Peer support schemes can benefit staff and pupils. Jaci Smith describes one initiative and explains how to get started.
Peer mediation, as with other peer support schemes, can contribute greatly to improving the learning environment in schools. Negative behaviour such as bullying and truancy can be significantly reduced. The extent to which these results are achievable is influenced by the way in which peer mediation schemes are introduced. For maximum benefit, a whole-school approach is recommended, which includes training and support for staff and pupils.
What is peer mediation?
Peer mediation (PM) is a process whereby children and young people, trained in the principles and skills of mediation, help disputants of their own age group, and younger, to find solutions to a range of conflicts. The theoretical basis for PM is that a restorative approach to dealing with conflict can positively transform the school environment.
At schools where PM has been introduced, staff report many positive changes, including:
- a more relaxed and positive learning environment
- reduced staff time in dealing with pupil conflicts
- a reduction in the incidence of behavioural problems and bullying (though some schools also see an initial increase in reported bullying)
- a reduction in truancy (Baginsky, 2004).
Implementing PM does not guarantee such outcomes, however, and should not be introduced solely as a means of tackling pupils’ challenging behaviour.
Successful projects are reliant on the foundations in place when a scheme is introduced. Attempting to implement PM in a school where the ethos is not conducive is frustrating and demoralising for staff and an inefficient use of resources. More importantly, it can mean setting children up to fail, with all the negative repercussions that can have on confidence, behaviour and academic performance.
Evidence suggests that schemes implemented using a whole-school approach are significantly more likely to succeed. This includes a supportive management team, and training for teachers and pupils. As L Renton (1993) puts it: ‘No matter how good an idea, no matter how exciting the practice in individual classrooms, an attempt to change will fade and die without whole-school practices in place to support it.’
Invariably many staff will not have the skills necessary to deal with bullying. Assisting children to deal positively with conflict can be undermined by staff who are unaware of, or resistant to, a restorative approach. Thus, all school staff and pupils, and if possible the wider school community of parents and governors, need to be aware, if not actively supportive, of PM.
Communication is a key component of adopting PM, and initiatives targeted at maximising staff awareness and understanding need to be a foundational part of setting up a scheme. This could include:
- discussion and presentations at general staff meetings
- dedicated staff meetings
- Inset days provided by specialist trainers
- drawing up an anti-bullying policy and a statement of values
- displaying policies and statements on dedicated notice boards.
Introducing PM to a school requires a small group of teachers and/or support staff to be directly responsible for managing the programme. Ideally, they should be trained in advance of pupils, using an organisation that can provide follow-up support as needed.
It is essential that more than one staff member is involved in managing a peer mediation programme and that they are given adequate time to manage practical aspects of the scheme and for refresher training.
Deciding which year group and the number of pupils to train is dependent on factors such as the size of the school, existence of other pupil-involvement schemes (eg school councils) and levels of conflict within the school.
Where possible all children in the school, or at least in the year group(s) chosen to be mediators, should have a basic introduction to the principles and requisite skills for mediation. A smaller number should then be considered for full training. The most academically able and the better-behaved pupils do not necessarily make the best mediators. It is not uncommon to see the behaviour of persistent troublemakers modify when given this responsibility.
A dedicated room, for use by mediators during lunch and break times, is required. Ideally this should be away from the general recreation areas, so that children can access the service without being observed by others. Enabling pupils to make initial contact with mediators through email is another way of maximising uptake. Some form of identification, such as a distinctive sweatshirt, tie or badge worn by the mediators can be a way of maintaining awareness and identifying mediators to others in the school.
Launching the scheme
When launching a PM scheme, everyone in the school needs to know the following:
- how to identify which pupils are mediators
- which staff members are responsible for the programme
- where and when mediations happen
- what is and isn’t mediable
- how to refer pupils/self-refer to mediation.
Whole-school assemblies led by peer mediators, possibly role-playing a mediation, can efficiently demonstrate the basic principles of PM to a wide audience. Parent-teacher meetings, writing memos and sending letters home are effective ways of keeping everyone informed.
Baginsky, W (2004) Peer Mediation in the UK: A Guide for Schools. London: NSPCC.
Renton, L (1993) The School in Us: A Practical Guide to Successful Whole School Change. London: WWF-UK.
Jaci Smith is peace education adviser at Quaker Peace and Social Witness, London.