Valerie Dovey reports on the implementation of a valuable programme by the Youth Project of UCt’s Centre for Conflict Resolution which pioneers and promotes a climate of problem-solving and conflict-resolution amongst school children
Mr Hendrickse sits in his office, busy with the administrative load that is the lot of the principal of a large primary school. A confident knock on his door, and outside stand three Standard 4 pupils, two boys and a girl. The girl is the spokesperson and she tells of a conflict between the boys PT started off with one taking something belonging to the other and moved swiftly into kicking and hitting mode. The boys have agreed to try to deal with this problem another way through a mediation process, talking it out, a process with which the school bony is already familiar.
The eleven-year-old girl asks Mr Hendrickse if he will co-mediate with her. The principal obliges, the group is invited to sit down in his office and so starts a problem-solving process with a difference.
This incident was related to parents at a large Parent-Teachers” Association (PTA) meeting at the school recently. It was a good news story, one of empowerment being put into practice at pupil and principal level. There was also the telling of a bad news story. The day before the PTA meeting, a nine-year-old Standard 2 pupil at the school was shot and killed in gang cross-fire. He wasn’t even part of the conflict. He just happened to be in the way of a bullet meant for someone else. The bad news stories present the Youth Project with particular challenges as it tries to promote the concept of peace education and constructive conflict resolution among pupils, teachers and parents in our school communities.
So many of those with whom the Project starts working equate conflict with violence and other negative associations. But what else can be expected when this is a daily reality for these young people, with violent manifestations of conflict in their homes, schools and communities?
Violent responses to conflict are described graphically in the news media, and marketed actively by the entertainment media. Disrespect for other people is played out in a variety of ways ranging from abusive verbal and non-verbal communication in homes, to the more visible manifestations at broader levels of society.
It is in this context that the Youth Project is trying to talk peace to children, parents and teachers, and help them understand and buy into the idea that there are alternatives to the ways of “fight”, on one hand “the ways of muscle, physical and emotional abuse, blatant violence and power played out negatively “and that there are also alternatives to the ways of “flight”, on the other hand “the ways of running away, putting one’s heads into the sand, living with a “victim” mind-set and feeling totally disempowered and helpless in the face of conflict.
Against seemingly overwhelming odds, the Youth Project tries to share the conviction that all have roles to play as peace builders, peace makers and peace educators.
The Youth Project perseveres because of a belief in the values that underlie its conflict resolution training, which is designed to equip young people with the skills, knowledge and attitudes that challenge them to seek quality “fix”, “flow” or “win-win” alternatives to the “fight” and “flight” responses.
Principles and values
The training is grounded in a philosophical framework which highlights the importance of three fundamental building blocks as bases for problem-solving and constructive conflict resolution:
(a) affirmation, that is valuing of ourselves and
(b) communication; and
This framework is presented metaphorically with constructive conflict resolution as the tip of an iceberg and the building blocks as its foundation.
What are some of the values behind the Youth Project’s training? First, a belief that conflict can have positive value and that it is only by approaching, confronting and grappling with it, when appropriate, that the “gold” in it can he “mined”, that one can get in touch with differences and thereby find the elements for possible resolution. Implicit here are the positive values of peaceful expression of conflict and diversity.
Second, a belief that the voluntary resolution of conflict is a positive value. This is an expression of disputant power and personal investment in a process which encourages people to take responsibility for resolving a problem themselves, or using an impartial third person to assist them to do so. It allows them to retain control over their problem and take ownership of a solution which they see as workable.
Third, a belief that setting up systems in homes, schools and communities where these values can be demonstrated has positive value. The ideal scenario is one of “peaceable” school communities.
What is meant by this? The Youth Project sees the school community as being inclusive of pupils, principals, teaching and other school staff, management boards, parents and the wider community in which the school is located. The “peaceable” school community is one that is characterised by attitudes and behaviours of mutual respect in all interactions and constructive conflict resolution processes which are “bought into” by all. (Note: The Youth Project uses the word “peaceable” rather than “peaceful” with a purpose: “peaceable” is more dynamic, and has associations with activity momentum, potential and growth.)
School-based peer mediation programmes, pioneered in the USA and now systematised in primary and high schools in many parts of the world, are an example of the kind of system the Youth Project advocates.
Peer mediation is an approach to pupil conflict resolution and peacemaking and a means of transforming pupil conflicts into constructive learning experiences and opportunities for growth.
Pupil-to-pupil conflicts are handled by the disputants themselves with the assistance of specially trained peer mediators or conflict managers, rather than by principals and teachers. It is a voluntary and confidential process bound by specific ground-rules. It follows a step-by-step formula which assists pupils to work through immediate problems, take responsibility for generating their own solutions, agree on those that are practical and mutually acceptable, and then work at implementing these. In so doing, it enables young people to develop a basis for future problem-solving.
Peer mediation training programmes
In January 1995 the Youth Project introduced pilot peer mediation training programmes for teachers from a number of primary and high schools in Cape Town. This is an ongoing learning experience which is generating all sorts of ripples. Below is a brief discussion of the Youth Project’s work with primary school teachers and the kinds of ripples they themselves are creating.
The experience has been a process in itself, often initiated with awareness presentations and basic conflict resolution training programmes for the entire staff of individual schools, or for teachers from a number of schools. Participation in the three-day programme was encouraged from teachers who had received some basic conflict resolution training and who were specifically interested in and committed to initiating programmes in their schools.
Materials from two USA organisations were used to guide this training, but participants were encouraged to consider critically what could and would be appropriate and workable for their own settings.
The whole process has been documented in a systematic way, which provide a valuable basis for critical reflection.
The training agenda revisited some of the Project’s basic conflict resolution course components, presented opportunities for participants to mediate in role-play situations, and then looked at the practicalities of actually implementing a programme in their respective schools. A number of conflict resolution practitioners acted as coaches during the role-plays.
One of the most valuable exercises, according to both the trainers” assessment and participant evaluations, was the small group design and presentation of teaching activities or lessons based on selected aspects of the training.
The same participants attended a follow-up workshop with a specific focus on co-mediation. They were also given an opportunity to share what they had been doing in their schools in the interim.
Part of the challenge to participants in the training programmes is to find active ways of marketing the concepts to their staff and pupil bodies, and moving the process forward, i.e. generating their own ripple effects. This has begun to take place.
Three of the participant schools have presented role-plays during the school assembly drawing on traditional stories of conflict, i.e. those of Peter Rabbit and Farmer McGregor, and The Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Teachers have dressed up and acted out roles as the parties in conflict and the mediators.
One school has invited a neighbouring school to a repeat assembly presentation. The Youth Project videotaped this event and now has a valuable new resource, generated in a local context, for awareness and training programmes.
These assemblies have provided a forum for introducing the mediation process and familiarizing pupils and other staff with the term “mediation”.
This has now become something of a buzz word in the schools, but one which has meaning and credibility. It’s part of a new conflict resolution vocabulary in schools which also includes words such as “ground-rules”, “active” or “I-Care listening”, “I-messages” and “fighting fair”. This is a vocabulary which enables youngsters to get in touch with feelings and to express these in confident ways.
Participants have also been sharing what they have learned with other teachers during staff meetings, in-service training slots, and in special workshops. One teacher team has enlisted 22 staff volunteers to give up a day of their holidays for a training programme they are presenting; another has established a nine-person conflict resolution staff team to take the process forward. One participant has taken the message to teachers from other schools and to student teachers at a training college. The principal of one of the participant schools has been talking to a group of fellow principals.
There are ripples, too, in classrooms, where teachers are finding ways of integrating the concepts of constructive conflict resolution into their teaching, and applying its principles to daily occurrences of classroom conflict. Teachers are designing their own materials and involving pupils in developing resources. At one school, for example, Sub B and Special Class pupils have used their art lessons to decorate “Fighting Fair” posters for strategic display in every classroom and in the foyer.
The whole Grade 7 and Senior Special Class at the same school experienced a school day with a difference recently when they participated in a conflict resolution training workshop presented by two teachers who had attended the Youth Project’s course. Pupils were asked to generate ideas for their own role-play situations and parents were brought into the process by providing refreshments.
Pupils and teachers have been mediating informally in classrooms and other settings. This is becoming a natural way to deal with conflicts as they arise. Effective teacher modelling has obviously paved the way for this.
Constructive conflict resolution at work
A recent incident provides a graphic illustration of constructive conflict resolution and pupil and teacher empowerment at work. The incident centred around the problematic interpersonal behaviour of a troubled youngster from a difficult home environment, which was affecting a group of girls in Standard 5.
The boy and the group of girls were invited to meet a teacher mediator in the staff room, which was a nice adult affirmation of the value attached to this kind of process by the school. The teacher started off facilitating the Introduction and Story-Telling stages of the mediation process.
She relates that she was surprised by the skill level, particularly the display of empathetic listening, shown by some of the girls. An illustrative comment: "I know how he feels, Miss, my home is also like that!"
But more surprises were in store. When the process was moving to the Problem Solving stage, the teacher was asked to leave the room so that the youngsters could "get on with solving our own problem ourselves" “without the assistance of an adult facilitator.
The teacher went with her "gut feeling" and left the room, despite the fact that the atmosphere was emotionally charged and there were many tears.
Checking back a short while later, she found that the pupils had drawn their chairs into a close and caring circle and were totally absorbed in solving their problem. One of the girls was standing behind the boy with her hand on his shoulder. The teacher, aware of an obvious decrease of tension in the room, commented: "What I see is lots of people who want to be friends .. lots of caring and reflect ion. Would you like some more time?" She withdrew.
When she returned, she found all the chairs neatly arranged back in their places and no pupils in the staff-room. The problem had worked itself out and practical ways forward had been agreed upon.
A young boy with a fragile self-image had emerged from a situation which, instead of damaging him further, had been a restorative and healing experience and had set the base for building constructive future relationships with his peers.
Three cheers for a teacher who had enough confidence in the process to step aside and let it continue without her. And three cheers for the young 12 and 13-year-olds who had the confidence to move from a mediation format to a group problem-solving one and to work through an emotionally-laden situation like this on their own. There have also been reports of teachers using the problem-solving process to address inter personal and intragroup staff conflicts and defuse potentially explosive situations A number of teachers have expressed interest in becoming members of a Youth Project support team to assist with training and resource development.
Three of the participant schools have invited the Project to spread the message of constructive conflict resolution to their parent bodies at PTA meetings. One of these schools has been instrumental in organising a pilot "Parent Power for Peace" training programme and is following this up with another which will be presented over a longer time period and involve parents from other schools.
The Youth Project is excited about schools involving parents in this way. After all, parents are part of their children's school communities. But it goes further than that. Parents have valuable and responsible roles to play as peace educators, and the Project welcomes opportunities to encourage them to do this.
Reference was made earlier to the Youth Project’s perseverance ““hanging in” “because of its belief in the value of its work. The Project also perseveres because it sees its work bearing fruit, not with fanfares and great glory trails, but with the kind of ripples that are developing in school communities. Exhilarating and exciting stuff is what the good news stories, like Mr Hendrickse’s and others, are made of.
The ripples might be drops in the ocean, but they won’t just disappear because in this field they gather a momentum of their own. They produce results which are qualitative and which play a vital part in making a difference in individual lives and in the climates of classrooms, playgrounds, staff-rooms and school communities. There is potential for empowerment all along the way, and implicit in this a challenge to schools and also to individual pupils, teachers and parents, to spread the good news stories further afield and become models and sources of learning and support for others.
This is how the ripples can become rumbles and the rumbles, resonant roars. This will help ensure that the concepts of peace education, peace making, and peace building become viable realities in the lives of young people, and the - peaceable way” which they can confidently choose now and in their futures.
Acknowledgements: Track Two, Centre for Conflict resolution at the University of Cape Town