Did you see the great article about the peer mediation program at Great Falls Middle School in the March 10, 2016 issue of The Montague Reporter? Here it is, reprinted with permission.
Peer Mediation at the Middle School: Transformative, on Both Sides of the Table
By LEE WICKS
TURNERS FALLS – There’s a peer mediation program at Great Falls Middle School that is helping students resolve problems without adult intervention. It won’t work for every disagreement – conflicts that escalate to hitting and violence require involvement with teachers and administrators – but hurt feelings, jealousy, misunderstandings, and complaints against teachers and coaches have all been successfully mediated by a well-trained and enormously dedicated group of students.
There are ground rules. Participation requires two full days of training (for which students are required to make up missed school work), and weekly meetings.
Mediators must learn to stay calm, listen without judgment, wait patiently for answers, and lead people to a resolution without suggesting the answer.
They practice between sessions, looking for ways to improve. They make up scenarios, correct one another, enjoy experiencing different points of view.
Last year eleven students received training, bringing the total number of mediators to fourteen. The state-funded program is run in partnership with Debbie Lynangale of the Mediation Training Collaborative in Greenfield, and staffed by mediation coordinator Scott Smith. Smith is a school administrator who came out of retirement to work with students again.
He strides through the hallways as if he’s worked there for decades. He gathers the student mediators for a weekly lunch/discussion, and without compromising anyone’s confidentiality, the mediators have a chance to discuss challenges, share ideas, and role-play.
He also sits in at each mediation session. “I am so impressed by the maturity of these students,” he says. “I watch them, and sometimes my jaw drops with admiration.”
Fourteen students have been served by the mediation program in terms of training and leadership, and according to Ms. Lynangale, approximately 60 young people have participated in some part of the mediation process this school year.
She adds, “One could make the arguments that all the middle school students benefit from having heard about and seen mediation modeled. They know that there are options available to help work through fights or disagreements, and that people – both adults and peers – care about resolving issues.”
The mediation program is completely voluntary; it’s an option offered to students with a conflict to resolve.
Mediator Alyson Murphy, an eighth grader who has been with the program the longest, says most problems are resolved in a single 45-minute meeting, as long as the participants come with a sincere desire for resolution.
With the mediators’ help, the participants create a contract. It can call for action, or consist of a promise to avoid one another. “On some occasions, the problem is mostly resolved before the mediation begins. Just being willing to work on a solution begins to create the solution,” Alyson says.
Kate Graves, a seventh grader new to the program, says, “I originally wanted to do this to help others, but it has changed my life. When you walk down the hall and see two people as friends again, you see something you helped repair. It’s a good feeling.”
Allison Wheeler, another eighth grader, smiled at Mr. Smith and said, “This is the best year yet.” She has done seven mediations so far, and in addition to the satisfaction of helping others, she also believes the program has brought her closer to her friends.
“You can hear in what the peer mediators say about the program how impactful it is on them, and the students who participate in mediations,” says Annie Leonard, who is in her first year as the school’s principal. “It’s important to know that this is validated in research about what early educational experiences make for resilient adults.”
Leonard cites four “protective factors” necessary for youth development, and explains how the mediation program addresses all four. The first three are positive mindset (“shown in the way the mediators talk about practicing their craft and seeing mistakes as part of learning”); relationships (“shown in the mutually supportive ties between the mediators themselves, and the mediators and Mr. Smith”); and self-care (“shown in how the mediators talk about learning to balance school work, mediations, sports, arts and other activities”).
The last protective factor, Leonard says, is purpose. She describes “the deep sense that these students have of needing, and wanting, to do something beyond themselves for the benefit of their community.
“I’m just proud to be part of a school that recognizes how important it is to support students developing resilience in this way.”
Leonard’s reference to self-care emerged from one of the last questions during my group interview with the mediators. I asked the students what other activities they were engaged in, because I was curious to know if the peer mediation program allowed enough time for sports or the arts. I anticipated that it would not, but I was wrong.
Most are three-season athletes; many also play an instrument. One is on the yearbook staff; another is a member of the gay/straight alliance; yet another belongs to the anti-cyber bullying group. They ride horses, dance, play softball and tennis, swim, and serve on the student council. I could not write fast enough to capture it all.
When asked how they manage, most laughed and said it isn’t hard if you give up sleeping.
But they didn’t look tired. They looked energetic and resilient, and proud of themselves, as they should be.