Conflict resolution/peer mediation is a process in which student peer mediators, often recruited from among interested students and trained by trained school staff, use a step-by-step model to help peers negotiate the resolution of conflicts while respecting each disputant’s needs. The use of peer mediation as a conflict resolution approach has expanded as schools have increasingly sought to reduce violence, eliminate bullying, and encourage the peaceful resolution of conflicts. The first peer mediation program, Teaching Students to Be Peacemakers,dates back to the 1960s and is still widely used. In 1972, another popular conflict resolution curriculum, Children’s Creative Response to Conflict, was developed to train teachers to teach students about nonviolence. In 2007, Rita Schellenberg, a professional school counselor, developed Peace Pals.
Most of the models used in peer mediation curriculum utilize some version of the following six steps:
- The disputants agree to confidential mediation with a peer mediator.
- The peer mediator hears the disputants’ points of view.
- The peer mediator helps the disputants focus on their shared interests.
- The peer mediator works with the disputants to brainstorm win-win options, which are written down on a worksheet.
- The peer mediator and the disputants evaluate each option.
- When a resolution is reached, an agreement is created, both disputants sign it in the presence of the mediator, and then all parties shake hands.
Typically, during peer mediation sessions, the peer mediator sits (sometimes at a table) with the two disputants. Most of the conflicts mediated in schools involve verbal and physical fights between students, gossip, name calling, and ongoing disagreements.
Peer mediation among students has many advantages over other conflict resolution approaches. First, it recognizes that only the disputants can resolve their own conflicts, and that they can best determine a suitable resolution. Second, a resolution that is reached by mutual agreement of the disputants is more likely to succeed than a resolution imposed by school authorities. Third, the use of peer mediators makes the process age appropriate. Fourth, peer mediators can help to normalize the use of peer mediation to resolve conflicts among peers, as they understand their peers better than do adults.
Research has identified numerous benefits as accruing from peer mediation programs, particularly among students in the lower grade levels. Schools with effective peer mediation programs report fewer physical fights among students and an overall reduction in disciplinary problems. Peer mediators also benefit from participating in peer mediation, in that they gain peer mediation knowledge and gain self-confidence.
Peer mediation has its critics, however. Some contend that peer mediation does not solve all conflicts and that peer mediators end up addressing only easily resolvable conflicts. Critics also claim that peer mediators and teachers, including those supervising mediators, typically receive inadequate training (a few hours, if that much). Another criticism levied against peer mediation programs is that peer mediators often end up being disliked by their peers, who see them as rule enforcers. For peer mediation to work, mediators must be viewed as impartial, which is not always the case given that mediators are part of peer hierarchies and friendship networks. Most research suggests that such programs produce little to no educational benefit for disputants. Another criticism is that some disputants participate in peer mediation sessions to avoid punishment; thus they may go through the motions and sign an agreement when, in fact, the conflict was not actually resolved. What is more, critics point out, peer mediation is not especially effective with older students, whose conflicts tend to be more complex and serious, and when peers’ opinions of them become even more important to students.
Researchers have found numerous impediments to successful implementation of peer mediation programs. Some students are reluctant to participate in peer mediation because they are not informed, or are ill informed, about what peer mediation is and how it works. If they do understand peer mediation, some students do not seek out peer mediators because they do not trust that their privacy will be respected and worry that what they say during peer mediation sessions will not remain confidential. What is more, some students worry that they will be humiliated and embarrassed for either serving as peer mediators or seeking them out, because peer mediation is perceived as “not cool” within their peer world; this concern is especially likely if those involved are less popular students. Also, students may choose to choose to deal with their own problems and may prefer revenge over mediation. Students who are passive may be unwilling to seek out peer mediators to help them resolve a conflict.
Some impediments have to do with school climate and issues related to peer mediation programs. Many teachers do not consistently use conflict resolution and peer mediation strategies; that is, conflicts between school staff and with students may not be resolved using mediation approaches. Lack of ongoing training for teachers and peer mediators has also proved to be a challenge. Fewer students choose to participate in peer mediation when peer mediators are not as diverse as the student population at a school. Students are also likely to dismiss peer mediation if the disciplinary policies at their schools are not aligned with peer mediation principles–that is, if the policies focus on punishment rather than on conflict resolution. When students do not feel respected by teachers, they are less likely to support peer mediation programs. Overcrowding at schools and student concerns about their well-being and safety also make students less likely to seek out mediation. Lack of resources, such as a physical space in which to hold peer mediation sessions, and the lack of district-wide mediation programming limit the effectiveness of peer mediation as well. Another hindrance to the effective implementation of peer mediation programs is the set of social norms that students bring with them from home, the community, and the society at large about violence, aggression, and conflicts.
Given these impediments to effective peer mediation, educators and scholars have made the following suggestions to increase the value of such programs. School districts need to provide teachers–particularly those supervising peer mediators–with the necessary training and time. Peer mediation training should begin in elementary school years. Training should include a better understanding of race, class, gender, sexuality, learning styles, communication skills, and social skills.
- Burrell, N. A., Zirbel, C. S., & Allen, M. (2003). Evaluating peer mediation outcomes in educational settings: A meta-analytic review. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 21(1), 7-26.
- Casella, R. (2000). The benefits of peer mediation in the context of urban conflict and program status. Urban Education, 35, 324-355.
- Cohen, R. (2005). Students resolving conflict. New York: Good Year Books.
- Cremin, H. (2007). Peer mediation: Citizenship and social inclusion in action. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.
- Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2001). Teaching students to be peacemakers: A meta-analysis. Annual Meeting of Educational Research Association, Seattle, WA.
- Jones, T. S. (2004). Conflict resolution education: The field, the findings, and the future. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 22(1-2), 233-267.
- Schellenberg, R., Parks-Savage, A., & Rehfuss, M. (2007). Reducing levels of elementary school violence with peer mediation. Professional School Counseling, 10(5), 475-481.
- Theberge, S. K., & Karan, O. C. (2004). Six factors inhibiting the use of peer mediation in a junior high school. Professional School Counseling, 7(4), 283-290.