Mediation Helps Kids Handle Conflict

By Wendy Northup and Paul Fleisher

Too often, young people faced with a conflict turn to physical violence.  How can we teach children to settle their differences civilly, with words instead?  There’s a tested technique that can help kids settle conflicts peacefully.  It’s called peer mediation.  This program features problem-solving sessions moderated by other kids.  It’s been used both here and abroad for decades with young people from elementary school age through college.  Here’s how it works:
            In a mediation, kids with a dispute voluntarily sit around a table with a pair of trained mediators about their own age.  The job of the mediators—also sometimes known as “conflict managers”—is to help the disputants resolve their problem, not to solve it for them.  Arguments about shared space, possessions, insults, threats, jealousy, rumors, and disputes over girlfriends and boyfriends are all appropriate for resolution through the process.  A responsible adult is always within easy calling distance in case problems arise that the mediators can’t handle.
            Both disputants must first agree to a few basic rules:  Listen to one another and speak one at a time.  Use no put-downs or foul language.  And most importantly, agree to work towards settling the problem.  Mediators inform the disputants that the discussions in the mediation will remain confidential; but that information about anything dangerous or illegal must and will be reported to a responsible adult.
            Each child takes a turn describing his or her side of the complaint, without interruption from the other party.  Both mediators listen carefully.  Without making judgments, they restate the problem to show they understand.  As they summarize, the mediators are trained to reflect the disputants’ feelings and values, as well as the facts of the disagreement.  If they need more information, or don’t think they’ve heard the whole story, the mediators can ask for clarification.
            The mediators then ask the disputants how they want the situation resolved.  Each child gets to propose a solution.  Often, once both parties have been heard, the conflict is easily settled.  Student resolutions can seem simplistic to adults.  For example, kids who have been teasing each other may simply decide to avoid one another.  A student worried about a rumor that she cheated on a test may just want an apology.  What’s important is the disputants’ satisfaction.  If they consider the problem to be resolved, it is solved.
            Sometimes a resolution takes more time.  The mediators may ask the disputants to brainstorm a variety of possible solutions.  The mediators listen, and make sure that the discussion remains civil and constructive.  After the parties agree on a solution, the mediators write it out and everyone signs the agreement.  If the settlement later fails for some reason, the parties can return and try to repair it.
            Not every conflict can be mediated successfully, of course.  Some problems are too serious, or too intractable.  At that point, the student mediators pass the dispute on to adults for a more traditional treatment.  Interracial conflicts, bullying, and conflicts rooted in sex or class issues often call for a broader, systemic solution.  Mediation is not appropriate to use with children who have come to blows or committed other serious infractions such as theft or possession of illegal substances.  Such infractions require more serious administrative sanctions—although an administrator may later use mediation to help resolve an underlying dispute between the parties.   Nor is mediation used to settle disputes between a child and an adult. 
            Top students don’t necessarily make the best mediators.  In fact, if only “good kids” are selected, the program is unlikely to succeed.  Mediators need leadership ability.  Successful programs include kids who may lead others in the wrong direction now and then.  This provides an extra benefit.  “Troublemakers” who become mediators begin channeling their leadership potential in more positive directions.
            Training is an essential step in the process.  Prospective mediators need extended time to learn the specific steps of the process, and the interpersonal skills they need to make it work.  Most importantly, they practice role-playing mock mediations.  Once mediators have been trained, they advertise their services to the rest of the population.  Mediators should continue to meet with their adult mentors regularly for additional training and to address and questions or problems that may arise.
            Peer mediation isn’t just for schools.  Recreation centers, church youth groups, youth athletic programs and summer camps can also use the process to resolve conflicts while teaching important life skills at the same time.
            Active support from a committed adult sponsor is essential for a successful program.  Mediators need continued training to build and maintain their skills.  And other adults must guide young people towards mediation, instead of trying to impose their own solutions.  Resolutions that kids decide for themselves tend to be more effective and longer lasting anyway.
            When a mediation program is first instituted, skeptical students and staff may be reluctant to participate.  But as students begin experiencing success in settling their conflicts, confidence in the program will grow.  Teachers find they can refer students to mediation, rather than wasting precious instructional time trying to solve every dispute themselves.  Kids learn mediation is not a new form of punishment, but a real opportunity to settle their own problems peacefully.
            Peer mediation is empowering  It’s wonderful training for democracy..  It teaches kids to be independent, self-reliant and responsible for their own actions.  An active peer mediation program supported by teachers, administrators and students can even change the underlying culture of a school.  Of course, peer mediation won’t resolve the social ills and inequities that are the root of much of the violence in young people’s lives.  But it can make children’s environment safer and more peaceful.  If your school or youth group has a commitment to educate the whole child, and not simply cram his or her head full of data to be regurgitated on a standardized test, a peer mediation program is worth supporting,.  Urge your school administrators or youth leaders to institute one, or get trained to become a sponsor yourself.

The Richmond Peace Education Center has a team of peer mediation trainers who would be happy to talk with you about steps your school or youth program can take as you consider instituting a mediation program.  Contact us a or 804-232-1002.

Reframing Poverty in Our Schools: Using GIS to Map Inequality

by Jesse Senechal

In our highly polarized political environment – where every policy debate becomes an opportunity for harsh ideological clashes and brinkmanship – there seems to be one consistently common ground issue, public school policy.  From left to right, the argument is familiar.  It begins with the crisis rhetoric of failing schools, achievement gaps, and bloated bureaucracies and then moves to a demand for “reforms,” a term which has come to mean some ensemble of policies that includes standardization of curriculum, continued use of high-stakes tests, introduction of performance-based pay for teachers, and expanded school choice through charters and vouchers.  These policies, it is commonly argued, will “shake up the status quo” and ultimately lead to more efficient, effective and equitable systems of public schooling. 
In a certain respect, this popular political consensus should be reassuring.  In this divisive age at least this is something on which we can all agree.  However, as a long time public school teacher and parent of a public school student, I can’t help but feel discouraged.  While my discouragement is, in some part, due to my first-hand experiences with the negative effects of testing, accountability and choice initiatives on students and schools; the main reason for my lack of faith in these “reforms” is that they continue to ignore the critical connections between the system of public education and the other important social systems that constitute the communities in which schools exist.  Instead of developing policies that acknowledge and respond to the impact of, for example, housing, healthcare, transportation and food policy on educational outcomes, these “reforms” tend to focus myopically on school specific solutions.  The phenomenon recalls the quote by Henry Louis Menken, ‘for every problem there is a solution that is simple, clean, and wrong.’
What is most surprising about this myopic educational policy perspective is that it has no foundation in research.  In fact, if there is one powerful and indisputable finding from the body of educational research over the past several decades, it is that, in terms of student outcomes, what happens out of schools matters just as much if not more than what happens in schools.  The clearest example of this is the strong correlation that has been established again and again between achievement and socio-economic status (SES).  Students from middle class and upper middle class backgrounds score consistently higher than students of working class and poor backgrounds.  While this certainly suggests some school-specific policy problems (e.g. unequal school funding or culturally disconnected curriculum), it seems that this finding would lead to a concerted effort among policy makers and educational leaders to understand the complexity of the social context in which schools operate and to develop policy that responded to it.  The reaction instead has been to move forward with the typical policy agenda and simply “control for” the out of school factors.
One way of illustrating the depth of this problem is to consider the how the system currently measures poverty in its schools: the percentage of students receiving Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL).  The justification for this lies in the fact that a student’s eligibility for FRL is determined in relation to the federal poverty line, however when considering FRL as a measure of poverty what becomes clear is how incredibly inaccurate this measure is.  Not only have studies shown that FRL is inaccurately awarded 20% of the time, but it is also has declining reliability as students get older and feel the stigma of receiving a free lunch.  There is also the problem that as a dichotomous measure it makes no distinction between a student who just misses the FRL eligibility line (for example, coming from a family of four that has a $40,000 annual income) and one who is far beyond the base line (from an upper middle class family).
To better understand this issue, I constructed a map using GIS software that examined poverty levels at a number of elementary schools in the Richmond area.  The goal was to compare school FRL percentages with median income data by census tract from the 2000 census.[1]   For each selected school, the attendance zone was overlaid onto a census tract map and the average of the attendance zone median incomes were taken.  The justification for this analysis rests on several ideas.  First, elementary schools are generally neighborhood schools, meaning that they draw from and reflect the populations of their attendance zones.  Second, unlike the FRL measure, this measure is not dichotomous and would thus allow a more accurate comparison of the broad range of SES between schools.  And finally, even if there is a discrepancy between the true student SES and the school zone income measure I have created, I would argue that the relative wealth of a neighborhood in which a school lies (and the access to certain systems and institutions that might afford) has a relationship to the SES of students.
The maps presented here show four examples of how elementary schools rate on this new measure.  The first, Bettie Weaver Elementary is located in the northwest part of Chesterfield County in an attendance zone that borders the James River and Goochland County.  It enrolls approximately 900 students (93% White, 4% Asian, 2% Black, and 1% Hispanic).  Out of the 184 census tracts in the three district area, Weaver's attendance zone draws from three of the five most affluent – all with median incomes above $100,000 a year.  Consequently the school has a 0% Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) population.  This is an example of a school whose student body is likely to reflect the high SES of the surrounding community. 

The second, Fairfield Court Elementary is located in the east end of Richmond along the Henrico county border.  It enrolls approximately 500 students (99% Black and 1% Hispanic).  Its zone draws from two of the five poorest census tracts in the region.  Like Bettie Weaver, it is a school where there is a strong correspondence between the FRL measure (95%) and the tract median income ($15,419). Unlike, Bettie Weaver, this is a school that serves the least, rather than most, affluent students in the region. 

The third, Maybuery Elementary is located in the west end of Henrico.  It enrolls approximately 550 students (72% White, 16% Black, 8% Asian, and 5% Hispanic).  While the school zone includes the wealthiest of the region's 184 census tracts (a tract with a median income of $170,552 a year) it also includes portions of one of Henrico's poorer tracts ($39,375 a year).  Although the averaged median income in this attendance zone is high, the FRL population is also relatively large (23%).  This raises questions about the SES of the students at the school.  Is the range of student SES as dramatic as the community's, or do the more affluent students from the southern census tract opt for private school options (several are located in the area)? 

Finally, Westover Hills Elementary is located on the south side of Richmond.  It enrolls approximately 400 students (95% Black, 4% Hispanic, and 1% White).  While the school is located in a relatively high income census tract ($53,800 a year), it draws from several less affluent tracts.  It is likely that, as with the case of Maybuery, the broad range of tract income levels tends to push the SES of the student body lower.  It is likely that many school age children from more affluent families within Westover Hills’ zone do not attend the school, but are rather enrolled in open enrollment or private schools. 

The goal of this analysis is not to suggest that looking at census tract data is a better indicator of school SES level – in many cases, as illustrated above, it is much less accurate.  However, the benefit of this type of analysis is that it raises questions and it points to the fact that each school exists within a unique context that relates not only to issues of wealth, but also housing, zoning, school enrollment policies, transportation and development.  Along these lines, think how this map might become even more revealing if it included layers that added bus routes, grocery stores, banks and parks.  As I argued above, these are all interconnected systems that are critically important to school outcomes.
In conclusion, I would suggest that we need to reframe the issue of poverty in schools.  For too long we have moved forward with school policy that considers poverty as a condition that we control for as we strive for higher achievement, rather than an outcome that we can affect.  While we have ambitiously declared within the context of schools that no child should be left behind, we have failed to advocate the No Child Left in Inadequate Housing policy or the No Child Left Without a Park policy.  And part of this call for reframing poverty in schools will involve establishing a more sensitive measure than Free and Reduced Lunch.  If we invested even a fraction of the money we put into standardized testing into creating an accurate measure of poverty in schools, we could have a much better way to assess the scope of the problem and develop policies that account for how the interconnected systems of communities affect the equity and justice of our schools. 

[1] At the time of this analysis the 2010 census data was not yet released by census tract.