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Feeding tigers with teaspoons

Bullying and various forms of anti-social behaviour are all too common in schools and Shieldhill primary near Falkirk is no exception. Have you ever fed a tiger with a teaspoon? This is how it felt endeavouring to cultivate a positive ethos.

The majority of the working week is devoured by the immediacy of handling discipline problems, resolving conflict, communicating with parents and proactively deferring the violence, aggression, bullying and anti-social behaviour that was once restricted to the playground but has now entered the classroom.

The school, which invested enormous time and commitment to building a positive ethos to enhance and facilitate effective learning and teaching, is at the heart of a traditional mining community. The mines are long gone but the legacy of beliefs, customs, traditions and attitudes remain.

On the outskirts of the village new housing developments have encouraged the arrival of commuter families. This has doubled the school roll in seven years and the headteacher is constantly seeking new avenues and strategies to meet the demoralising demands of bad behaviour. This year peer mediation has been introduced as a way to teach pupils to handle conflict in constructive ways.

A neutral third party supports disputants in a conflict to find an agreement acceptable to all parties. The disputants, not the mediator, decide the terms of the agreement. It is being used in a number of schools in the UK, including Northern Ireland.

A peer mediation training programme for primary 6 pupils covered development of the skills to deal with conflicts in positive, non-adversarial ways; creating a safer environment in which to learn; and raising pupils' self-esteem and confidence. These aims built on existing practice in the school.

The programme consisted of 11 half-day sessions and a full training day. The half-day sessions focused on the core mediation skills of communication, co-operation, affirmation and raising self-esteem. Incorporated with this was work on the mediation process. Circle time was used every session and every day. The skills were taught through oral and written work, drawing, games and a variety of class, group and individual activities.

At the end of the training pupils were awarded certificates at a special assembly and a number were selected to be mediators. A Peer Mediation Service was set up, as was a support group for mediators and a scheme to monitor the number and types of incidents and the use of the service by pupils.

The pupils developed to varying degrees the skills necessary for mediating both their own and other people's disputes, particularly communication skills. They all gained in confidence, particularly in expressing their opinions and working co-operatively. The quiet and more withdrawn pupils showed the greatest progress and the more aggressive pupils learnt to listen to and appreciate the views and ideas of others.

Pupils completed an evaluation of the training programme which produced some interesting comments. The question "Why do you think mediation is different from a teacher sorting out a problem?" produced a variety of answers: mediators have rules, teachers give punishments; mediators do not take sides; teachers and children do not think the same; no one is allowed to blame.

Twenty pupils said they would use the skills they had learnt after they left school, six were not sure and one said no.

Pupils have just completed a self assessment report, part of which includes the question "What has been the most enjoyable part of the year?" Every pupil mentioned the mediation training.

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