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Elementary Students Learn Art of Mediation

At Woodley Hills there is a better way to solve disputes.

Demarcus Edwards has just told Charvé Ivery that Kyle Quigley’s "big head" is preventing him from seeing the blackboard. "How do you feel about this situation?" Charvé asks with perfect neutrality.

Charvé, Kyle and Demarcus are students at Woodley Hills Elementary School. Charvé and Kyle are in sixth grade and Demarcus is in fifth. They are all trained mediators in Woodley Hills’ Peer Mediation group. At the moment, they and fifth grader Ashleigh Sable, are demonstrating a typical mediation session.

Mediators conduct a session in pairs. One facilitates using a specially developed script while the other takes notes. There is always a teacher present. But the teacher is there only to step in if there is the threat of a fight, or if a student confesses to using drugs or alcohol or committing vandalism. Participants are warned ahead of time that confessing to these infractions will warrant teacher intervention and a response beyond the scope of the mediation.

But for majority of discipline problems, such as teasing, peer mediation allows students to resolve their conflicts without ever having to go to a teacher for punishment. "We try to make it so they can solve it out themselves," explains Charvé. "It’s very important not to take sides."

Confidentiality is key to the process. Mediation is "something people really trust us about," said Charvé, "trust us to keep it in this room and not get it spread so around so they get embarrassed." This trust allows students to talk about their behavior more openly and productively than they would to a teacher, Ashleigh says. "They’d rather be telling what they think to their peers, not a grown up.

"We don’t really give out consequences," explains Demarcus.

"We only give agreement," Kyle adds.

At the end of a mediation session, students are expected to find a compromise and sign a behavior contract that they can both agree to. If they don’t follow the written contract, which is kept on file, there will be disciplinary consequences. Mediators try to find "simple solutions they both can agree on," said Kyle.

Barbara Dees, the school’s behavior monitor specialist, and Carol Burroughs, the P.E. teacher, are the patrons of the peer mediators. "For about three good years now we’ve had a solid program," said Burroughs. Peer mediators are chosen from the fourth through sixth grades. They go to George Mason University for a daylong training with 1,500 other elementary students.

The presence of the trained mediators "cuts down on a lot of the he said/she said things. And once you nip a small problem in the bud" it doesn’t escalate to involve administrators, explains Burroughs.

"The basis for all of this is that we’re a school that teaches character education," says Burroughs, "the kids are always talking about respect, responsibility, caring, and trusting one another."

Respect, is the school’s focus, said Dees. "They hear it from the time they walk in that door to the time they leave."

"They’re practically pumping it into our brains," said Demarcus.

"Even in the bathrooms," Burroughs replied.

"That it is the scary part," Demarcus added.

THIS ATMOSPHERE "makes [students] more comfortable with mediation," according to Ashleigh.

But the mediation process can still be a challenge for many students. "Most times they cry if there’s a controversy," said Kyle. Many arrive with a skeptical attitude. "They don’t say much at the start, but once you get them talking, then they say a lot," adds Ashleigh.

The mediation process could be extended beyond elementary school, they all agree. "Disagreements occur between grown-ups" too, said Dees. Mediation demonstrates that you can "respect a person even when you disagree."

"If we’d make this national it could help out our government or the president," said Charvé. "If this could go world-wide it could change the world." When Demarcus expressed skepticism that he and his colleagues would be listened to by the rest of the world, Burroughs told him with an air of certainty. "You will spread this. You’re going to be way up in the government someplace."

In the mock mediation, Kyle says that Demarcus’s disruptive behavior is preventing him from paying attention to the teacher in class. But, says Demarcus, he would not have to act out in class if Kyle’s head were not blocking his view of the blackboard.

"How do you think we could solve this problem?" Charvé asks them both. Kyle suggests they shift their seating arrangement.

"So you both agree to that solution?" Charvé asks. She prepares the contract and presents it to the participants. "We keep this in files. But we won’t tell anybody. So if you break the agreement, we can pull it out."

Kyle and Demarcus sign.

"You have just completed a mediation." Charvé tells them. "We will check up on you in a week."