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Sonya Keniry discusses Peer Mediation

Date:05.07.2017

Peer mediation is a form of conflict resolution in which trained student leaders help their peers work together to resolve everyday disputes. Aware of the increasing lack of communication and social skills among young adults and the benefits that peer mediation training can bring to bear, the Ballymun Community Law Centre has worked with students and community stakeholder to help devise and deliver a peer mediation programme in local primary and secondary schools that has paid dividends for the students and the community.

Sonya Keniry, Project Officer with the Law Centre, talks about the origins of the Centre's Peer Mediation Programme and how it helps young adults deal with conflict in their lives.

July 2017

Can you explain the origins of the peer mediation programme?

Initially, the Peer Mediation Programme had two target outcomes. The first was to teach predominantly 5th class students - 11 year olds - through learning and using mediation skills to manage relationships and deal with conflict in their lives. Secondly, we wanted to assist the schools that we were working in to develop a restorative approach to managing difficult behaviours within the school that might result in physical or emotional harm to persons or property.

The type of behaviours described to us were easily distinguished between second level and primary level schools we received anecdotal evidence of inappropriate reactions to restrictions being placed on students at second level. We heard examples of students walking out of classes getting angry knocking over a chair, or knocking into a picture that kind of thing, as a display of not being happy with something going on in the class room or with other peers Schools of course would have procedures to manage these situations but were also wanting to expand opportunities for young adults to learn better skills for dealing with difficult situations and that would have the capacity to have a better outcome than a further sanction.

The objectives of the Peer Mediation Programme are twofold; to give the child better skills to manage certain situation in and outside the school environment and for the school to gain an increased insight as to how they might manage a restorative event for a young person who has become involved in some difficulty within the school.

Talk about how the Peer Mediation Programme was developed?

I had seen peer mediation being demonstrated at a conference in Belfast. BCLC had developed a programme that would lead to similar learning outcomes however I knew that some work needed to be done in terms of practical implementation. Typically, we were seeking to support young people who might have low confidence and who face challenges as part of their day to day life. We were mindful that increasing a child’s ability in conflict management could be counterproductive if they didn’t have the necessary supports around them. Success demanded an approach that involved all stakeholders – parents, teachers, social workers and the Gardaí, in this instance Ballymun Community Gardai.

The first step was a ‘train the trainers’ programme open to all stakeholders - for anyone really who was interested in understanding more about peer mediation and the challenges that face young people when in a difficult situation. This meant that, having completed the programme, young people would be in a supportive environment that understood where they were coming from. In short, the course was delivered within and by the community of Ballymun

How is the course structured?

The programme is delivered over 8 weeks by a combination of volunteers drawn from the community. The course is broken down into 2 hours a week over 7 weeks and teaches step by step building of mediation skills in exactly the same way that an adult would be taught. The scenarios are obviously different - being age-appropriate - however the process is the same. The 8th day is an entire day of training. At the end of the day, the children are assessed in their own ability to mediate an unseen dispute using skills they have developed over the 8 week course.

What comes next?

Once the 8 weeks are complete, a letter goes home to the parents to explain that the students have completed the mediation training and that their son/daughter has been invited to interview to become a mediator. Not all children choose to volunteer to mediate. It’s up to them to decide if they would like to be a mediator, with the support of their parents.

A panel interview is held to assess has the student a good understanding of mediation skills and what’s involved. Often, we find that it is those children who have often found themselves in conflict that turn out to be exceptional mediators. They have good insight into conflict and now have the tools to tackle those same situations in a constructive way. Obviously, it’s very satisfying for a student to go into 6th class and beyond able to experience the successful outcomes that come about as a result of the skills they have developed.

How long has the programme been running?

The programme has been running for 8 years in Ballymun. In that time, in excess of 700 children have taken part in the programme.

In your opinion, why do schools need programmes like this?

Schools are reporting a incidence of poor behaviour in the classroom. Young people increasingly demonstrate poor communication skills. This may be as a result of over reliance on social media and how young adults increasingly interact with each other and the world through social networking sights. Typically, young people may find themselves in difficult situations and often lack the communications skills to find their way out.

The programme gives students the opportunity to develop improved social skills and to read and manage difficult situations. Often adults working with young people report to us anecdotally their observations that young people display an apparent lack of ability to read facial expressions or body language indicating emotion and consequently don’t react appropriately to a given situation. The aim of the peer mediation programme is not to produce a generation of mediators rather it is to give young people an increased skillset to deal with a broad range of everyday life scenarios.

What do you see as the benefits to the student and the community?

Benefits to students include an increased understanding of how to manage a difficult situation. As their skills develop, the young adults experience improved outcomes for themselves. In turn, this fosters an increased confidence in the use of those skills. As they grow older they will see better outcomes for themselves in more adult scenarios. Now when a young person approaches an adult using their acquired skills, the adult in turn reacts better. Often an adult will approach a young person demonstrating poor skills . For example, if the young adult starts the conversation by saying something like, “if you give me the opportunity to explain what’s going on for me here” the adult we hope will be encouraged to hear what the young person’s perspective is, they will be able to separate the issues from the feelings and as such allow the adult respond accordingly. And we have evidence of these very situations.

There are benefits too to the community. Stakeholders within the community, who are involved in the training, see the benefits for themselves. Gardai in particular who have been involved in the peer programme since its inception have reported improved relations with young people and an improved understanding of the role of the Gardai in the community and respect for the contribution the Gardai make to neighbourhoods.

Finally Sonya, how do we find out more about the programme?

If you are interested in finding out more about the peer mediation programme please contact the Centre on +353 1 862 5805 or email us at info@bclc.ie.