With a few tools, kids can do a lot to solve their own conflicts, and elementary school – or earlier – is a good time to begin developing those skills. Mike Maday, a professional mediator and trainer, helps schools set up conflict resolution and mediation programs.
In reports from 4th and 5th grade mediators, the solutions agreed to by kids involved in conflicts may sound simple: "Start a new game and don’t cheat," "Play together the right way," or "Try not to fight and just forget about it." But the conflicts these solutions address – name calling, or fighting over tether ball rules, space on the basketball court, or a Frisbee – are real and sometimes end in violent behavior. Mediators help kids move beyond conflict and get on with recess, with lunch, with life.
A student mediator’s job is not to tell other kids how to solve their problem, to act like a judge, or to discipline those involved. The mediator’s job is to help those in conflict find their own solutions to the problem.
Mediators are trained to intervene. Because they are dealing with peers, they are often able to catch conflicts at an early stage, when adults might miss them. When it looks like a problem is coming, they ask the kids involved if they want any help. Assuming they do – and usually they do – the mediator asks each person to agree to four rules:
1) try to solve the problem,
2) no name calling or put-downs,
3) don’t interrupt, and
4) tell the truth.
After these are agreed to, the mediator asks each individual what happened and how they feel about it. They explore the interests of each person involved, asking why each person wants what they want. The mediators then facilitate brainstorming to help those in the conflict develop a solution together.
Most cases of violence erupt when those involved in a problem can’t find a way to solve it.
We use Second Step as the foundation curriculum for school peer mediation programs. Second Step helps kids develop skills to solve problems without violence. It focuses on empathy development, problem-solving skills, and anger management – the three components of conflict resolution. School violence is addresed both by giving students violence-prevention skills and by training kids to assist their peers in resolving conflicts.
Before becoming involved with Second Step, I thought that kids either had empathy or they didn’t, but I was wrong. You can teach kids empathetic responses.For example, we use role playing to help kids learn how another person might be feeling. They learn from cues about how they look – their facial expression or clenched fists – and their environment.
Kids learn to put situations in context. For example, if they see a picture of a boy sitting on a curb looking sad and there is a group of kids standing to the side talking, they begin to see the connection between the kids in the group and the boy’s feelings, and conclude that he might be feeling excluded.
If kids don’t understand the consequences of their actions on others, they are more likely to be victimizers. Victimizers act in their own interests and depersonalize their victims. Whether it’s taking a toy or "I want this money, and you’re the clerk at the store, so I’ll have to kill you," empathy training focuses on understanding the effects of your actions on someone else.
The common response to conflict in America is "I’ll kill you or I’ll sue you." Our society is very litigious and adversarial. People don’t learn that when they’re 35 years old; they learn it when they’re five or 10 years old. We can give kids another way of looking at things and new ways to resolve problems.
For more information on Second Step, contact Committee for Children in Seattle, WA. at 206/322-5050. The National Association for Mediation in Education can be reached at 413/545-2462; Mike Maday at 719/471-0970.