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School Mediator's Field Guide:
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Peer Mediation in Schools
Welcome to the November/December issue of The
This month we use the lens of school connectedness to explore
the importance of caring relationships in schools.
As always, please send along your thoughts and experiences.
Wishing you the best, wherever you are, and happy holidays
to all of you who celebrate during December!
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates
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A caring relationship is a powerful thing.
In 2001, a small group of boys were planning a violent rampage
at their Massachusetts high school, one they hoped would be
even deadlier than the Columbine High School massacre that
had occurred a few years previous. Using a cache of bomb- making
materials, knives, and handguns, they were going to kill as
many "jocks, preps, thugs and faculty" as they could.
What prevented the disaster?
A student's concern for her teacher.
The student had overheard the suspects discussing their intentions
and, fearing that her favorite teacher would be hurt, she alerted
the authorities. The police began an investigation, and the
boys were later apprehended.
Of course, it is unusual for a student's affection for a teacher
to save lives.
But the presence of caring relationships, or what has come
to be called "school connectedness," is increasingly recognized
as a vital component of successful schools.
The landmark report known as the Wingspread Declaration on School Connectedness--so known because it was
issued by a cross-disciplinary group of researchers, educators
and politicians who met at the Wingspread Conference Center--even
suggests that students are more likely to succeed academically
when they feel connected to school.
The report defines school connectedness as "the belief by students
that adults in the school care about their learning as well
as about them as individuals." (Others define school connectedness
more broadly to include connection to peers, administrators,
families, and even to the content of one's studies.)
In addition to protecting against students' participation in
high-risk behaviors, the report states that "strong scientific
evidence demonstrates that school connectedness promotes educational
motivation, classroom engagement and improved school attendance,
[which] in turn increases academic achievement."
This bears repeating:
All things being equal, students are likely to perform better
academically when they feel cared for by, and connected to,
the adults in their school.
Unfortunately, studies indicate that at least half of all middle
and particularly high school students are "chronically disengaged" from
school: that is, they believe that teachers in their building
don't know or care about them.
Sadly, a resource that is free and accessible to all educators--building
caring relationships with students--is underutilized in US
The Wingspread report recommends a number of research-based
strategies that increase the likelihood that students will
feel connected to school.
The work many of us do--implementing peer mediation programs
and other restorative practices--can be integral components of two of the those strategies:
1. Making discipline fair, consistent and collectively agreed
2. Helping to create (and when necessary, repair) trusting
relationships among all members of the school community.
Students who know people care about them at school are more
likely to stay in school and be motivated to reach their potential.
There is more than one way to save lives.
Please share your thoughts and experiences...
The Military Child Initiative of the US Department of Defense
(!) has produced a fine report on school connectedness. It
is free and posted online at the link below.
information about School Connectedness
Responses to "The Problem with Ground Rules"
Below are a few of the responses we received to last month's newsletter...
I well understand why others might want to forgo delivering
ground rules: When I first began working as a mediator in the
public schools, ground rules were the most uncomfortable and
awkward part of mediation for me. My delivery felt condescending
and overly authoritative and I even experimented with omitting
When I did omit them, and didn't set the tone and let the participants
know what was expected of them- and what they could expect
from me-the mediation inevitably came unraveled and I had to
back track to get the process jump started again.
As uncomfortable as they might make us as mediators, ground
rules set the tone for participants to have a safe place to
work through their conflict. This safe place allows for vulnerability,
which enables the parties to really connect. And when they
connect, they are more compassionate and likely to listen and
be open to understanding each others' needs and points of view.
It is here that the best work for resolution is found.
I feel it would be a disservice to our participants to omit
ground rules just because we as mediators feel uncomfortable
delivering them. "Ground rules" create boundaries, and these
boundaries give safety.
Ellie Dendahl, Coordinator
School Mediation Program
Santa Fe Public Schools
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Very thoughtful and useful piece. I don't work in schools settings,
but always "involve parties as much as possible in the creation
and upholding of ground rules." The Public Conversations Project also has thoughtful, interesting
and powerful approaches to determining behavior in their dialogues.
My colleagues John Stephens and Marina Piscolish and I wrote
the book Reaching for Higher Ground in Conflict Resolution to
examine the questions of building aspirations, norms and expectations
for productive behavior. Your article echoes much of the book.
Frank Dukes, Ph. D., Director
Institute for Environmental Negotiation
University of Virginia
I also have been considering how we ask the peer mediators
we train to present the 'groundrules'. Typically we give them
a script including three groundrules (Listen in turn, No arguing,
Be honest) and three promises (We won't gossip, We will listen,
We won't take sides). The provides both the mediators and disputants
familiarity with the process and language.
With peer mediators, I have decided to keep the groundrules,
call them guidelines, and add something to our script such
as "to help you to resolve your conflict we suggest that you
agree to the following guidelines..are you happy to agree?"
With adults parties I am in agreement that we keep suggested
guidelines to a minimum. I now ask the parties themselves if
they have any suggestions for guidelines - I see this as an
important part of the process of creating their own conditions
Thank you for your insightful article on ground rules.
As a trainer and a mediator for all ages, I find the clear
rules-no interrupting, name calling, take turns, etc.-to be
more beneficial with younger children.
With older students and adults, I let parties know that my
biggest goal is to have them try something different, saying
in essence: "If you keep doing what you've been doing, you'll
keep getting what you've been getting."
I ask them to allow me to direct the discussion in a more positive
and productive manner; a way that will de-escalate their feelings
and concerns. With their cooperation and willingness to hold
back where appropriate and share where appropriate, we can
come to mutual understanding and a better way to proceed with
Finally, I ask what they would like for rules and we have a
brief discussion. I often add a few of my own (usually something
on sharing talk time, interrupting, and listening better).
Very often the ground rules address at least some of the concerns
that brought the parties into mediation in the first place!
Aprylle Desrosiers, Guidance Counselor
Peterborough, New Hampshire
It seems that the students who bristled at the use of ground
rules were not so much against the rules as they were against
the use of the word "rules." If that word has a negative connotation
in their milieu, then they are right in choosing words such
as "guidelines" or "suggestions."
I would be very careful, however, about permitting any language
or behavior in a mediation that risks re- victimization of
a participant. Mediation is not effective unless it takes place
in a safe space for all participants. This safe space is a
necessary precondition for the emergence of personal strengths,
deep understandings, and meaningful apologies, whatever the
Stella Levy, Co-Director
Restorative Schools Vision Project
I'm not sure that there should be so much attention given to
ground rules. The Boston mediators should instead focus on
how to create an environment where problems can be constructively
solved. From my experience, such an environment must have ground
Often what gets students into trouble and then into mediation
is their inability to follow rules--whether written school
rules or unwritten social rules. Rules are everywhere and we
all have to follow them.
A rule doesn't have to be condescending. Just as a speed limit
of 65 mph does not mean that you will speed, a rule such as "be
honest" doesn't assume that you are going to be dishonest.
It simply means that our expectation is that you will be honest.
Cuyahoga Falls High School
Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
Richard Cohen Interested in Working Abroad
Cohen is hoping to work outside the United States
for four months between June 2008 and January
2009. If you or your organization would benefit
from having Richard's expertise close at hand,
please follow the link below.
twenty-three years, School Mediation Associates
has been devoted to the application and promotion
of mediation in schools. SMA's mission is to
transform schools into safer, more caring, and
more effective institutions. Our books and training programs have been utilized by tens of thousands of people
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