By Maeve Corish, Principal of Donabate-Portrane Educate Together National School
As a teacher I have always been fascinated by how differently individual people cope with conflict. Some students find conflict terrifying and avoid it at all costs, others seem to spend their lives moving from one conflict situation to the next and a third group are skilled at resolving conflict and staying on good terms with their classmates.
Since our school opened in 2002, we have endeavored to promote the principles of restorative justice when resolving conflict, and we have strived to place the emphasis on restoring relationships rather than on managing behavior or doling out sanctions and punishments.
When I came across a YouTube clip about Peer Mediation, I felt it would be a great fit for our school. Peer Mediation is a conflict resolution process through which students trained as mediators help other children to resolve conflicts. A number of key values and skills underpin Peer Mediation, including the creation of an ethos of respect and inclusion, advocacy for empowerment and emotional articulacy, and active listening paired with the expression of emotion. I found a training manual by an agency in Northern Ireland called Include Youth and set about training our most senior students (12-year-olds).
Our Peer Mediation service has been up and running in the school since the 2010-2011 academic year. It is a service run for students, by students and it is highly valued by our community. We hosted a number of meetings for parents so that they understood it, and the students learn the process through assembly every year. It has now run for five years and become embedded in school life.
The actual Peer Mediation is a formal process where two trained mediators sit down with two disputants and help them to have a “difficult conversation.” Both sides of the story are heard and summarized. It is absolutely essential that the mediators check how the disputants are feeling. Mediators don’t make decisions or tell the disputants what to do. Instead, they encourage the disputants to brainstorm and problem solve until they reach an agreement that is acceptable to both sides.
I chose to conduct an Action Research project on the impact that Peer Mediation has on the school as the subject of my thesis for my Masters degree in Education. The findings from the research project were overwhelmingly positive. Adults view peer mediation as a great opportunity for students to develop self-esteem and independence. They believe that it promotes maturity, respect, decision making and team building, and they value the programme for its potential for lifelong learning. The main reason the programme is valued by the children themselves is simply because it involves children sorting out problems without adult intervention. Children also value its adherence to restorative justice principles with emphasis on resolving differences rather than exacting punishments.
Without a doubt, this programme empowers the children and encourages them to be active citizens. It has been extremely effective in shifting the balance of power in the school from the adults towards the children. It fully supports Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, enhancing the voice of the child in matters that affect them.
Introducing a Peer Mediation Programme has been very positive and worthwhile for our school. I hope that the positive findings of my research into this area will convince other educators of the potential that Peer Mediation has, both as a successful method of conflict resolution and as an opportunity to enhance children’s participation and empowerment.