Mediator Mentor program allows for students to work with schoolchildren

Fresno State honors international humanitarian, Steven Were Omamo, and professor emeritus of 55 years Sudarshan Kapoor, among others, for Top Dog Awards. (Vendila Yang/The Collegian)

Students have the opportunity to help schoolchildren develop conflict resolution skills through the College of Arts and Humanities’ Mediator Mentors program.

The program, headed by Negin Tahvildary, director and philosophy instructor, allows Fresno State students to meet with teachers and students in public elementary and middle schools and help them develop interpersonal problem-solving skills. 

Schools involved in the program are located in the Central, Fresno, Clovis, Sanger, Chowchilla, Dinuba and Kerman school districts. 

Over 7,000 children and teachers have participated in the program, the Mediator Mentors program website said.

The program’s history dates back to 1989 and was originally established by Dr. Pam Lane-Garon from the Kremen School of Education, Tahvildary said.

“It was addressed mainly for our student teachers to implement peer mediation,” Tahvildary said. “Then in their classroom… it was more about building a constructive conflict community in the districts that [go] back to that time.”

Other staff members that are involved with the Mediator Mentors program include Karen DeVoogd, lecturer and faculty advisor at Fresno State, and Henry Placenti, who provides information technology support for the program.

The program is open to all Fresno State students, who can pick one of the schools to visit. Students spend lunch periods or after school time with the elementary and middle school students, who are called peer mediators. 

Tahvildary said that a massive benefit from participating in the program is that the mentors and peer mediators develop a collaborative relationship. 

After each semester, she asks her college students to submit a reflection paper, in which most students say that the experience in the program was self-rewarding, and how it made them feel nostalgic, reminding them of their own elementary and middle school memories.

According to Tahvildary, Fresno State students are expected to “participate in a two-day training on mediation and mentorship.”

“With the students, we provide three different sets of training for students, and for their teacher coordinators,” Tahvildary said. “For the [K-12 students,] it is peer mediation training, and then for [the] students is mediation and mentoring, and for the teachers, we have trainers from outside who do that and it is more like a combo of peer mediation, [and] mediation and mentoring for the teacher coordinators.”

Tahvildary also said that students who want to have an internship will need to complete 10 to 15 hours of training, and that students who want to participate in service learning will need to complete 21 hours of training.

Christina Cassinerio, the coordinator of Fresno Unified’s Mediator Mentors program, explained more about the peer mediators’ roles in her district, saying that they learn how to actively listen and understand other people’s perspectives by acting out conflicts that the peer mediators could encounter in a school setting.

Cassinerio also said that the peer mediators do circle activities “where they get to practice with each other in pairs.”

Cassinerio elaborated on how the peer mediators are learning the process, where some of them act as disputants in a conflict and others who act as mediators and set the guidance.

“Kids can fall into trying to be their best selves as they’re trying to engage in working through conflict and making it real for their peers as they’re trying to get these skills,” Cassinerio said.

Peer mediators are able to participate in the program with parental permission, but they are not assessed on anything that they learn, Casserino said. 

Cassinerio observes how engaged the peer mediators are and said that they participate in games that require listening skills in hopes of making the program fun for them to participate in.

“We want it to feel like this is something that they want to return to, because frankly they don’t have to,” Cassinero said. “School is out, and they could say, ‘No, thank you.’”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Fresno State students and the peer mediators would visit each others’ campuses. But, as a result of the pandemic, all of the activities in the Mediator Mentors program have been done through Zoom meetings.

Caleb Helsel, a sophomore political science major, said he participates in the program through Zoom with students from the Fresno and Clovis Unified School Districts.

“These kids are generally kids who… may be underperformed, [and] a lot of them come from under-resourced areas,” Helsel said. “They are underperforming, [and] some of them have had disciplinary issues, or have otherwise slipped through the cracks of, and a lot of times, under-resourced systems.”

“Since we’re young adults [and] we’re closer in age to them, we provide a unique place for them to come and talk, and we talk about issues like bullying or fairness with them and give them opportunities to talk about their experiences with these issues,” Helsel said. “I think that we provide something unique because most of them are relatively averse to authority figures.”

Helsel also said there was an expectation he had while being a part of the program that “you have to be a pretty outgoing person, and you have to be patient, and… someone that is able to engage with them.”

Helsel said that the kids that he works with are used to being silent and trusting authority figures. If the mediators are outgoing and engaging, he found that the children are more comfortable with talking and participating in activities.

“A lot of them are pretty reserved, but over time, if you’re outgoing and engaging, then they start to open up a little bit and they’ll start to talk more and respond to activities,” Helsel said.

In the past, the program and its staff have received a variety of awards. 

According to the program’s website, Lane-Garon, Cassinerio and DeVoogd have all received the William J. Kreidler Award by the Association of Conflict Resolution for advancing education in the field of conflict resolution. 

The program has also received a President’s Excellence Award from the former university president and current California State University Chancellor, Dr. Joseph I. Castro.

For those who are taking part in the Mediator Mentors Program, the experience has meant a lot to them, especially Cassinerio.

“When I started early days to now, it’s changed the trajectory of where I thought I would go in education. So it’s changed me,” Cassinerio said.

Cassinerio also said that she really likes the idea of having college students be a part of the program and how kids look forward to working with the mentors.

Helsel said that he feels like he’s making a difference, especially with having “an opportunity to help [the peer mediators] open up and develop and grow as people.”

“It’s nice to be someone that can help these kids open up,” Helsel said.

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