School can be a tough and unforgiving environment. For students, teachers, parents and school administrators, conflict is a fact of daily school life.
What has the potential to make a world of difference, especially to the most at risk of these groups (the students), is how the school manages and resolves conflict. And that’s where the importance of mediation in schools comes in.
Students in conflict with other students
School has always been harder on some kids than others, and much of that stems from how they are treated by the other students. We all know bullying has been around since school began, and most of us at some point during our school years have felt the sting of being on the receiving end of bullying behaviour. Sadly, in today’s school environment, bullying continues to thrive, fuelled by innovations in technology and social media, and cultural societal shifts such as increasing visibility and acceptance of kids who identify as LGBTQ+ while still at school. In the past (and in the movies), conflict between students for whatever reason usually plays out in the form of playground fisticuffs. In 2022, this should play out through mediation.
By applying the facilitative model of mediation to conflict scenarios between students including bullying, harassment, teasing, exclusion, friendship issues, fighting and the sharing of inappropriate content on social media (and these are just the obvious issues) we can hope to achieve an effective and empowering resolution of the conflict – teaching students valuable life skills along the way.
Mediation is a confidential, future-focused process aimed at helping students in conflict assess options together, with the goal of reaching a solution both parties can live with, without fear of retribution. Essentially, both parties participate in an outcome whereby each student takes responsibility for their own actions – and works with the other party to reach an agreement enabling both parties to stay in school and participate in school life while feeling safe and supported by their peers and teachers.
Replacing blame with problem-solving
Mediation works because it replaces blame and punishment with problem-solving. And the effects of this approach can produce real and lasting behavioural change (rather than the antiquated notion of being caught and punished in an ongoing cycle that can continue into adulthood).
This is not to say that there is not an appropriate focus on the seriousness of the conflict. Mediation is structured to be an empowering process for both parties. Each party begins with an ‘opening statement’ where they are encouraged to talk about the issues that led to the conflict and what they hope for in terms of an outcome. This is a particularly important part of the process – giving a voice to both parties – enabling both perspectives of the dispute to be aired. Following this, the mediator will create an agenda comprising the issues each party would like to discuss, and then assists parties to talk to each other through the exploration of each of the issues. With the mediator leading the process, it is a session focussed on parties listening to each other – and through confidential dialogue, each party gains insight into how the other is feeling. This empathetic approach lends itself to constructive problem-solving and accountability. The mediator will hold confidential one-on-one sessions with the parties during the process as a way of checking in – and helping each party formulate a solution that is practical and realistic. The mediator uses their expertise in the private sessions to challenge some of the assumptions one party may fixate on. The parties may not end up being best friends- but they will reach a level of respect for each other that both can live with.
Take steps to give mediation every chance of success
Create a safe space for mediation to take place
Importantly, mediation requires a safe and neutral space – and this may not be on school grounds. Mediation is a confidential process, and to succeed requires privacy and a setting where both parties are on equal footing and not triggered in any way by their surroundings.
Make sure the students understand the process and are prepared for mediation
A first step in the mediation process is for the parties to meet with the mediator separately. This helps the mediator get a deeper understanding of the issues and what happened – before and in the lead up to mediation, from each party in their own words.
The mediator will also get an understanding from each party about their expected outcomes – and why. Being future-focused helps the parties think about how they are going to be in class or on a team together in the future – and how that may impact others around them. The mediator also uses this session to explain what will happen in the mediation session, and give the parties an idea of what they may need to think about (i.e. their opening statement) in preparation for mediation. Rules around confidentiality, listening, interrupting and respect are also discussed.
Write down any agreement for moving forward
A written document outlining any agreement reached demonstrates commitment by the parties to moving forward and is also symbolic of an agreement that both parties contributed to – with equal input and without duress or coercion.
Understand the role of the mediator and utilise their expertise and skillset
It’s important the parties in mediation understand the role of the mediator. A mediator does not provide advice, take sides, or assign blame to either party. They are an impartial person who will facilitate a discussion between parties. That does not mean the mediator will allow the mediation to descend into an all-out verbal brawl – the mediator always has control of the process, and each mediator has their own set of rules parties must abide by.
Mediators are highly skilled listeners and excellent at acknowledging and reframing feelings in a way that moves the discussion forward. Mediators will ask plenty of questions of both parties, encourage listening, identify common ground and help parties explore all options under each agenda heading. In private sessions they help each party reality test potential outcomes and encourage the parties to be creative and future-focused when formulating outcomes. The mediator helps each party see the perspective of the other – an important step in moving the discussion from a positional to more negotiable perspective, through parties working together – compromising to get an outcome they can live with.
Conflict is a reality of school life. Mediation provides tools for dealing with it in a positive way
Not every conflict scenario between students in school is suitable for mediation. Like family mediation, there are certain behaviours that if found to be present, means the scenario should potentially involve police and move through the court system – such issues could include severe bullying, alcohol and drug issues and physical and sexual assault. For mediation to be successful, power balances between students must be able to be addressed – if this is not possible, then one party will have greater advantage over the other. A skilled mediator is well trained to screen for such imbalances of power as well as assess a party’s ability to be self-determining – to make decisions in their best interests. Following the intake session if a mediator believes that there are entrenched issues prohibiting a fair and just process, then they will not recommend moving to mediation between parties.
However, many of the issues leading to conflict between students in schools are suited to mediation. And the process itself, by its very nature, teaches through participation, listening skills, empathy, negotiation, compromise as a reality of life and importantly, reality testing options. For many students, the process is empowering – they feel seen, and they feel heard – and this is a vitally important step towards the resolution of conflict.
And finally, learning how to resolve conflict through compromise and negotiation is a foundational skill for life.
To help you prepare for mediation, we have created a library of helpful information including checklists, tips and added detail around the process of mediation. For useful and relevant information you can download for free, we encourage you to visit our resources page.
Lawyer, Mediator, Conciliator, Conflict Coach + Family Dispute Practitioner, Fresh Start Mediation
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