An education researcher from the University of Toronto has found that peer mediation programs might improve student achievement and attendance and reduce suspension rates.

A study of 20 Cleveland elementary schools with peer mediation programs between 1997-99 concludes that fourth-grade proficiency test scores rose, attendance increased, and the number of suspensions dropped compared to schools without mediation programs.

“Mediation frees up teachers and administrators to teach by delegating authority to students,” said researcher Kathy Bickmore, an authority on conflict resolution. “It changes the role of the student some and it changes the role of teacher some.”

In peer mediation, trained students help other students solve their school problems. Students are encouraged to move beyond the immediate conflict and learn how to get along with each other.

Bickmore’s research, which she presented at an international conference in Finland last August, found:

• While Cleveland’s overall elementary suspension rate went up 2 percent during the 1997-99 school years, the suspension rate dropped 25 percent at the 20 elementary schools she studied with peer mediation programs.

• Pass rates for fourth-graders on the reading and citizenship portions of the Ohio Proficiency Test were significantly higher in schools with peer mediation programs than in schools without. Bickmore attributed the increase to conflict resolution programs fostering improved language, problem solving, and communications skills.

• Students in schools with conflict resolution and peer mediation programs showed a greater understanding of how to handle conflict peacefully. They also became more comfortable communicating with fellow students individually or in groups, according to surveys.

“We believe violence is a learned behavior,” said Carole Close, director of the Cleveland Municipal School District’s Center for Conflict Resolution. “If violence can be taught, nonviolence can also be taught. This research validates the work that we do.”

Bickmore said there was a danger of reading too much into her findings. But she believes her research offers hope. “None of this is a magic pill, but it’s a start,” she said.

Bickmore’s “Research on Peer Mediation Training and Program Implementation” studied a total of 34 elementary schools over two full school years. However, the heart of the study involved 20 schools that were studied more intensively and for more time.

According to Bickmore, the overall question driving her research was, “What processes of conflict resolution learning are being facilitated, in what ways, at each elementary school, and what are the effects of these processes, among peer mediators and in each whole school?”

Quantitative evidence involved comparing pre-test results to post-test results, Bickmore said. The tests were administered 12 months apart and filled out by the entire population of grades three, four, and five at each school. Each test was geared toward “emphasizing awareness and attitudes toward handling conflict,” she said.

Other quantitative data involved changes in standardized test scores over the same period, and comparing the average scores of students at the project schools with the those from district’s other elementary schools.

Qualitative studies—such as site visits, interviews, and meetings with program trainers and advisors— also were conducted throughout 1997-99.

“Qualitative evidence included multiple observations and interviews at all school sites, involving students, teachers, administrators, and parents both involved and uninvolved in the mediation programs, supplemented by additional interviews with trainers and school-based advisors,” said Bickmore.

What Bickmore’s research revealed, she said, is that peer mediation really works.

“There were immense differences among project schools, depending on how they implemented the program,” she said. “Some created stronger, more inclusive, and more sustainable programs than others.

“However, at the same time, the average results of [peer mediation] schools improved significantly [more than district averages as a whole] after only one year of implementing these conflict resolution programs.”

According to Bickmore’s report, “The results of this evaluation research project affirm that peer mediation, following the [Cleveland Municipal School District] Center for Conflict Resolution training and program model, can improve elementary students’ capacity and inclination to handle conflict nonviolently, their relationships with peers, and their attachment to school.

“Furthermore, this program can reduce suspensions from school for violent activity and increase achievement in reading and citizenship,” the report said.

Bickmore also gave some advice to schools hoping to implement peer mediation projects, based on her research findings.

“Good training is not enough,” she said. “School-based program development, and support to build equitable programs that can grow and last over time, will require strengthened commitment and clarity of purpose.”


Cleveland Municipal School District’s Center for Conflict Resolution
651 East 71st Street
Cleveland, OH 44103
contact: Carole Close
Program Director
phone (216) 432-4605
fax (216) 431-5180

Kathy Bickmore
Associate Professor
University of Toronto’s Department of Curriculum
Teaching & Learning
252 Bloor Street West
CTL, Room #10-170
Toronto, Ontario M5S 1V6