As the AmeriCorps Youth Program Specialist at the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center, I serve youth from all over Whatcom County. The youth program aims to teach and strengthen problem solving, conflict resolution and communication skills for students in 4th through 12th grade, as well as for youth involved in the Juvenile Justice system. During my term, the youth program provided conflict resolution workshops for 858 youth in 17 different schools. We have presented in classrooms, held ongoing workshops for small groups, and served youth referred from Juvenile Court.
In the final month and a half of my term, our youth program volunteer, Sierra, and I had the opportunity to serve a group of elementary school boys. These students were referred because they were having difficulty recognizing the impact of their behavior on the school environment. Their teachers and counselors hoped the Dispute Resolution Center could help teach the boys self-awareness, anger management and positive communication skills.
During the first session with these five boys, Sierra and I could see we had our work cut out for us. They were easily distracted and drew activities and conversations off-topic to entertain and impress each other. It was difficult to get through our planned activities, despite employing all of our classroom management skills.
At the beginning of the next session we talked to the boys about what had gone well and what could go better. We started a tally system to keep them accountable to themselves and each other, and each student committed to one thing he could do to help the group instead of harming it.
Over the next six weeks, there were still some rough patches, but we saw improvement in behavior. Many of the boys started to become more aware of their own actions and change behavior if it didn’t follow our group agreements. Two of the students began reminding others when they were engaging in behaviors that negatively impacted the group. By the end of the group, we could get through a full activity with just a few reminders.
Out of all the groups I was a part of this year, this group showed the most improvement, both in behavior and in their evaluations. Each and every student showed increased knowledge overall. 100% improved their ability “to solve problems in a peaceful and safe way”, as well as awareness of “how my body reacts when I’m in a conflict.” 80% of the boys improved their skills in assertive speaking and listening to others. One student said he would use what he had learned to calm down when angry, and another said he would use this knowledge in hard times.
We hear from teachers and counselors every year about how important these services are to their students. I’m thankful for the opportunity to connect and engage with youth across Whatcom County in such meaningful ways. I have been lucky to serve with an organization that focuses on empowerment and skill-building as pathways to peaceful conflict resolution, and I hope people continue to use and benefit from the services offered by the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center.
- Lily Dittrich, AmeriCorps Youth Program Specialist, 2015-2016