Mediation & the Mind of a Child
Clayton Joseph Scott Di Chiro
September 7, 2018
I began elementary school in the late 1980s in Santa Monica, CA. This was a very special time for public education in Southern California. It was pre-Internet, practically pre-personal computer, and my generation, as new students, was entering school on the frontier of radical change in the traditional public education system. Also, statistically speaking, it was the most racially integrated public schools had ever been or have ever been since; meaning there were a lot of diverse backgrounds in any given class. This was especially so in Los Angeles County public schools.
My youth was the dawn of the Information Age, and as such, many progressive minds were shifting the function of public education by implementing new technology and ideas into the school system as teachers and administrators, especially in Santa Monica where I grew up. Full disclosure, this acknowledgement and praise of the minds formulating curriculum for the early Millennial generation is a bit biased as my mother was the Principal of my elementary school (Will Rogers Learning Community in Santa Monica) and she eventually became a district administrator for the Santa Monica School District. Family bias aside, my formative public education largely diverted from the teaching style of the generation of teachers that came before my own with the hope of preparing me and my classmates for the dynamic and diverse future we were entering.
A cornerstone of this updated education was the inclusion of peer mediation and mediation communication principles as part of the core curriculum for study. This aspect of my education was developed jointly by the teachers and administrators of Will Rogers Elementary (grades K-5), John Adams Middle School (grades 6-8), and Santa Monica High School (grades 9-12), in collaboration with Santa Monica-based Dispute Resolution Services.
“The program, organized by Santa Monica-based Dispute Resolution Services, unites quarreling students with peer mediators who help them settle disagreements. It aims to reduce fights and give students a cooperative outlook and a sense of responsibility, officials say. "Conflict is a natural result of living," said Judy Goldman, director of Dispute Resolution Services' mediation program for schools… The organization (formerly the Neighborhood Justice Center) launched the $117,143-a-year program a year ago to try to "contain, focus and resolve (disputes) so they don't distract from (students') education" and to show that "it's not necessarily true that there has to be a winner and a loser." LA Times “Talk It Out, Don't Duke It Out, Mediation Teaches Students” by BARBARA KOH January 8, 1989
My own experience in mediation began with the core curriculum of my first grade class. At that young age my classmates and I were trained in communication specific disciplines such as “attentive listening”, a practice designed to help us understand a point of view or idea that was not our own, or that we might not even agree with. These listening exercises required students to repeat what they had heard from one another in an attempt to understand a possibly diverse point of view. The training also required students to respond using “conscientious speech” the practice of repeating how they, as a listener, had heard the others point of view and to further clarify the speaker’s meaning beyond the filter of the listener’s own perspective. These exercises encouraged eye contact between speakers as acknowledgement of/to the speaker; non-interruption, and taught each side to have a critical understanding that points of view could be different without either party necessarily being “wrong”. Often as young students, we were instructed to explain the other’s differing point of view with respect to our own to further understand each other.
These communication studies in my core curriculum throughout my K-5 education served as the foundation of my continued training in peer mediation at the middle school level. Once I matriculated to John Adams Middle School I was trained as a peer mediator. This included a 25-hour out of class training in peer dispute resolution with professional mediators from Dispute Resolution Services.
“The students, who are of various ethnic backgrounds, went through 25 hours of training. At a recent session for new mediators, the students mediated for Goldilocks and one of the bears and for Cinderella and her stepmother. They learned to summarize people's statements and practiced conveying frustration without blowing up. Instead of, "Why did you cut in front of me in the lunch line, you jerk!", it was “I feel upset when you get in front of me because I'm hungry and I waited in line and you didn't.’” LA Times “Talk It Out, Don't Duke It Out, Mediation Teaches Students” by BARBARA KOH January 8, 1989
The peer mediation training I received back then has proved to be one of the most important and valuable skills I learned throughout my life. The techniques and strategies that were instilled in me at a young age to get out of my own story and really listen to someone who is perceptively different than myself has drastically shaped the adult I have become. Further, the practical application of actually getting to mediate and use the skills I learned in my middle school 25-hour training further instilled the potency of their effect in and on my life.
By observing other students utilize the peer mediation program to resolve interpersonal conflict, all participants in the experience and program gained an empirical record of personal success through mediation. This experiential learning mode also gave us young people a responsibility to each other to solve our own problems, something that I have not seen in any other aspect of primary education since. I cannot emphasize enough how important this program was to our development as adults because the program taught a skill and then allowed us to use the knowledge gained through the training immediately and very practically. There was nothing esoteric about helping each other resolve our conflicts. The results were empowering to us who participated as mediators and those going through the process of mediating a conflict.
As I entered high school I continued my official role as a peer mediator and found myself facilitating dialogue for more serious and emotional conflicts around relationships like racism, theft, and bullying. Still, the techniques learned as early as first grade were still needed and utilized to solve these more complex and extreme interpersonal conflicts we began to face as we aged. Ironically, by the time I reached the university level of my education, there was no peer mediation program as professional mediators were used to resolve peer conflict at the campus I attended.
Even so, the mediation training I was lucky to receive during my primary education continued to serve me at University of California Santa Cruz and led me to choose Cultural Anthropology as a major. The fascination and lessons I learned by grappling with understanding the “other” (ideas, people, experiences different then my own experience) in mediations became a challenge and fascination for my study at the university. The goal of any cultural anthropologist is to remove one’s own socialization and norms out of any particular cultural moment and observe the other culture with a neutral mind, thereby avoiding applying a sort of cultural hierarchy based on one’s own experience and personal perspective. This ability surely began to develop while sitting cross-legged on the rug learning how to communicate with my fellow first graders.
My world travels and career as a musician since university has put me into many extreme cultural, political, and emotional situations. I continue to lean on the mediation training almost everyday to keep my mind open to new ways of using conflict as a platform to grow, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. This stance has allowed me to avoid falling back on my own intrinsic beliefs and the systems that created those beliefs in times of conflict.
To my mind, the communication practices I learned in K-5 and beyond serve as a foundation of mediation and non-violent dispute resolution used by professional mediators today. The training of young minds to be flexible and to facilitate understanding of diverse topics from diverse people with a goal of understanding another’s point of view might therefore be the most critical skill we can teach our youth in the context of their global reality. Sadly, the current socio-political environment in our national and international communities does not seem to be moving towards less combative methods of solving disputes and conflicts. More often than not ideas and understanding are marginalized by extreme ways of thinking, and conflicts seem to arise more frequently between fellow neighbors, countrymen, and humanity in general.
I was lucky to have been given the opportunity to learn mediation at a very young age. Mediation in a lot of ways is my intrinsic response to conflict because I began to unravel my conflicts and disputes as a child since I was trained to do so. More often than not, that training has allowed me to look to conflict as an opportunity to learn and grow as opposed to giving into denial and avoidance as many often choose to do when confronted with conflict. The work of incorporating mediation and active/attentive listening at the very beginning of primary education could possibly be the most important thing we can teach children. I applaud the work of SCMA and other organizations that seek to enhance young minds with this type of education and training. I’m also indebted to that progressive group of educators who gave me mediation at an early age to navigate the more difficult aspects of my life.