Empowering kids to keep the peace

Peer mediators, on patrol at recess, nip bullying in the bud.

Mary Lynn Alguire minces no words about what education represented to her as a child. Elementary school was awful, and high school didn't get any better.

The reason: She was teased mercilessly.

Mrs. Alguire says she wouldn't wish the experience on anyone. But the taunting she endured as a child may be one of her most important qualifications for the post she now holds: head of the Peacemakers antibullying program at the Rothwell-Osnabruck School.

Up and running for five years, the effort plays on what Alguire says is her ability to understand those who taunt and are taunted. Peacemakers take seriously the need to negotiate "peace settlements" to resolve the "little" problems that can loom so large - teasing about weight or glasses. Here in this small rural community along the St. Lawrence Seaway, Alguire helps children develop the tools to mediate disputes among themselves - and to know when to pull in the help of adults.

Dealing with disputes where they first arise - most typically, the playground - has had a noticeable effect on the school.

"Overall, it's really made a difference in the number of [discipline] problems we're dealing with in the office," says principal Susan Lopez, who calls Alguire a passionate advocate for the endeavor. "Problems are being dealt with on the playground."

Students selected for the program patrol in pairs during recess and lunchtime. When they spot an infraction of schoolyard harmony - name-calling, unwelcome teasing - they intervene according to a script, seeking to get the disrupters to agree to cease and desist.

If students don't consent to the peer mediation, the Peacemakers are instructed to involve a teacher or other adult at once. Mediation may continue for a few minutes after recess in the Peacemakers' office - with adults informed, but not present.

A sample resolution might read: "[Student A] agreed to avoid [Student B]. [Student B] agrees to stop calling [Student A] names."

In a recent case, two mediators got two third-grade girls to agree not to throw snowballs. Each girl duly signed the mediators' report, signaling consent.

Not everything is so cut and dried, though. Another recent report on a shoving episode showed that the question, "Was the incident resolved?" had the "yes" option checked - and a handwritten addendum: "kinda."

The peer mediators are not to intervene in fistfights, and they are trained to refer any really serious matters - drugs, violence, indications of abuse - to the grownups. Sometimes their duties simply require them to be a friend to the little kids on the playground. Rothwell-Osnabruck's elementary division runs from junior kindergarten through eighth grade, with a high school division adjacent. Alguire notes that the 4-year-olds may just want to hold someone's hand.

Once accepted into the corps, which numbers about 43 in a school of some 330 students, Peacemakers are given a full day of training in mediation skills and emotional literacy. They are coached to pay attention to their own and other people's styles of communication - whether students make eye contact, for example, or gesticulate.

The Peacemakers are also trained to watch kids' body language - to look for signs of tears on children's faces, or for children moving with their heads down and their toes stubbing into the ground in characteristic patterns of dejection.

Each of the successful applicants for Peacemakers has said that he or she wants "to help other kids because we've been there ourselves," Alguire says.

Alguire and her colleague, Eleanor Doyle, say the program's success stems from the fact that students can turn to someone other than a teacher. Children also like the constant presence of the patrol.

"They don't have to wait to have a problem resolved," Mrs. Doyle says. "They can feel better by the next recess."

The children also know that teachers and administrators will back up the Peacemakers, referring problems to them first.

On this particular bitterly cold, windy day, when the task of getting into their winter "armor" of coats and boots and caps and mittens consumes much of the children's afternoon recess, Corey Tinkess and Tonya McMonigle, both eighth-graders, are the Peacemakers on patrol. Before going out onto the playground, they grab their clipboard and pull their bright red windbreakers over their winter coats to identify themselves as on duty.

An enormous mound of snow has been worn down into a splendidly slippery play structure, and that is where the action is on the playground today. At the end of recess, Corey, a third-year Peacemaker, and Tonya, in her second year, have to make sure the smallest children are accounted for back in their classrooms. "Sometimes the little kids hide out in the slide or the play structure, and we have to go find them," Corey says.

Alguire and Doyle remember vividly the first day the Peacemakers went on schoolyard patrol. "It was a raging blizzard, 40 below," Alguire says. The first team was "surrounded, mocked, spat upon," she reports. "Is this going to work?" she asked the first team when they returned from their first tour of duty. "Yes," was the resounding response. The kids in the red jackets held their ground.

Five years later, Peacemakers is so popular that Alguire and Doyle interviewed 90-plus applicants for 18 slots.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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