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Originally published Monday, October 5, 2009 at 12:09 AM

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Jerry Large

Teaching mediation to kids

Nancy Kaplan teaches people how to get along. You'd think being social animals, we'd just pick that up.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Nancy Kaplan teaches people how to get along.

You'd think being social animals, we'd just pick that up, but in a big, diverse, fast-moving individualistic society, it's not so simple.

Incivility can easily become the norm, unless we do something about it.

Kaplan runs the CRU Institute (Conflict Resolution Unlimited) in Bellevue. She and her teams of trainers work with students, mostly from high school to about third grade, teaching them to be peer mediators, helping other students resolve conflicts before they get out of hand.

We don't want them to grow up to be people who might yell at the president during a speech, like Congressman Joe Wilson, or snatch a microphone from a young woman's hands, like Kanye West, but even more to the point is teaching kids to deal with other people civilly every day.

"We feel conflicts occur often because people don't understand each other," she said. "They get into conflicts out of ignorance."

For years, Kaplan did mediation work in divorces, and she trained lawyers and mental-health workers in conflict resolution.

Doing the work with divorcing couples, she wondered whether it would be better to help people avoid problems by teaching them people skills when they were young.

Since 1987, CRU has done programs for schools locally and across the country in New York City, Los Angeles and Baltimore. The staff is multiracial, which helps in dealing with cultural and ethnic conflicts and relating to a range of students.

The trainers look like Kaplan's family. She has eight children, all grown now, two are biological. Her adopted children are African American, Asian American and Latina, so she's learned how different life is for each group.

When schools adopt peer-mediation programs, fights, suspensions and expulsions go down, Kaplan said. That's good for the school environment, but it also reduces long-term problems.

"Suspension is the beginning of a disaster," she said. It can be the first step toward dropping out, and that has a big impact on a kid's life, and our common future.

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The training is eight to 12 hours spread over a few days. The curriculum is the mediation process and techniques, recognizing feelings, communication skills, perspective, cultural awareness.

CRU teaches with a lot of role playing guided by the trainers. A mediator will ask the arguing parties to take turns saying what the problem is. The mediator restates what each one has said, helping clarify what happened and getting each person to see the conflict from the other's perspective.

CRU also uses several DVDs it has produced in which students act out conflict and mediation.

Once trained, mediators may spot a situation in which they might be helpful, or school staff may give kids the option of talking with a peer mediator instead of a visit to the assistant principal.

Peer mediators are not supposed to inject themselves in situations they think are dangerous, and are required to report any threats of violence.

Their job is not to solve problems, but to help the people involved work it out themselves.

Being a mediator gives you the sense that you are of value, she said. "Kids can tell when you are trying to fix them. But when you say to these kids, 'we want you to take responsibility for other people's conflicts,' they feel empowered."

Kaplan said mediator training also teaches self awareness.

"We help them learn to recognize how other people are feeling, and learn to control their own feelings." You can't mediate a conflict if you get caught up in it. "You have to remain neutral even if inside you are thinking I can't stand this person."

It's good life-skills training.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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