Develop a Generation of Peacemakers Through Peer Mediation Programs
Many peer mediation programmes (PMPs) set out to teach youth conflict management. Yet, having offered one such PMP annually since 2010, we have found that we have learnt as much, if not more, from them.
Humbling as it may be for adults to admit, the sages who can unlock the Golden Age of mediation may actually be the youth.
What is “Peer Mediation”?
“Peer Mediation” describes the process in which a young person facilitates the communication between two or more peers who are in a dispute and leads them to an amicable solution.
Relevance of Peer Mediation
Thanks to technology, youth wield phenomenal influence over each other. If you were born in the last century, it can be hard to imagine life as a young person today where you are constantly able to befriend others and become victims of hate speech and fake news. Cloaked as online personalities, hate and frustration can be vented with little fear of the consequences. It is also not unusual for comments to be “liked” and “shared” within minutes by thousands around the globe. In this world, which is by design separate from that of previous generations, conflicts regularly arise and spiral quickly out of control. The youth often find themselves in situations where simple apologies no longer suffice to resolve the original conflict. Prompt conflict de-escalation by friends makes a difference. This is why many schools have introduced PMPs.
Mediation and Leadership in Schools
School-based PMPs go beyond conflict management education.
The Peacemakers Conference5 is one such PMP. Framed as a leadership bootcamp where youth learn key skills like exercising self-control, resilience to negativity, and responsibility for their community, the Conference is in substance a mediation workshop-cum-friendly competition held over 3 days. Led by international mediation professionals and undergraduate students, Peacemakers has trained more than 850 Southeast Asian youth in mediation and has drawn the support of the International Mediation Institute, the Asian Mediation Association and the Singapore Ministry of Law.
Evidence of Peacemaker’s success comes most from the appreciation notes the organisation receives from the Conference alumni. One teacher shared how a Peacemaker graduate prevented a fight between his classmates and not only averted suspension for them but fostered a strong class spirit. Another student confided that she convinced her quarrelling parents to seek professional mediation assistance and saved the family from breaking up.
Indeed, PMPs make the greatest impact for youth from challenging backgrounds. With a richly textured emotional vocabulary, their demonstrations of empathy often bear an authenticity that moves the observer. Their transformation during the Conference from misunderstood delinquent to creative problem-solver proves that leaders and mediators can be nurtured.
When the youth are taught to ask “why” and not just “what happened”, they learn to look beyond angry accusations. Instead of seeking to attribute fault, they learn to suspend judgment, be attentive to the context, and consider the emotions of others. With a new appreciation of the purpose of communication, they guide their friends to exercise self-control, reflect on deeper motivations, and create innovative ways to solve the problem.
PMPs compel the youth to acknowledge that while conflict may be inevitable, violence is not. When someone disagrees with them, it need not be because their comment was wrong or foolish, but because the person did not understand fully. Learning that “there is no failure, only feedback”, they become resilient to criticism and conscious that naysayers often seek to conceal their own inadequacies by pointing out the splinter in the other’s eye.
On a social justice level, the youth discover that resolving conflict amicably is something all of us can and should do. They gain confidence to resolve their own conflicts through communication. They see that the power to resolve conflicts lies in their hands and take ownership of the peace and well-being of others within their community.6
Although there are many PMPs in educational institutions worldwide, the majority of schools have yet to devise and introduce one. One way to improve the situation is for existing PMP providers to share tools for “training trainers” and materials that will inspire and enable teachers to draw on local and international experience. For those interested in running a PMP, three suggestions from Peacemakers’ organisers are:
Institutional Support and Educator Role-Modelling
Unsurprisingly, PMPs which made the greatest impact were fronted by staff invested in promoting the use of mediation in school. By reducing reliance on authoritarian forms of rule-enforcement-based problem solving, peer mediation represents a paradigm shift in the teacher-student dynamic. Teachers must trust in the students’ ability to lead the resolution of their conflicts. As mediating can be psychologically stressful, peer mediators should know of available mentoring support. This can be trained school staff or professional mediator volunteers who help triage the conflicts appropriate for peer mediation and determine which should be escalated for administrative intervention.
Role plays which mirror the youth’s experiences and struggles will help them better appreciate the relevance of peer mediation. Rather than lectures abbreviated by anecdotes, the right pedagogical mindset is practice abbreviated by lectures. The youth generally love a good challenge and have a lifegiving ability to laugh at themselves. However, many also struggle with adolescence and may feel awkward when searching for the correct intervention. With a blend of humour and gravitas, the practices will provide the youth with the self-confidence and competency to be leaders and peacemakers.
Keep Things Simple
An effective PMP keeps things simple and focused. One of Peacemakers’ greatest challenges has been to include all the well-intentioned advice from stakeholders into a limited time frame. Schools are busy places and sustaining the youth’s interest can feel impossible. While encouraging the young peacemakers to be ambitious, a PMP is most effective when it focuses on the small steps to de-escalate and resolve conflicts. One tool that can help peer mediators beyond the workshop is a behavioural guide printed on a wallet-size card. An example of a Peacemaker Code reads:
- Don’t be a mere spectator to fights
- Listen actively
- Suggest constructive solutions
- Acknowledge others’ emotions
- Take a breath before reacting
- Don’t pass on fake news/rumours
- Be responsible for your community
- Communicate empathy.
The following lyrics sum up our thoughts succinctly:
“I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way”7
Let us raise a generation who will serve as agents of peace, and truly bring about the Golden Age of peace we mediators hope for.