Arguing over the rules of a game, excluding someone or name-calling may seem like relatively harmless situations that come up when children play together, but like any conflict, they can escalate.

One local school, however, has come up with a way to diffuse school yard disputes by empowering the children to reach resolutions themselves.

“The program is working well with the day-to-day nitty gritty things. I’ve seen changes in the behavior of many of the children”

SS. Philips & James School in Exton, which serves children preschool through eighth grade, was selected to take part in a peer mediation program sponsored by the Pennsylvania Bar Association and Attorney General Mike Fisher’s office. Project P.E.A.C.E. (Peaceful Endings through Attorneys, Children & Educators), trains school representatives, parents and local attorneys to chose and instruct students for mediator positions.

Currently 34 students act as mediators for the school and recently 20 more were trained for positions to begin next year.

“The program is working well with the day-to-day nitty gritty things. I’ve seen changes in the behavior of many of the children,” said sister Maryanne Winterberg, the principal at SS. Philip James.

The students would agree. The program is so popular with the children that this year about 80 volunteered or were nominated for mediator positions. The children went through a screening process and 20, all in fourth or fifth grade, were selected.

“Once a girl wasn’t playing with her friend during recess. The friend’s feelings were hurt, so they came to me and we talked it out,” explained Emily Jacobs, a sixth-grader who served as mediator this year.

“I had a situation where some first-graders wanted to play with the older kids. There is a basketball hoop for the third graders, and the younger kids just came over and started playing, too. I asked them all to clarify the situation then I checked out the rules,” said sixth-grader Greg Orlowski.

“That wasn’t a really big problem, so we just went off to the side of the playground to handle it. If it is a big problem, we’ll go inside to the peace table and sit down to talk.”

At the peace table, student mediators rely on active listening skills and a conflict management process to work through disagreements. Ground rules, such as no interrupting when another person is talking, are agreed to and the problem is defined.

“Mediators help find resolutions that work for both sides. The disputants are the ones that actually solve it through. Both sides have to be realistic and both need to be satisfied,” said Patricia Brennan, an attorney who practices family law, estate planning and mediation in West Chester, and also a parent with children in the school.

Brennan, attorneys Susan V. Edwards and Daryl Endy Klein, as well as school staff members and a parent volunteer, provided a day-long training session for students last month.

The program guidelines state that good conflict managers are good listeners, team workers, fair, dependable and trustworthy. Conflict managers are not police officers, people who interrupt, give advice or judge. Mediators are also reminded to not discuss other students’ conflicts.

Students were coached on using “I-messages” during their training workshop. One sample scenario was that an angry disputant snaps at the mediator. Students formulated an “I-message” the mediator could use to fit the situation – “I feel angry when you reject me because I am trying to help you.” The message was selected because it simply tells how the mediator feels, without making accusations.

Mediators-in-training also came up with a positive “I-message” to compliment students who are working well together to resolve their problems as well. They used, “I feel good when you act responsible because it helps us get through this.”

Carly McKinley, a fifth-grader who was being trained to participate in the program, said she thinks she may have been selected because she has three younger brothers who often have disagreements.

“I’m the only girl (in the family), and I help my Mom when my brothers fight,” McKinley said earnestly.

Kelly Moore, a sixth-grader who is currently in the program talked about her experience. “It’s hard sometimes, and you’re not sure what to say, but this is better than the kids always running to the adults to solve the problems.”

Christine Ferrari, a fourth-grader who was being trained to be a mediator, said her sixth-grade brother Peter, also a mediator, had told her the program is fun. “It feels good to know you’re helping people with their problems,” Ferrari said.

The Project P.E.A.C.E. program began in Pennsylvania when Attorney General Mike Fisher attended a national meeting of attorneys general held after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. Pennsylvania was the second state, after Indiana to initiate the program, which is specifically designed for elementary school children.

Jennifer Branstetter, from the Pennsylvania Bar Association, said the program focuses on elementary school students because studies show that this type of training is more effective when started with younger children.

“We’re seeing great results throughout the state,” Branstetter said.

SS. Philip & James School was one of the 12 schools selected from 64 schools that applied to Project P.E.A.C.E. from Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Bucks Counties last year. The application process is very competitive, according to Branstetter. To find out more information about Project P.E.A.C.E. visit the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Web site at www.pabar.org/specialprograms.shtml or call 1-800-932-0311.