Feature stories

How we made it happen

Building a peaceful school and students with emotional intelligence

Guidance counselor Max Nass, center, is surrounded by peer mediators, who have b Cara Metz

Guidance counselor Max Nass, center, is surrounded by peer mediators, who have brought calm to PS 80, in Queens. From left, Kiara, Kayla, Ayanna, Britney, Cyril and Serita.

A hallway intervention: from left, Britney and Mecah roleplay a dispute with Kia Cara Metz

A hallway intervention: from left, Britney and Mecah roleplay a dispute with Kiara and Isaiah.

Mediators (with their backs to the camera) Ayanna and Cyril do a demo giving Kay Cara Metz

Mediators (with their backs to the camera) Ayanna and Cyril do a demo giving Kayla and Serita a chance to discuss their issues and see things in a new light.

At PS 80 in Jamaica, Queens, there were fights breaking out throughout the day — in the cafeteria, the schoolyard, the hallways and even during class.

The biggest problem? “Fighting and arguing,” said Cyril, a 4th-grader. “Spitting, biting and scratching,” added Kiara, also a 4th-grader.

“I’d say, yelling, threats and bullying,” 5th-grader Serita said solemnly.

With skirmishes on so many fronts, longtime guidance counselor Max Nass couldn’t be in all the trouble spots at all times. He knew something had to be done — and fast.

Luckily, he had previously attended citywide training in conflict resolution and peer mediation run by educator and author Linda Lantieri.

If students could play a role in defusing some of the flare-ups, there would be fewer — and only the more serious conflicts — for Nass or the principal to contend with.

With the go-ahead from the administration, Nass set about training students as peer mediators, teaching them the skills they would need to help riled-up antagonists calm down and discuss their issues without resorting to threats or violence.

The results? About 500 mediations done by students every year, with over 80 percent resolved by students themselves. Principal Paulette Glenn, a big booster, credits peer mediation with having significantly “cut down on our suspension rate.”

A student-centric view of mediation

Student mediators shared their perspective when New York Teacher made a visit to PS 80 last June as the school year came to a close.

“I see more of a difference in the school, there aren’t as many problems as there used to be and people who weren’t friends before are friends now,” said 5th-grader Ayanna.

“Some people need a lot more mediation than others,” mused Isaiah, a 4th-grader. “They might want to learn about mediation and spread the word so everyone could eventually know it.”

Fourth-grader Britney said being a mediator “makes me feel like a responsible and mature adult, helping kids solve problems without violence and without going to a teacher or the principal.”

Britney said the same skills come in handy outside school, too: “I help my parents, when they can’t agree on something; I tell them they just have to sit down and cool down. I was surprised to see it work!”

Student mediators have learned how to see things from two (or three, or four) sides. Their strategies are simple and effective. When a jumble of stories mixed with anger come rushing out, 5th-grader Kiara says she advises, “Can we solve the first problem first, before going on to the next one?” Britney explains, “We don’t tell people to say they’re sorry, we want them to come up with their own suggestions for how to fix the problem.”

Nass says he enjoys hearing students use some of his own expressions such as, “We can’t change the past. What can we do now?”

What it takes to put in action

Nass, who was an honoree at the Department of Education’s Guidance Counselor Recognition Day last year, said he would love to see peer mediation in every school and is happy to share his knowledge and resources. While other organizations charge $12,000 to $15,000 for bringing a peer mediation program to a school, Nass says the cost of his program is nominal.

“In four hours, I could train anybody on how to set up this program,” he says. The major cost? Distinctive vests for the students serving as mediators, with some fun extras like pizza parties for them.

Here’s how Nass did it:

He selected 20 students who are good role models, 10 each from 4th and 5th grade, and gave them a nine-page “mediator’s script,” a rap cd that incorporates those scripts, mediator slips to keep track of resolved cases, and referral forms for cases that need to go to the guidance counselor or principal. And, of course, the vests — bright orange so students can easily spot the nearest mediators when they need them.

Mediators patrol the hallways and cafeteria during lunch and recess and work in pairs with an adult present. School aides, educators and administrators are all involved in the program, too.

“This mediation program helps the classroom as a whole,” said paraprofessional Rita Rogers, an education assistant, “students are learning to articulate and help solve problems.”

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