Peer Mediation and At-Risk Students
March 23, 2009
"Schools reflect the problems of larger society in various ways: fighting, bullying,
vandalizing, absenteeism, acting out, and demonstrating racial antogonism. These
frequent interpersonal and intergroup conflicts often begin as small tensions and escalate
when unresolved." (Lane and McWhirter, 1992 pg 15) Stevahn et all (2002) adds that
learning how to resolve conflicts is the most important compentency that adolescents and
young adults can manage. Schools exist to educate children and student conflicts at
school take an inordinate amount of time, and often leave students with the popular
societal message that in any argument one person wins and one person loses. But this
message will not help students develop collaborative communication skills needed in the
workplace.Students need to resolve disagreements so that everone wins. School that have
been using a peer mediation program to resolve disputes, report that programs increase
student self-esteem and improve communication skills. Using Peer Mediation programs in
the schools can effectively reduce school violence, increase school-community
relationships and increase student achievement.
Peer mediation is a process where a student will serve as an impartial mediator for
students with conflicts. It is a process of using communication skills to reach solutions that
both parties find agreeable. (Roderick, 1988)Typically students who have been trained in
mediation skills work as a teach to help encourage those students in dispute to reach an
agreement. It is a system of empowering students to make choices and decisions and
develops self control in students. ((Lane and McWhirter, 1992) Typically, in school
programs, students are taught skills in diplomacy, to mutually respect each other, empathy
with other people, recognizing alternative solutions to problems, gaining insight on other
peoples' perspectives and gaining respect for alternative opinions. (Bell et all, 2000)
In most peer mediation programs, depending on the model in the school, there is an
adult that acts as a coordinator, students receive 15-20 hours of training and activities to
improve their communication and negotiation techniques. Students participate in role play
to improve skills. Students with conflicts are then referred to mediators who work with
them to resolve disputes. The three types of models that are being used in the schools will
be examined as well as schools where these models are being used.
Models of Peer Mediation
Johnson and Johnson (1994) described peer mediation programs as a total school
program which trains all students on campus with the skills to mediate conflicts. The
benefit of this type of program is that “there is a likelihood” (Johnson & Johnson, 1997,
pg. 25) that since all students have been trained in these skills, school violence will be
lessened, though statistical evidence was not given to substantiate this. The authors point
out that the whole school program has several disadvantages to it including being costly.
Elementary schools are best suited to this type of program because teachers have students
continually during the day. Secondary schools, with changing periods, a larger body of
students and a greater number of teachers, would be more difficult to implement.
An elective course in peer mediation is another type of program, where students
opt to have a course in mediation and act as mediators for other students. This type of
program limits the peer mediators to only the students who have the class, limiting the
numbers of students exposed to training. The benefit to this type of program is that is does
offer mediation services to students during the school day. (Graham & Cline, 1989)
A third type of program model is where peer mediation is the club model.
Students meet after school hours to receive training and provide services. The benefits of
this type of program are that it makes available the services to all students and students
who may not be able to participate in the elective course can be recruited. Training can be
given before or after school, or during lunch periods. The disadvantage is that training
would need to be spread over several days, and mediators would be limited in their
opportunity to provide services. (Lupton-Smith & Carruthers, 1996)
Elementary schools are most likely to follow a peer mediation model described
above as the 'whole school' model. In one such elementary school with grades K-5, which
was a magnet school in North Carolina, students in the fourth and fifth grades acted as
mediators for students in grades three through five. The coordinator of the program was a
counselor, and prior to beginning the program, all staff observed the types of conflicts that
students engaged in as preparation. After receiving a grant that would fund both teacher
and student training, the program began with the first year settling all 60 disputes received
and the second year settling 37 out of 40 disputes. (Lupton-Smith & Carruthers, 1996)
Aside from the obvious benefits that the conflicts were resolved and those involved
were satisfied, other benefits were recorded. Students were reported to have increased in
confidence, self-esteem and self-efficacy due to the ability to resolve their own issues.
And monitoring the students for conflict helped identify those students with other behavior
problems that may otherwise been overlooked. School administrators report that they
"believe school climate improved as a result" (Lupton-Smith & Carruthers, 1996 pg 9) of
the mediation program. The disadvantage is the time required to participate in the ongoing
training needed to keep the program going. While the amount of time required to maintain
the program is much less than the first year it began, it still requires ongoing instruction
for the staff and students from the court mediation consultants. (Lupton-Smith &
A research study conducted at an elementary school introducing a peer mediation
program specifically designed to foster school safety, reseachers found that over the five
year period of the program (begun in 2002) the program not only reduced school
suspensions, but also demonstrated a marked reduction in violent behavior. (Cantrell,
Parks-Savage & Rehfuss, 2007) This was one of the few studies which were conducted on
a continuing program with this length of time.
Johnson and Johnson (2001) conducted a study in an inner city midwestern
elementary school in order to study the types of conflicts that elementary students cannot
resolve themselves, to determine how mediation skills work with young children and to
understand if there are gender differences in types of conflict. The model being used in the
school was the whole school model and over the course of a year nearly five hundred
conflicts were recorded at the school. The majority of the conflicts were at the third and
fourth grade level with 46% among girls solely. A large number of cases referred to
mediation (91%) involved physical fights or verbal abuse and students were referred to
mediation. All of the cases referred to mediated were successful. The researcher notes that
the school has frequent occurences of violence and "2% of the students accounted for one
fourth of the mediated conflicts." (Johnson & Johnson, 2001 pg. 177) The researcher did
conclude that boys were more likely to be physically violent, and the episodes increase as
students age. Bell et all (2000) noted that some of the changes noticed in peer mediation
program can be attributed to the natural process of maturation, as student mature their
Cremin (2002) the effectiveness of peer mediation programs in three Alabama
elementary schools who had received training from an outside consulting services. The
program included the use of tokens and rewards for displaying positive behavior which
could have had an impact on increasing positive behavior aside from any peer mediation
training.. In one school, the staff and student all participated, received training and noticed
a reduction in bullying behavior. In the other two schools, even though the students had
been trained, no official program was initiated. Teachers did not fully support the
program and there was no reduction in agressive behavior, instead some of the incidents of
bullying reported were ignored or excuses according to the researcher. Cremin (2002)
cites the difference in the school outcome was a result of teacher and school support in
fully implementing the program.
Bell et all (2000) studied a rural school in Western Tennessee serving grades first
through eight. Participants were from an area with an average annual income of just over
ten thousand dollars, and students in grades six through eight were chosen to serve as
mediators. Teachers noted that classroom disruptions diminished, agressive behavior
lessend as the program continued during the first year and suspensions decreased twenty
percent (74% down to 54%) (Bell et all, 2000 pg. 512).
The research from Bell et al (2000) was an important contribution to this paper
because of the rural area and the low socio-economic status of the participants. The large
discipline issues reported prior to the program and the subsequent reduction showed the
effectiveness of the program in a very diverse school but there was a lack of data about the
participants because of confidentiality issues. It is not known if the discipline issues were
with the same students, the reductions was in total or included only the students involved
in the peer mediation program, their background or other factors that may have influenced
the outcome of the study.
Middle School Programs
In middle and high schools, the whole school model is less likely to be used due
both in part to the greater numbers of students and staff and to the multiple periods of
class each day. Using an elective course model in a North Carolina middle school, a
school officer organized an advisory committee than included community members,
parents and staff to introduce the peer mediation program through assemblies to the
student body of nearly one thousand students. (Lupton-Smith & Carruthers, 1996) This
program used a three teacher committee to select the students who would serve as
mediators for their interpersonal characteristics of communication skills and desire to help
others. The student mediators were then given training and mediations were conducted
during school hours in a special room set aside for mediations. The students operated as
co-mediators in most cases and in the first two years of the program ninety-eight percent
of the conflicts (87 the first year, 88 the second year) were resolved by agreements.
The students were paired by grade and extend the mediation process by a
debriefing session post-mediation process with an adult in order to improve
communications skills. The participants report that the program works because of strong
school support and the time invested by the coordinator in advancing the skills of the
mediators. (Lupton-Smith & Carruthers, 1996)
In a middle school in New England with student body of one thousand students,
(representing twenty one different nationalities) a study was conducted to evaluate the
effectiveness of their peer mediation program. In surveys of students it was revealed that
peer pressure was a factor in preventing the use of mediation services. Students reported
they were distrustful of the process and preferred to resolve problems themselves. There
was a disconnect between student and teacher perceptions. Teachers were more likely to
report positive effects, or to equate positive outcomes to peer mediation. (Theberg &
Karen, 2004) The researchers proposed that developmental stages of middle schoolers
created some of the insecurities that were reported and that power imbalances affected
results. Adolescents involved in relationships were less likely to want to discuss personal
issues. The researchers also noted that the program did not have the full support of the
school or the staff, and that mediation skills were not modeled by other adults on the
campus. Theberg & Karen (2004) noted that adolescents gain status in certain groups by
acting out agressively, and peer mediation does not positively affect those students and
may in fact exacerbate the behaviour.
Smith et all (2002) studied three Florida middle schools for four years during the
implementation of a peer mediation program, looking at the attitudes of the teachers and
students both before and after the training was received. Students receiving school
discipline declined each year of the program during the time immediately following the
fall implementation of the program. Girls tended to use the program more frequently
(twice as much) and verbal abuse was the most common dispute. Data also revealed that
the younger students (6th grade) were more likely to use mediation to resolve
disagreements. This supports the data of Theberg & Karen (2004) that older students may
not use outsiders to resolve their conflicts.
High School Programs
In the high school of 1,700 students, the peer mediation program uses the elective
class model with a social science teacher as a coordinator. In the initial year of the
program, twenty teachers and students were trained in mediation skills, with most of the
student mediators chosen from the freshman class. The authors noted that freshmen
commonly have the most disputes, and students who are interested in being mediators
need to apply for a position before a teacher panel. In the first two years, the program
averaged a successful completion rate of 95%. It needs to be noted that the coordinator
had a unique position to organize this program due to his outside interests in participating
as a court mediator. The school considered the program a success. (Lupton-Smith &
Carruthers, 1996) The older the students involved in conflict, the longer the mediation
takes to resolve. Research finds that older students may have more complex problems
than those presented in a mediation session.
In a study of a high school after one year of a peer mediation program, students
who had used the mediation services reported satisfaction. However, only a small
percentage of the students were actually using the program and though teachers believe
the program was an important addition to the school, they indicated that they would not be
likely to refer students to the program. (Terry, 1997)
Armed with evidence that peer mediation was beneficial to mediators and school
climate, researcher Harris (2005) wanted to study the effects on those in dispute who
chose to participate in mediaton. Fifty one disputants reported liking the process of
mediation because they were able to clarify misunderstandings, have an opportunity to
express their viewpoint and the mediation was conducted in an atmosphere of safety.
Student-disputants were able to recall some of the steps of mediation and reported that
telling their story was most important to them. Though they had not been trained in
mediation communication skills, disputants reported modeling some of the skills
afterwards including speaking calmly, listening carefully and clarify their position.
While all schools reported positive results, several researchers noted that the self-
reports were without documented evidence and longitudal evidence had not been
examined to see the long term results of programs. (Cantrell, Parks-Savage & Rehfuss,
2007) In a suburban elementary school the peer mediation program reduced school
suspensions about 75%. (Cantrell, Parks-Savage & Rehfuss, 2007)
Humphries (1999) studied an elementary school where students participated in a
peer mediation program and discussed their feelings about the program. Data was gathered
by interviews and observation. The researcher noted that when student mediation fails, it
sometimes needs to be investigated why the failure happened. Students reported that they
were concerned with a loss of popularity, losing a friend and how difficult it was to be
neutral when mediating a dispute where a friend was involved. Students also reported the
positive aspects of the program, being able to help others and assisting their school. And
while there were some negative feelings about disputes, the program was successful in
In a study conducted in one of the larger districts in California, researchers sought
to answer the basic questions regarding the peer mediation program which had been
implemented into part of the curriculum of a World Civilization class. Researchers wanted
evidence that students actually learned the techniques of peer mediation, applied those
techniques to conflict, viewed their ability to handle conflict in a postive manner and
whether peer mediation training had any impact on academics. They also wanted to
investigate whether students used a "distributed" negotiation or "integrative" negotiation.
(Stevahn et all, 2002. pg 307) Distributed negotiation is whether one party succeeds at the
expense of the other party, or an emphasis of personal interests.
Integrative negotiation is a mutually beneficial negotiation and the researchers
noted that in conflicts within personal relationships, integrative negotiation maintains
relationships. (Stevahn et all, 2002) Before training students were not able to use
integrative negotiation or voluntarily intervene in school conflicts. After receiving
training, 74% of students used integrative negotiation and roughly half used peer
mediation techniques to voluntarily resolve school conflicts as they arose. In personal
relationship conflicts 47% of students were able to resolve disputes and save friendships.
(Stevahn et all, 2002. pg 323).
Smith et all (2002) found that during implementation of the program, no changes
in school climate occurred and teacher attitudes did not change. The researchers argued
that over a length of time, school climate would positively be affected and the short
duration of the study did not offer enough time to substantiate this claim. Their study also
offered that peer mediation programs can offer two distinct types of programs targeted at
two different outcomes. Since programs have demonstrated that student discipline issues
are reduced, then implementation could reduce teacher disruptions, office staff
inconveniences and instructional time lost and raise student accountability for displaying
sociall acceptable behavior. If those issues are not a problem, then peer mediation
programs can be used to remedy student personal deficiencies. The skills learned in peer
mediation promote leadership, communication and higher self esteem which students who
are outside the mainstream student population would need. Students currently in
alternative educational situations would benefit from this type of program (Smith et all
Antidote to School Violence
Violence at school is an ongoing issue of great concern to everyone. Aggressive
school behavior creates a hostile environment which is counterproductive to student
learning. For the purposes of this paper, school violence is loosely defined as any
disruptive student behavior which would result in school discipline. This could run the
gamut from vandalism, bullying verbal abuse or actual physically fighting. Shepherd
(1994) reported that peer mediation has become one of the growing responses to violence
in schools. School interventions to agressive behavior such as suspension, exclusions and
expulsion do not resolve the problem, but teaching students alternative means to resolve
disputes and communicate their feelings have decreased school disruptions.
When the whole school model was used in an elementary school, research
suggested that school violence was lessened because students had learned interpersonal
communication skills that fosters resolving conflicts instead of acting on them (Johnson,
1996)Both school discipline problems and behavior exhibited by students participating in
the peer mediation program improved. (McCormick, 1988) Student violence was reduced
by 47%. Counselors consider that peer mediation programs not only reduce school
violence but also acts as a preventative program as well. (Lane and McWhirter, 1992)
Redirecting At Risk Students
In addition to the benefits to the schools and the reduction in school discipline
issues, students have had the ability to develop positively. Other benefits of peer
mediation are that students have the opportunity to talk over problems with others, interact
with different people in a social setting, learn about different cultures, and communicate in
a non judgemental atmosphere. (Lane & McWhirter, 1992) Students develop the skills to
act in a socially acceptable manner and learn to listen to each other. (Kopp, 1982)
Students have the ability to develop socially responsible attitudes by volunteering
their services to other students. (Araki, , 1990) Schools also report students have better
attendance, develop stronger leadership skills and strengthen their problem solving skills.
(Benson & Benson, 1993) Gerber & Terry-Day (1999) suggests that the positive reports
about peer mediation are anecdotal and not supported by evidence that is directly related
to the program. One of the studies examined a five year program which showed students
increased in their mastery of language skills and a decline in out of school suspensions
over the length of the program. (Cantrell, Parks-Savage & Rehfuss, 2007)
In a study by Wright(2007) peer mediation skills were part of a comprehensive
intervention program which included classroom modifications, cooperative learning
techniques as well as peer mediation and peer tutoring. The study sought to determine the
effects of these interventions on at-risk students. Since the study included all the
interventions and those results which can be attributed to peer medation skills cannot be
identified separately, the study was included for its discussion of adolescent behavior and
at-risk students. One of the conclusions was that attachment and a sense of belonging was
important for students to have a positive school experience, and peer mediators fostered
that sense of belonging for most students, including those described as low-risk. Even for
high at-risk students, the opportunity to develop positive social situations was a benefit.
Though the study did have some positive effects, it was noted that in the short term results
may be misleading.
Johnson et all (1998) noted that students develop their attitudes about conflict
before ninth grade, and those attitudes can be changed by using peer mediation. Students
without intervention, without alternatives to resolving conflict will use force. Stevahn
(2004) reported that students who had been taught peer mediation skills were able to
change their attitudes about conflict. Before training, students had negative attitudes about
conflict and words that were associated with conflict as measured by a word association
test. After training, student still viewed conflict as negative, but viewed words associated
with conflict with more positive attitudes. The researcher did note that the measure could
contain some bias with word association, but positive results were supported by
Cremin (2002) noted that a peer mediation program at an Alabama elementary
school was successful in reducing agressive behavior, especially with students with
emotional and behavioral problems. And Harris (2005) reported that students who were
not trained in mediator skills still learned the skills during a dispute by modeling positive
Peer Mediation Increases Student Achievement
In the current era of educational reform, additional emphasis is placed on teachers,
schools and districts to raise student achievement as measured on standardized test scores.
The No Child Left Behind educational act of 2001 not only requires schools to show
improvement in areas of student test scores, but punishes those schools who do not show
results in the area of English and Mathematics. Researchers Lane and McWhirter (1992)
cited government reports that note that students need to develop their oral and verbal
language skills in order to achieve academically. Researchers Cantrell et all noted that
students who participate in peer mediation programs develop oral and verbal language
abilities which in turn helps increase student achievement in other areas. (Cantrell, Parks-
Savage & Rehfuss, 2007)
While studies had indicated that peer mediation increased language skills and
increased achievement, those studies were conducted in English classes. When
researchers studied a World History class that integrated peer mediation training with
some of the students, the trained students significantly outscored the untrained students on
a History test. Even seven months later, the students still outperformed those students in
the control group who had not received the peer mediation training. (Stevahn et all, 2002)
Effects of Peer Mediation Extend Into the Community
Many of the programs use advisory boards that include community members and
parents as part of the medation program. (Lane and McWhirter, 1992) Frey, Holley and
L'Abate (1979) concluded in their research that when students have the opportunity to
share their feelings and fears, there is a new intimacy in the family as well. Maxwell
(1989) reports that when students learn to control their anger at home, parents report less
discipline problems at home as well. Cremin (2002) observed that when students were
trained in peer mediation and the program was not supported at school, students still used
the techniques at home to resolve disputes, so training was beneficial personally to
While peer mediation programs have been used in schools for over twenty years,
most of the studies were those that had been performed for short periods of time and more
recently. Benson and Benson (1993) cited that much of the literature on peer mediation
programs in the school are based on speculation and author judgement. They also
speculated that some of the positive comments were based on consultant or trainer
observations, not verified data. Other researchers (Gerber & Terry-Day, 1999) note that
the validity of programs cannot be substantiated because most of the data is self-reported
and anecdotal, and other reseachers (Lupton-Smith & Carruthers, 1996) note that the lack
of longevity of programs cannot predict the long term success of programs.
Cantrell, Parks-Savage & Rehfuss (2007) reported on a five year program, and
other programs discussed in this paper were of several years and reported positive
findings. Johnson and Johnson (1996) note that research in this area is valid but because
measures uses is not standardized and methodology is not detailed in steps, replicating
results is difficult and so results cannot be verified. As more research is conducted,
variables need to be controlled so that outcomes can be documented.
One of the advantages of education in this country is that it is controlled by the
local community in which it serves, and one of the disadvantages to this system is the lack
of a comprehensive national curriculum. This creates the opportunity for individual
schools to create or iniatiate program that work to resolve some of the pressing
educational issues that are not considered in other schools. Schools that score highly on
international comparison tests of student achievement have such national curriculums.
(Hiebert et all, 2005)
The future of all educational programs are uncertain with the cuts to educational
funding and the adoption of strict, regimented instructional strategies that have been a
result of No Child Left Behind. With the additional performance assessments, teachers
have little opportunity to implement programs that enhance student experiences.
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