Kids and Their Conflicts: Peer Mediation Programs

by Maria Simpson
from her weekly series "Two Minute Training"
When I was in fourth grade, a few millennia ago, our teacher established a system so we could settle a lot of our own disputes. Class clown and general mischief-maker, Walter, was elected judge, a decision that completely confounded our teacher, and the class was the jury. We explained our choice of Walter as judge by saying that judges always behave well, and if Walter were judge, he would behave better than usual. It was completely logical to us, but I’ll bet the teacher would never have seen that possibility and would have continued to discipline Walter rather than offer opportunity. (Maybe my interest in conflict resolution was piqued earlier than I thought!
The concept of a jury of our peers is built into the justice system, and in general, it works, except for children. Children may have input into decisions made about them, but do not have control, and often even input is denied. In my fourth-grade class, we had a jury of our peers, at least on some issues, and Walter was not exempt from our decisions. In a case about name-calling, the class determined the punishment, and he accepted it.
Students are often perceived as not having sufficient insight or nuanced thinking to make good decisions for themselves, but I think our class had more insight than the teacher, at least on that decision. Her insight came much earlier when she provided us the chance to contribute to our own decisions.
What would happen if all children learned how to handle their disputes beginning at an early age and rarely got to the point of needing adult help? Please understand that I am not challenging parents’ rights to protect their children or teachers’ to manage their classes; I am advocating for teaching children how to handle their own issues from an early age so they can protect themselves and have more confidence and less anxiety in difficult situations.
Kids have that opportunity (even if the process is a bit different from my classroom court) in school peer mediation programs, and one of the best demonstrations of those programs is the Peer Mediation Invitational sponsored by the Western Justice Center in Pasadena, CA. Every February over a two-day period, well-over 100 students, from elementary through high school, dozens of coaches, and about 20 teen-aged actors participate in mock mediations. 
The benefits of peer mediation have been abundantly documented; less violence, more teaching time, fewer suspensions, greater empathy, more sensitive listening skills among students, and the development of leadership skills as well. And students take these skills into their lives outside the classroom. Parents talk about their children taking the initiative to apply mediation skills to family and neighbor disputes, so leadership development should also be listed right at the top of that list of benefits. Then, students take these crucial skills into the workplace. Having been a peer mediator is an impressive credential on a resume and makes for a more peaceful workplace, too.
So, congratulations to the Western Justice Center in Pasadena for their very successful, Peer Mediation Invitationals and to program director Emily Linnemeier. I am privileged to be part of it each year, working with high school mediators who came together to learn from each other, get additional practice and feedback from experienced coaches and mediators, and take those skills back to their schools, their homes, and their communities.
Congratulations also to the students in the WJC-Encompass Service-Learning Class from the LA County High School for the Arts, led by Artistic Director Kevin Blake. These students were just astonishing in the reality of their performances, all improv, as the disputants in school conflicts during the mock mediations. They were so good, that before debriefing a mock mediation, I had to clarify whether the dispute was real so that I could direct the debriefing appropriately and, if needed, focus on rebuilding the relationship. I didn’t have to. The performers had never met before!
Do your school and your children a lasting favor and explore establishing a peer mediation program if none exists in your school. If one exists, encourage your child to participate.

It will not be easy. School personnel are swamped, and finding the time and resources to identify a coordinator, pay for training, work with the faculty to support the program, and getting it off the ground will take work. Ask the administrators if they will talk to you about it. See if you can identify a champion on campus who will support the program. See if the PTA will provide a financial subsidy for mediation training (which should include at least an introduction to the process for faculty so they will support it). And don’t give up.
Mediation training is gift that provides a real return on investment every single day. By providing these skills at an early age, the skills mature just as the students do, and we all benefit. It’s a long-term plan for a more civil society.