest role in dealing with conflicts, however it is not always effective in every instance.
When dealing with children there can be a danger for bitterness when a teacher imposes his or her own decision rather than allowing a decision to be the product of debate amongst those involved in an incident. Even through my own experiences I have seen that imposing an authoritative decision can often leave one party of the conflict worse off than the other, or leave the students feeling dissatisfied with the ‘judgement’ laid down upon them by the administration.
I’ve even been there as a student myself, feeling that the teacher didn’t truly understand the full story and feeling unsatisfied with the solution handed down to me. However, there have also been times that I’ve left a ‘telling off’ with a smirk, knowing I’d dodged a bullet but realising full well that this ‘wasn’t over’ with my nemesis. In my own experience in school, the teacher always seemed to have too much on his plate and didn’t have time to effetely delve into the details, or tried to seem fair by imposing punishment on both of us. I’m a teacher now and I still see this happening all the time – it doesn’t help, it actually exasperates the issue. Narrowing down the focus to ‘what caused the fight’ overlooks the fact that resentment between students cannot usually be boiled down to one, isolated incident – the causes run deeper and negative history plays a key role.
Peer Mediation can therefore bring these causes to the surface and deal with the problem at its source, often doing so in a pressure-free and controlled environment. So what is peer mediation and how does it work?
Introducing Peer Mediation
Peer mediation is a solution to altercations and incidents where students can attend a voluntary mediation session conducted by another peer. The key aspect of peer mediation is that there is no teacher present. The student mediating the session will have previously received training and uses a step-by-step mediation ‘help sheet’, guiding the participants through the mediation process. The mediator encourages discussion but must keep dialogue alive through prompts and open-ended questions, making a note of the responses. The two-aggrieved parties are then encouraged to reach common ground by discussing their viewpoints and feelings and then being led into solution-making.
A solution cannot be imposed by the mediator; the students are responsible for this aspect, which places emphasis on a mature outlook. Instead of parting as enemies, this ‘mutual solution’ means a partnership is forged which has gained a win-win situation for both parties, rather than one which provides an unsatisfactory result for the ‘loser’.
Mediators are given a large amount of responsibility. Often what the mediator hears could be confidential and he/she must have the maturity to not take sides. Often, mediators will have their own room to work out (managed by a coordinating teacher who minds the key) and a notice board outside with an appointment chart for students to request to receive mediation. They receive the kudos of holding the position and gain a respect from their peers that is empowering and endearing. Researchers agree that peer mediation boosts the self-esteem of pupils, gives greater responsibility, reduces conflicts and provides teachers with more time to focus on more serious offenses.
Where a solution is not reached, only then will the mediator refer the conflict to teachers to deal with the issue. Often, peer mediation can handle from as little as name-calling up to long-standing issues of resentment. Schools manage the levels of severity and in most cases, physical fights or drug issues are handled only by the school. Often, mediators are posted like prefects at break sessions and wear a badge or hat. This allows instant access to an incident at the time and place it occurs. However, most commonly, mediation takes place in a private room once mediators have been briefed on the particulars of the relationship breakdown.
I have to admit, I was excited when I first found out about this phenomenon. I questioned whether a play-ground prefect could actually be relied upon in the heat of the moment. However, research has shown that prefects and mediators are respected within the school body. Because of their training and their responsibility to report directly to teachers and disciplinarians, their views really count. Students know this, so are keen to resolve their issues with a student mediator so that the issue is taken no further and the conflict stops right there without the need for parental or head teacher involvement. Girls often find the best mediators are older boys, whereas boys find older boys or girls the same age can mediate to satisfactory results. I suppose it depends on the dynamics of the relationships.
It seems to the ‘traditionalist’ as quite revolutionary, even in my own school. But the benefits this empowerment may achieve, coupled with the idea of the student not being judged by a teacher but rather by someone on their ‘level,’ seems an untapped yet bountiful tool. Despite this, peer mediation seems a relatively unknown, or at least unpractised, process in a large number of UK schools. The question of why seems to point to the biggest and most challenging factor – implementation.
The Difficulty of Implementation
Implementing peer mediation is not a simple case of sitting an older student in a room with two squabbling youths. Mediation is a skill which needs to be taught, and schools which have failed to implement successful programs have reported that one of the main reasons for failure was that students were not been properly trained. Some schools which have succeeded in implementing mediation have found that training just the enthusiastic pupils resulted in strong individuals which could be counted on. However, some schools in the south of England found that training an entire year group created greater awareness of problem solving in general. The individuals who wished to take the training further then became the certified mediator representatives, but surprisingly, issues amongst the whole year group were reduced due to a larger understanding of how to solve problems through discussion and expression. Mediators, therefore, were almost not needed amongst their year group, so the ones who were trained then became mediators to other year groups who hadn’t received whole-group training.
Another issue with implementation is the amount of support required from the institution. Schools which failed to implement also reported a major problem for starting the program was swaying the traditional teachers to accept a loss of authority. Students obtain certain powers which never previously existed, so swallowing pride became a tough challenge for many ‘old-school’ teachers and administrators. Mediation also requires a lot of attention/maintenance and usually a school appoints one or two teachers to coordinate the mediators, arrange for training, read the reports, relate larger issues onto the head teacher and deal with the parents. The responsibility and the managing of the mediators is a big job when first setting up a program like this.
Not only this, a school must completely get on board with the program. Peer mediation cannot be a ‘bolt-on’ feature, it needs to be incorporated into the discipline procedure, advising sessions and the school philosophy. Schools which had programs fall through often reported that a failure to change the school philosophy and fully incorporate the program lost out to a lack of support amongst staff and stakeholders.
Bridging the Gap
Online there are now lots of great support websites and a number of organisations which offer to help schools incorporate peer mediation into the school functions. Some offer detailed guidance for schools, while others have agents who, for a cost, can come into schools and train groups of students how to use mediation. I have been on some of these sites and many provide excellent exercises for group work and thought probing. This then leads to trainee mediators learning to take a step back and rationally look at how others feel about actions and to see things from other perspectives. Parents of children in schools with successful programs have reportedly asked for mediation workshops to be held for the entire class as this teaches greater knowledge of self-control and generates a shared awareness of problem solving skills. A class (or year group) can gain a joint consciousness of community and realise the damaging role that dissent, violence and bullying can have on that community if left un-checked.
In 2004, William Baginsky published an NSPCC report on peer mediation in the UK, available at http://www.creducation.org/resources/peermediationintheuk.pdf which was very detailed and provided a lot evidence as to the benefits of mediation amongst peers. Many research journals are now starting to wake up to peer mediation. While researchers agree that mediation is one of the most under-developed areas of educational innovation in the UK (much further behind than the USA), the awareness is growing as schools move to involve students more in their own learning and development.
I hope that in the coming years there will be a wave of implementation in schools who can adopt mediation into their practices and really reap the benefits of allowing students to mediate their own issues safely, calmly and with excellent results.