HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Peer Mediation Strengthens Children and Community

by Debra Danilewitz Issue: The Whole Student

The author examines the ways that her school’s programs in peer mediation have a powerful influence in developing student responsibility and self-esteem.

Peer mediation is a leadership program that teaches children communication and conflict resolution skills. Its philosophy is that conflict is a natural process, and through mediation peaceful solutions to problems can be sought. By helping others through their sanctioned roles, students increase their sense of self-worth and feel engaged and worthwhile. An effective peer mediation program can set the tone for a school’s culture.

Peacemaker Program

At Bialik Hebrew Day School, Toronto, Grade 5 classes with 25 students in each class receive 3 months of training to be peacemakers; 100 students a year are trained. The program has been successfully run for the past 20 years. Training manuals have been developed to educate students with many of the prosocial skills necessary. A preparation book, Two Sides to Every Story, is read to first grade students to introduce them to the peacemaker process. The peacemakers take their responsibilities seriously and are positive role models. Younger students look forward to becoming peacemakers.

Peer mediators establish ground rules to try and achieve agreement between disputants in order to resolve conflict. Each student has the opportunity to state his or her perspective in the conflict situation. Both sides then brainstorm and offer possible solutions to the conflict. They learn to talk it out. Finally both have to agree on an acceptable resolution; alternatively, they can agree to disagree and stay away from each other for a while.

This process is beneficial to the school, staff and students on various levels. A real long-term benefit is that large numbers of students have been taught skills in conflict resolution and problem-solving skills. There are fewer physical altercations among senior students, as students are able to “talk out” their differences and reach mutually acceptable resolutions, as they have all been exposed to this training.

Peacemakers are trained and feel competent and responsible to help others. There is a reduction in the number of teacher, guidance counselor and administrative interventions as well as the need for disciplinary consequences as peer mediators are intervening as conflicts arise.

Peacemakers have an additional responsibility by being Recess Buddies to grade 1-2 students. Twice a week at lunch, peacemakers organize and teach cooperative games to children. This proactive program is supervised by parent volunteers under the auspices of the guidance counselor. This program is beneficial for children who have difficulty playing in an unstructured situation; it helps them negotiate with each other the rules of the games by having the older students model and teach appropriate play. This gives the Grade 5 students an opportunity to exercise leadership in the school.

Peer Helpers Lead to Succeed

Peer Helping is a personal growth leadership training program at Bialik Hebrew Day School for Grade 8 students. Peer helpers are selected after volunteering to participate in this program and are committed to do their job for the full academic year. This program has been running effectively in the school for the past ten years. Participating students meet the criteria of caring about others and giving up some of their recess to support other students in need.

Peer helpers undergo a training program with the guidance counselor, in which they are taught mediation skills and relationship-building skills. They are taught how to help develop empathy and compassion and to support a student with emotional needs. Peer helpers learn listening skills, how to respond to others, build self-confidence in themselves and others, develop leadership skills, communicate effectively and model positive social interactions. They create a schoolwide support system that helps children adjust to school. Peer helpers make an impact on the school culture and make a difference in the students’ lives.

Peer helpers work with students assigned to them by the guidance counselor, students with academic, social or emotional issues. They enable students to develop a more positive experience at recess by learning to play cooperatively with friends. New students are always matched with a peer helper. Peer helpers also present topics of interest to classes in the elementary grades on bullying, appropriate play, Internet safety and peer pressure.

The students work in a collaborative way on tikkun olam projects. Children’s books were collected and donated to another school in Toronto for children with special needs, and the peer helpers had the opportunity of interacting with these students reading them stories. Another project involved the peer helpers being taught to make jewelry to sell and raise funds for The Koby Mandel Foundation.

The peer helpers created canvas paintings about tikkun olam for their fundraiser event. They wrote a play based on Itah Sadu’s book Name Calling, performed for the whole school and parents. Peer helpers led the discussion on how students deal with name calling and bullying. They adapted Madonna’s book Mr. Peabody’s Apples into a play, performed it for students and conducted a discussion about the power of words after the performance, highlighting the lessons from the play. They educate children about character development and compassion for others.

Passion for Compassion

Mature and socially adept students are able to transfer what they have learned socially by working with other children, enabling them to improve their social skill development. The peer helpers develop empathy for others through their interactions. This is a wonderful opportunity for students to learn how to help others in their school environment.

Imagine not feeling comfortable leaving your parents to go to school, having difficulty making friends, and simply not enjoying school. This was my life before I had a peer helper. Having a peer helper made me want to go to school and enjoy school. She talked to me about how to make friends and feel comfortable in the school environment. I am very thankful for all the dedication and time she put in to coming to play with me every week. Every time she was there for me it felt like the greatest day of my life, until of course she came again the next week. I wanted to peer helper myself. I have watched my peer buddy grow throughout the year and become such a social and wonderful girl. I am so proud of her and I hope when she is in grade 8 she too will look back at her experience and want to help another child like I helped her.—Taryn, eighth grade

Service learning teaches students to respect themselves and others. They give up their own recess time to help others, and by doing so contribute to the school in a meaningful way and develop leadership skills. In turn, the students in these helping positions learn about social responsibility, compassion and are empowered by helping others. Younger students in the school look up to the peer helpers and look forward to it being their time to volunteer for these positions. Students teach and model effective social skills by engaging in a relationship with another child. These are teachable moments for students to cherish and learn from in a school environment. Educating the whole child involves so much more than the curriculum; it is also teaching students about developing a passion for compassion.♦

Debra Danilewitz is school counselor at the Bialik Hebrew School in Toronto. She can be reached at DDanilewitz@bialik.ca.

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The Whole Student

One way that day schools stand out is the attention they can provide to each and every student, as expressed in the classic line from Proverbs, “Educate the youth according to his or her path.” Authors here offer numerous ways for schools to address the multi-faceted student to ensure that s/he is nurtured academically, spiritually, creatively and socially. 

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