The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. VI, 2/07

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sTrain The Trainer

Responses to "Side by Side, not Face-to Face"

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The School Mediator's Field Guide:
Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges
by Richard Cohen
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Students Resolving Conflict:
Peer Mediation in Schools

by Richard Cohen
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Welcome to the February issue of The School Mediator.

In this issue I outline my reservations concerning a common approach to teaching educators to be peer mediation trainers.

It is always a pleasure to hear from you. Please send along your thoughts and experiences.

Wishing you the best, wherever you are,

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

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  • sTrain The Trainer

  • Last week I received a familiar call.

    A high school counselor, completely new to mediation, asked if I could conduct a "train-the-trainer" at her school: that is, train her and her colleagues to then train their students to be peer mediators.

    I have received countless calls like this, and I gave her my usual response:

    No, I can't.

    I cannot train the average educator, who has no formal experience with mediation, to be a competent peer mediation trainer in a single training.

    I suspect I represent a minority view on this issue.

    From peer mediation's earliest days, reputable organizations have trained educators to be both mediators and mediation trainers in a single "train-the-trainer" workshop.

    I have never been willing to do it.


    Because I expect every mediation training to live up to its potential: to be not just another class, but rather a potentially transformative experience for students where they:

    -learn and begin to integrate important life skills and attitudes,

    -take personal risks that enable them to develop friendships with peers unlike themselves, and

    -co-create a supportive learning community that is interesting, challenging and fun.

    In order to lead such a training, peer mediation trainers must minimally have:

    · An initial understanding of and facility with mediation that results from participating in trainings, reading books, and significantly, mediating real conflicts.

    · Better than average competency as a "stand-up" teacher, including but not limited to the ability to communicate clearly and engagingly and the ability to sense a groups' immediate needs and change direction accordingly.

    · At least some comfort with the process and practice of mediation training. This includes the unexpectedly intricate task of facilitating role-plays, the ability to competently model the mediation process in real time, and the "show biz" part of training: knowing the best phrase to set up a particular exercise, the timing of a joke, the smoothest transition from one teaching point to another, etc.

    · A fundamental respect for, belief in, and enjoyment of young people.

    In my experience, it is unrealistic to expect that any more than 3 out of 10 participants will meet these requirements at the conclusion of a train-the-trainer.

    This holds true even when participants are experienced teachers.

    And I have never felt comfortable sending the other 70% off to lead their own trainings.

    I understand and share the desire to introduce this vital work to as many people as possible, as well as to build schools' capacity to implement and maintain their own peer mediation programs.

    Furthermore, if anyone can quickly master a new subject area and competently deliver an unfamiliar curriculum, I believe it is professional educators.

    But we underestimate the complexity of our work when we train inexperienced educators to be mediators and mediation trainers in a single training.*

    Peer mediation training is not brain surgery.

    But neither is it shoe shining (with all due respect to shoe shiners).

    The "train-the-trainer" approach is fine, so long as we provide enough training, particularly experience mediating real conflicts and on-going, side-by-side coaching.

    Anything less, and we do the field a disservice.

    I, for one, would rather have fewer highly qualified trainers than many unqualified ones.

    What do you think? Am I missing something? Are my expectations too high? What was your path to becoming a peer mediation trainer? Please share your thoughts and experiences...

    *Because the elementary-aged peer mediation process is simpler than the process used by middle and high school students, elementary educators are more likely to be capable of leading a quality training after completing a single train-the-trainer.

    (FYI: School Mediation Associates trainers-- who are experienced mediators when they are hired-- co-deliver upwards of 30 trainings with a mentor trainer before they lead a training. When SMA teaches school-based educators to be trainers, we strive to co-deliver at least 4 trainings with these educators, who graduate from trainee, to apprentice trainer, to co-trainer, and finally to lead trainer.)

    NOTE: Follow the link below to view The Association For Conflict Resolution's draft "Recommended Standards for School-Based Peer Mediation Programs," which include, on page 19, standards for trainers.

    ACR's "Recommended Standards for School-Based Peer Mediation Programs"

  • Responses to "Side by Side, not Face-to Face"

  • Below are some of the responses we received to last month's newsletter which was about "seating" parties...

    I look forward to reading the newsletter and am never disappointed. I was particularly interested in the piece you did on seating arrangements, and I agree with you wholeheartedly about the side-by-side for the reasons you state.

    I have an additional reason: When two mediators are involved, and parties are talking with the mediators, why would it be desirable for them to have to choose which mediator to face? If mediators are sitting side-by-side, it is easier and, to my mind more comfortable, to look at both mediators simultaneously. If a party chooses, he or she can also include the other party within visual range.

    More parties complicate the picture to be sure, but essentially I'd follow the same approach there as well, with mediators together and parties around the table.

    Linda Stamato, Deputy Director
    The Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution
    Rutgers University
    New Brunswick, New Jersey

    I never encourage tables and I think the whole idea of putting such a barrier up between parties is anathema in the UK. I have been trained as a neighborhood mediator and a restorative conference facilitator, both in the UK, and in both cases people sit on chairs in an open circle (during both the training as well as the meetings).

    I recently had the idea of encouraging schools to buy a circular rug which they lay out for any kind of restorative work. When the meeting is small (like a face-to-face mediation involving two disputants) there would be only 3 chairs on the rug, set in a triangle at a comfortable distance. If there were more participants, then maybe folks would need to sit around the edge, again equally distant from each other. Of course the chairs should all be the same height.

    The circular rug emphases the idea of "sitting in circle" with all its associations of inclusiveness and equality.

    Dr Belinda Hopkins
    Transforming Conflict
    National Centre for Restorative Justice in Education Mortimer, Berkshire UK

    I use "side-by-side" seating with our elementary mediators. It helps everyone feel more comfortable: the mediators, because they can communicate with each other better; and the disputants, because they are sitting together, illustrating that "we are here to solve this problem together." It works well in my elementary school setting.

    Maurie Negrin, School Counselor
    Sangster Elementary School
    Fairfax County Public Schools
    Springfield, Virginia

    I always enjoy your newsletter. This issue, in particular, made me want to reply.

    You may know of the martial art aikido. In aikido, the idea is to blend with your attacker by moving with his or her energy. By doing so, you are able to determine the direction of your attacker and can more easily join and redirect the energy of the attack.

    In my workshops teaching conflict skills, I invite people to practice an exercise similar to what you suggest in your article. Partners face each other, one grabbing the other's wrist. The person being grabbed changes the attack to a partnering configuration by moving to the attacker's side. It 'physicalizes' the "Getting to Yes" maxim that you quote in this issue, and helps participants understand and re-pattern their habitual reactions to conflict.

    Thanks for your article.

    Judy Ringer
    Power & Presence Training
    Portsmouth, New Hampshire

    During our training, Tim, a middle school student, spontaneously arranged the mediation table as follows:

    After class experimentation and discussions, the group concluded this set up "felt" better to both mediators and parties. It encouraged parties to talk to each other, while keeping mediators in sight as a reminder that this is different from talking in the hallway.

    This arrangement also allowed an intimacy and inclusive feeling when mediators talked to the parties beside them. The mediators can also catch each others' eyes to keep in step with each other.

    Melissa Verrochi
    Lila Fredrick Middle School
    Boston, Massachusetts

    Thank you especially for this issue.

    I train hundreds of students each year to be peer mediators, and one of the most important elements is the seating arrangement. I believe that it sets the tone and allows the peer mediator the opportunity to make that positive eye contact that builds trust.

    The side-by-side arrangement also gives the disputants the chance to tell their story to an active listener who will be non-judgmental and create the atmosphere that invites the disputants to tell the "real" story behind the surface issue. We call it the "cross- talk" seating arrangement, and it works!

    Mary Alice Smallbone, Mediation Coordinator
    North East Independent School District
    San Antonio, Texas

    After having received the newsletter for several years, I have finally decided to "delurk" and share my two-cents worth.

    I was a mediator for three years in middle school, and after graduating I became an assistant coach at the same school all four years of high school. The approach we took is different from either the side-by- side approach OR the face-on approach, and we found that it worked quite well.

    We always had disputing parties facing one another, but never directly across from the other (see graphic above). It was discovered that if they got riled up about the dispute during the mediation, and if they were next to each other, physical altercations were more likely.

    Our solution enabled the parties to see each other, but kept them separated by the bodies of the mediators and the table.

    I am no longer involved with mediating, though I have tried to get a mediation program started in my college town. I know that if I can ever convince a school in town to adopt the program, I will apply this seating arrangement to the mediations.

    Cassie Conger, ex-mediator and coach
    Roosevelt Magnet School
    Peoria, Illinois

  • About Us
  • For 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 around the world.

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