8.1 Introduction: Conflict resolution in schools and peer mediation

Conflicts are part of our daily life in general, but also in schools. Conflicts and difficulties inevitably arise when people are working/living together. Many of these conflicts, especially the non-escalated ones are solved in one way or the other, not always satisfying for all parties but still acceptable. But schools also face a verbally or physically aggressive or violent behavior pattern of students as a way of dealing with conflicts and quarrels, complemented by cyber attacks in social media. These behavior patterns do not only harm the victims of violence but can also negatively influence the atmosphere in a class and create a climate of mutual mistrust. Furthermore, some teachers observe a change in the “quality” of violent behavior. Keeping in mind that students have always fought (verbally and physically) to ensure their status, enforce their interests etc., nowadays an intensified usage of violence can be ascertained. 1) On the other hand, the sensitivity concerning the issue of violent behavior has increased.2)
In a situation like this schools are looking for support in order to deal with these challenges. What are the alternatives?  How can a school enhance constructive conflict resolution skills? This project advocates a holistic approach of applying different measures in the fields of prevention (awareness raising workshops concerning social media), intervention (mediation club and the non-punitive bullying intervention tool No Blame Approach) and curative means like further counseling, therapy etc. depending on the severity of the case.

The aim of conflict resolution programs and peer mediation is not the abolishment of conflicts but a fostering of constructive techniques to deal with conflicts. Students will be supported to learn nonviolent ways to settle a dispute without harming the opponent. Traditionally, students (and adults) think in categories of win and lose, so it is either him/her or me. This is a conflict solution pattern which is prevalent in different areas of society. Constructive conflict resolution on the other side supports a solution beyond win-lose a win-win situation. It is an attitude which does not neglect different opinions but tries to find solutions which are satisfying for both sides. 3)

Peer mediation is one of the key concepts of conflict resolution between students. It is based on the idea that the support and presence of a third, neutral party is helpful to solve a conflict. Direct confrontation and the escalation of the dispute will be avoided and instead the third party (often a team of two trained peer mediators) will create a situation where the involved students are encouraged to find a nonviolent solution they both agree on.

8.2 Background of peer mediation in schools

The principle to include a third, impartial negotiator in difficult conflict situations is nothing new and has been practiced in different contexts and times in private affairs, in groups and organizations or in politics.  It is also a universal idea, not limited to European societies. What is relatively new is the principle that it is not the arbitrator but rather the conflicting parties who find their own answer. Normally an arbitrator listens carefully and then offers a compromise. Mediation believes that conflicting parties can come up with fair solutions for their problem (they are the experts) after participating in a mediation process. And this is also true for adolescents. Students can be trained to be able to facilitate a mediation process and encourage quarreling students to think about possible and adequate solutions.

Where did peer mediation start? The first training programs for constructive conflict resolution for children and youngsters were conducted by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in schools in New York City in the beginning 1970-ies.  In the 1980-ies these trainings were further developed into mediation programs.  Since then the concept was widely spread in the USA and reached predominantly West European countries in the 1990-ies.

8.3 The concept of peer mediation

Peer mediation is based on the assumption and experience that (older) students can assist (younger) students to solve their problem in a facilitated process, the mediation. 8th or 9th graders participate in a training which enables them to conduct mediation on their own. The training comprises approximately 30 hours in which the students deal with the following topics:

  • Definition of conflicts, conflict escalation model, conflict behavior patterns, personal conflict style;
  • The five phases of mediation, the mindset of a mediator.

The procedure is trained in intensive role plays with a subsequent evaluation, key skills e.g. active listening are practiced in different exercises.

Five phases of the mediation process 4)

  1. Opening statement (welcoming of parties, procedure, agreement on ground rules)
  2. Viewpoints and issues: How does each party view the conflict? (parties express their point of view)
  3. Understanding the conflict (what are the deeper issues? Feelings, needs and interests of parties, encouragement to change perspectives)
  4. Looking for possible solutions: Who can offer what?  (Parties develop possible solutions)
  5. Agreement and closing (Parties agree on a solution, written or verbal contract, mediator wishes them well)

Usually, two students form a mediation team. Although a lot of adult mediators work on their own this is not advised in case of students conducting mediation.

A key point of the training will be the attitude or mind set of a mediator. In many cases adults and students tend to judge situations quickly: right or wrong, just or unjust, victim or offender.  Being a mediator means to take a neutral position, not to judge and not to be one-sided. In case one of the peer mediators is a friend of a participating party another student should replace him/her.

8.4 Why mediation clubs in schools?

Unresolved conflicts, verbal or physical aggression can significantly worsen the atmosphere in a class. Often, a quarrel during a break which has not been solved distracts the attention of the affected students in class. Another “classic” situation: the teacher observes a fight between two students intervenes but does not have the time to pacify it because the school bell rings.  All of these cases can lead to frustration and anger or a continuation of the quarrel during the next break and after school. Teachers often feel frustrated because of the missing time to thoroughly deal with the problem. 5)

In order to establish and support a constructive conflict resolution approach in schools it is advantageous to get students actively involved and experience the enhancement of their skills.  So, there can be a mutual benefit for both teachers and students: students learn how to improve their competencies (conflict resolution, empathy); teachers are relieved in their daily tasks. Solutions which have been developed by the quarreling parties themselves are more likely to be successful than a decision of a teacher.  Students are empowered to take care of their own problems with the help of peers. Louisa, a peer mediator from a school in Bonn states: “We want that everybody feels comfortable at school. Young people are able to mediate, not only adults.”  6) and Špela, a peer mediator in Maribor, adds: “Mediation is a process where we learn how to calmly and effectively solve a disagreement between people. It teaches us how to see the other person’s perspective. We learned different techniques how to help them solve their problem. Role plays which we used to practice the mediation process were based on actual disagreements happening in our lives. The concept of mediation used to be strange for us because it is unusual for our schools and dorms but I think it can be a useful tool to solve conflicts. The introduction of a mediation club can contribute to an improvement of the school climate.”

8.5 What could mediation clubs look like?

Interested students will form a mediation club together with one or two committed teachers. A good size of the group is 10 -16 students consisting of 8th and 9th graders. The aim is to train the practical steps of a mediation process, to learn about conflicts (definition, development, escalation model, conflict styles), the attitude of a mediator and the limits of mediation (mediation is not advised in a case of (cyber) bullying, criminal acts, and mayhem because of an imbalance in power).  The first step is the qualification of the mediation club members (teachers and students will be trained together), often carried out by an external expert. Sometimes the selection of students who will be trained as peer mediators is sensitive, not all volunteers are equally suitable. Here the teachers might decide to give someone a chance because they see a potential for personal growth or decide differently, depending primarily on the circumstances in a particular case.

After the training, the commitment of the students/teachers should be appreciated by issuing a certificate.  Alternatively, teachers can attend a mediation training offered by further or higher education institutions, e.g. in Germany in order to be able to qualify their own students. By participating in the training the concept and didactic methods will be passed on to the teachers who from now on can train the next generation of students themselves. It is important to discuss the practical arrangements (see paragraph guidelines for implementation) before or during the training period to avoid a long break between the training and the first application. Students are usually eager to start right away. The members of the mediation club will meet with the teacher mediators on a regular basis, possibly once a week or every second week for an hour – depending on the conditions in school. During the meetings mediation cases can be reviewed:  what went well, did any difficulties occur, what can be improved? If the students don´t have any or many cases yet they might want to discuss how to change the situation.

8.6 Guidelines for implementation

In order to successfully implement a peer mediation program in schools, it is necessary to discuss a possible introduction of this method with the principal and teaching staff and gain the approval of the majority of the teaching staff. In several cases, some teachers who were interested in applying peer mediation in their schools started this discussion by informing their colleagues and principals about the concept and the philosophy behind it. Peer mediation is a conflict resolution approach which strongly advocates the competencies of youth and their empowerment to solve problems independently. This, on the other hand, also relieves teachers in their daily work. Teachers should be asked to promote the program by encouraging their students to try to solve potential problems in peer mediation. If possible, an introductory workshop for teaching staff should be offered by external multipliers.

In a next step the students and their parents will be informed.  A good way to present the program is a visit to the mediation club in classes in order to explain the concept themselves. So the younger students get to know the peer mediators in person. Some mediation clubs include short role plays in their presentation. Parents can be informed personally during a parents/teacher meeting or in written form.  Point out the chances and opportunities the program has. Parents of a peer mediator are often proud of their child´s commitment.

Practical steps of the implementation include:

  • Finding a room for the meetings of the mediation club and where mediation can be practiced without interruption, if possible, hang up pictures of the mediation club, a poster etc. so that students feel comfortable. Visualizing of the basic rules for behavior during a mediation and attach  them to the wall
  • Agreeing on a timetable to offer mediation: g. Thursdays in the 5th lesson or once a day during a longer break
  • Forming of mediation teams, who wants to form a team with whom? Is it helpful to create mixed teams (female/male)?
  • Should the peer mediators be recognizable by wearing caps or buttons?
  • Finding ways to “reward” the commitment of the peer mediators, e.g. by a positive remark in the school report

The implementation of a peer mediation program takes time and is sometimes accompanied by phases of standstill. 7)  Then it is important to reflect whether the program receives enough support from the teaching staff, the conditions, e.g. time frame for mediation are still adequate or whether there are other conditions which could be improved.

A central aspect of a successful implementation process of peer mediation is the embedding of mediation as one approach to a concept of conflict culture in a school which also implies preventive measures (teaching of social skills, awareness raising units as described in chapter 6), intervening measures, (cyber) bullying intervention: No Blame Approach, chapter 7) and curative means, e.g. personal counselling by a social worker or school psychologist. A well thought through introduction of a conflict culture in schools will lead to a significant improvement of the school climate.

The principle, teachers and (if possible) representatives of parents should discuss the introduction of these measures of nonviolent conflict resolution as part of the school profile.