GAMBIER — Sarah Clutter puts on a neon vest and grabs a clipboard filled with papers.
It’s recess and her 20-minute shift is about to begin.
Clutter, a fourth grader, is among 21 fourth-grade students who are peer mediators. Their job? To help other classmates with problems and disagreements.
Wiggin Street Elementary rebooted the mediation program this year, after having a full-time social worker lead the project. Third graders were trained last May to give them a taste of the program and gauge if they wanted to participate the following year.
Clutter walked along with her fellow mediator Hadley Curry on a sunny Wednesday. There weren’t any problems to solve today, they said. Classmates were kicking soccer balls and enjoying the rays.
“I’ve learned that there’s a lot of problems, but lately there hasn’t been because kids have learned to solve problems on their own,” Clutter said.
“We walk around and make sure people are OK, because sometimes they won’t come to us — but most of the time they come to us.”
“The peer program is just a process to solve conflicts and there’s always going to be conflicts every day,” said Tamara Carlson, a Wiggin Street Elementary social worker who leads the program.
“These are skills that are going to help them throughout their whole lives, even beyond elementary school, and build that foundation for those skills to help them with their peers, or even in their home lives as they move to middle and high school.”
The goal, Carlson said, is to promote proactive, peaceful problem solving.
Wiggin Street implemented peer mediators before Carlson became the school’s social worker, she said.
“The principal and teachers discussed how beneficial the program had been to help solve problems at recess and to teach problem-solving and leadership skills to the students,” Carlson said. “As a result, when I began my role as the school social worker, it was my intention to bring back their peer mediation program.”
Clutter became interested in the program last year when she was in third grade, she said. Once Clutter moves on to fifth grade, she’ll be able to guide next year’s fourth graders with mediating.
Another fourth grade peer mediator, Keaton Newell, said he became a peer mediator so he could solve some problems on the playground, which has proven to be effective.
Classmates aren’t forced to work with peer mediators, Newell said, noting they’re not the playground police.
“So we just are here to help and resolve problems,” Newell said. “If one person wants to help and the other one doesn’t, we could give the individual tips.”
When kids work with a peer mediator, they’re never in trouble, fourth grader Delaney Newell said, and the conversations remain private between the student and mediator — not shared with other students.
When the mediators are working on a solution, they don’t take sides nor force a solution on others.
“We can’t take sides because that will make the other person feel like they’re not being helped,” Keaton Newell said.
Mediators are trained to know the difference between a “big and small problem,” knowing when to involve a teacher or keep it between mediators.
The program has been running smoothly, Carlson said, and she has been impressed by the commitment and responsibility displayed by mediators.
One small problem seen a lot at Wiggin Street Elementary is misunderstandings, Carlson said.
“But if it’s a big problem, they’re trained to go get a duty teacher right away,” she added.
When mediators work on solutions, they have the “solution wheel,” which helps students pick a solution to their problem, Carlson said.
Based on observations by teachers and peer mediators, Carlson said, students have been more effective at solving their own small problems independently without the help of a teacher or a peer mediator.
Carlson doesn’t see any limitations for the program either, noting mediators are there to support their peers with small problems, knowing they can’t solve every problem.
Becoming a peer mediator not only helps with resolving conflict, she added, but it gives their peers the vocabulary and processes to solve problems on their own.
Keaton Newell said he’s seen a decrease in bullying because of the peer mediator program.
“The problems have decreased a lot since we’ve started because they know strategies to help figure those problems out on their own now,” he said.
Carlson’s advice for other schools that are interested in a similar program is simple: Go for it.
“The skills that the students learn through this program not only allow them to help their peers but they are skills that will benefit them throughout their lives,” she said.