The School Mediator
Peer Mediation Insights From the Desk of Richard Cohen Vol. VII, 11/07

in this issue

School Connectedness

Responses to "The Problem with Ground Rules"

Richard Cohen Interested in Working Abroad in 2008

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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 November/December issue of The School Mediator.

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!

Richard Cohen
Founder and Director
School Mediation Associates

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  • School Connectedness

  • A caring relationship is a powerful thing.

    Consider this:

    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 schools.

    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 upon, and

    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.

    More 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 them.

    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
    Charlottesville, 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 and dynamics.

    Julie Wolstenholme
    ReSolutions First
    Manchester, England

    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 this conflict.

    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
    SAU #1
    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 age group.

    Stella Levy, Co-Director
    Restorative Schools Vision Project
    Sacramento, California

    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 rules.

    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.

    Jim Winkelman
    Cuyahoga Falls High School
    Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

  • Richard Cohen Interested in Working Abroad in 2008
  • Richard 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.

    More Info...

  • 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.

    Call us: 617-926-0994
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    Watertown, MA 02472 USA

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