By Dan Walton
Help, I need an adult!
That phrase has become far less common over the past 20 years at Tuc-el-Nuit Elementary, where students in a squabble are taught to rely on their own problem-solving skills through the school’s peer mediation program.
A select few of the school’s senior students in Grade 5 and 6 are nominated and then vetted at the beginning of every school year. Once the training has been completed, 20 students begin rotating shifts on the playground to serve as mediators.
“When I was younger I didn’t always want to go to the adults,” said peer mediator Joey Decker who’s in Grade 6. “Kids who have a problem probably feel safer telling somebody closer to their age because we’ll probably understand it better because we were their age not long ago.”
When younger students are in a tiff in the schoolyard, they know they can ask for help from one of the big kids wearing a bright yellow vest.
Children know to contact an adult supervisor for more serious problems, but as Grade 6 mediator Brett Calhoon said, the common issues he’s able to help with involve things like name calling, feelings of exclusion and attacks on snow sculptures.
Once a mediator has been approached by somebody with a problem, all students involved will find a private space to talk out the situation. During the mediation, everybody has to feel like they’re being heard. There are four rules: no interrupting the person speaking; no name calling; only tell the truth; and try to find a sensible resolution.
“We’re not supposed to say, ‘What’s your problem?’ Instead we nicely ask them if everything is okay,” said Grade 7 student Ava Podmorow, who’s volunteering as a mediator for her second year.
“Sometimes they open up and talk about their problems and other times they say things are fine.”
Before she was old enough to join the team, volunteering as a peer mediator was something Podmorow had aspired to one day become.
“When I was younger I always liked seeing the peer mediators walk around, and I always wanted to be one because the kids were a lot older and I thought it was really cool,” she said.
“It’s cool when you’re only 11 and 12 years old and you can help kids a lot when they’re sad or mad – it feels good to do that.”
Mediators help younger students to see that resolving personal conflicts doesn’t have to be a big deal.
“Sometimes you don’t want to have the whole report thing with the teacher,” Decker said. “Now that there’s this program, kids can deal with their own problems more.”
And younger students who use the program can rest assured knowing that dirty laundry never gets aired – mediators are sworn to secrecy.
“The only other person who knows is Ms. (Thea) Kitt,” Decker said.
“About 20 years ago I heard about the mediation program that they were doing at the high school here, as well as many other high schools all around the world,” said Kitt.
She then began to wonder if a mediation program could work at the elementary level. To adopt the program at Tuc-el-Nuit, Kitt spent a day at a school that had been using the program.
“The teacher running it said it’s a fabulous program,” she recalled. “He gave me the whole program in a big binder; taught me everything and I decided to start trying it. That was 20 years ago and we’ve been doing it every year since.”
To gauge the difference being made by the program, Kitt said data was extensively gathered during the early years.
“We noticed there was less fighting, less referrals to the office,” she said. “Over the years that all of those went down, all the little stuff that go on the peer mediators deal with.”
Beyond the direct efforts of the mediators, Kitt has noticed the practice has had a reverberating effect.
“We’ve noticed that little kids use the mediation skills and start to work problems out on their own before even approaching a peer mediator.”
Before they can become a fully-fledged mediator, there’s a script that each candidate has to have memorized with about 10 hours of training involved. Also, it’s critical for candidates to be good listeners who will hear out every problem in its entirety.
“With a peer mediator, they get complete one-on-one attention,” Kitt said.
Although there are countless other variables, Tuc-el-Nuit notices fewer conflicts on the playground today than when the mediation program first launched.
“By the end of every school year it gets even more peaceful,” she said.