"You stole my pencil!''
Third graders have been known to do battle over petty grievances such as these. In response, the teacher usually moves in like a United Nations peacekeeping force, imposing a quick, bloodless settlement on the disputants. It's a tough job.
But Paula Steinmetz, a 32-year veteran elementary school teacher and proud owner of a law degree, believes she has a better way to resolve classroom run-ins. It's a sixhour unit called "Mediation Works,'' which she teaches every year to her 3rd grade class at Noah Webster School in Hartford, Conn.
Steinmetz begins by asking her students to role-play a dispute. Given the usual tensions that ripple through the 3rd grade like static electricity, the students have no difficulty coming up with a grudge. Says Steinmetz: "Someone will say, 'He hit me when I was in the hallway.' They're never at a loss to think of something.''
She continues by demonstrating to her students the basics of mediation: listening and cooperation.
After the unit, when a real crisis occurs, two classroom mediators-- selected each week from among the students--approach the warring sides and ask if they want to take their complaint to mediation. If they say yes, as most do, the four students-- two mediators and two disputants-- sit together in a semicircle. The mediators then encourage each disputant, in turn, to voice his or her grievance.
"One of the mediators starts out by saying to the two disputants, 'Please don't interrupt, please wait your turn, and please try to reach an agreement so you'll be friends again,' '' Steinmetz explains. Then, each disputant takes a turn at making his or her case, with the polite encouragement of the mediators.
After all the steam is vented, one of the mediators asks if the two disputants feel better. "You wouldn't want to go on if both the kids still felt angry,'' Steinmetz says. "Then, one of the mediators asks, 'What can you do to prevent this from happening again in the future?' While they answer, one of the mediators takes notes.''
Eventually, the two reach an agreement, and the mediators transcribe those scribbled notes into a formal peace settlement. All four sign the document. "Then,'' Steinmetz says, "they shake hands.''
It sounds a bit involved, Steinmetz admits, and, of course, some blowups still do occur from time to time. But, she says, "There's a diminution in the number of conflicts because they learn to get along, to listen to one another, to communicate, and to care about one another. When they're trained, the children will take care of it. I don't always hear about it.''
Steinmetz has taught mediation workshops to teachers throughout Connecticut, so they can teach their own children. "It's a life skill,'' Steinmetz says. "It's called getting along with other people, and it really requires training.''