Pupil peacemakers learn to help peers work it out

August 18, 1994|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Sun Staff Writer

Ten-year-old Katrina McGowan, who is learning to resolve conflicts among her fellow students, would apply those skills to the baseball strike by telling owners and players to sit down together.

"They need to work things out and not yell at each other," said the Howard County fifth-grader, glum that she hasn't been able to see her favorite team, the Chicago White Sox, play the national pastime on TV. "They don't need to fight. I'd listen to the different sides of the story and I'd figure out a solution."

Katrina, who attends Manor Woods Elementary School, was one of about 175 elementary school students who are learning about peer mediation this week, preparing to become a junior peacekeepers who will help their peers and younger students work out their differences peacefully.

So far this summer, an unprecedented 300 elementary, middle and high school students countywide have undergone peer mediation training, in which students are taught ways to solve disputes among their peers before they escalate into violence. The training is sponsored by the school system's pupil personnel office.

Students will work in pairs during the school year to help younger students who get into an argument, which often times result from name-calling, jealousy, tattling or another type of misunderstanding.

Elementary schools that sent students to the sessions were Deep Run, Hammond, Northfield, Clarksville, Worthington, Waverly, Forest Ridge, Saint John's Lane, Elkridge, Talbott Springs, West Friendship, Swansfield and Guilford.

Guidance counselors who led the training said that children who learn to resolve disputes at a young age will be able to deal with many of the problems they face in middle and high schools.

"These are life skills we're teaching -- conflict resolution, peer mediation, problem-solving," said Janet Quirk, a Guilford Elementary School counselor.

During this week's sessions, students learned to become objective third-parties capable of identifying problems. They follow a credo for fighting fair -- attack the problem, not the person; listen with an open mind; treat people with feelings of respect; and take responsibility for your actions.

"You as a mediator should try eye contact with the person," Mrs. Quirk said to a group of about 20 children. "Eye contact is very important. Pay attention to what the person is saying. You must hear every word or else you'll miss something. This is one of the most difficult things you're going to do in peer mediation."

Concentrate on body language, she said. "Listen not only with your ears, but also with your eyes."

The keys to successful peer mediation, students learned, are to listen objectively, identify the problem and focus on it. They also should try to get the two disputants working with each other to solve their problem as a team.

Eight-year-old Rachel Nicholson, from Atholton Elementary School, said she has picked up a lot of tips at the sessions. "I've learned how to listen carefully, and we have to stay away from opinions," she said.

Rachel said she had experience solving disputes, even before she started peer mediation training. She recounts the time her twin brother, Matt, had an argument with a friend over baseball cards.

The friend wanted Matt to give him a baseball card, but Matt refused, because it was one of his favorites. The two argued until Rachel intervened and suggested that they exchange cards temporarily -- Matt would let his friend hold the card for a week, and the friend would return it the next week. The two agreed.

"I felt good because I helped them when they needed help," she said.

DeWanda Jackson, a fifth-grader at Pointer's Run Elementary School, said she felt honored to be picked for the program, because her teacher chose only three people in her class.

"We're going to help kids who are younger than us and some fifth-graders who need help," she said. "We're going to be working anything that comes up."

She said she also has learned from the training. "We shouldn't take sides," she said. "We can't say the person is wrong. We have to listen."

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