Words Work: Teaching Youth Words that Work

Volume 18 No. 4


I can count on one hand the number of times I have worked with disputants that were emotionally literate, enjoyed a clear perspective, understood the other point of view, and were culturally sensitive.  In fact, I have never worked with anyone who, in the moment of trying to resolve his or her dispute, did not have serious struggles. To be honest, when faced with a dispute, I am alarmingly without skill.

The discussion of how important it is to learn conflict resolution and effective communication skills at an early age was only one of the driving forces leading to the development of the Words Work program. The other was the continued concern we all have regarding youth violence and bullying. According to the Centers for Disease Control in 2009, about twenty-three percent of high school youth reported being in a physical fight, and twenty percent reported being bullied. More alarming, the CDC reported that ninety percent of middle school youth reported bullying or being bullied. The impact of this on our youth’s health is staggering, not just in death and injury, but in terms of the decreased potential for young people to benefit from the experience of education. Bullied youth are more likely to become adults who report depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, and who are less apt to take social, vocational and intellectual risks.

The evidence has shown that the most effective prevention strategy is to give youth the tools to manage conflict and the skills to communicate in an effective way. With this in mind, a small working group was put together in 2006 under the tutelage of Robyn Mitchell, former council chair of the Section of Dispute Resolution.

The Words Work program, as it came to be called, was developed to target middle-school-aged children in after-school programs. It was not intended for just the skilled peer mediator, the high achieving student, or the struggling adolescent; it was intended to be easily accessible to all youth.  

The committee consisted of Robyn Mitchell; Trish Jones, a professor at Temple University; Tim Hedeen, a professor at Kennesaw State University; Linda Toyo Obayashi, a mediator in Maryland; Michael Palmer, a mediator and consultant in Vermont; and me. ABA staff members Ellen Miller, Gina Viola Brown, and Stephen Kotev worked tirelessly to keep everyone inspired and moving forward during the three years it took to put together the curriculum. Our objective was to develop a program that was easy to use, accessible and flexible, did not require extensive training of a trainer, and targeted specific areas of learning. The group was also well aware that it was not necessary to invent anything new but rather it was only necessary to find existing curricula and rework them for a new purpose. As noted, it was agreed that the audience would be middle school children in after school programs such as Boys and Girls Clubs and those in leadership groups such as the Girl Scouts.

The project goal was to give youth communication, leadership and relationship tools to be more effective in their daily interactions and to prevent and manage conflict. It was envisioned that Words Work would allow youth to (1) identify options and forge cooperative solutions for conflicts that impact their lives and communities; (2) build self-confidence, and (3) develop relationship skills that would benefit them in their youth and as adults.

After many months determining the most important content pieces, we researched where to find them. This led to a partnership with the Conflict Resolution Unlimited (CRU) Institute[1]  and the Help Increase the Peace Program of the Middle Atlantic Region of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).[2] Both organizations have extensive experience teaching youth conflict prevention and had useful materials. The other crucial piece of the puzzle was the JAMS Foundation’s support of the project, which allowed the Section to partner with CRU and AFSC, to package the materials nicely, and to distribute them. 

The five content areas of focus were breaking the ice, communication, relationships, leadership, and problem-solving. Within each of the five parts, there were one or more sessions with exercises designed to develop discrete skills.  The sessions were designed to be delivered in about 45 minutes.

Each session begins with a short interactive activity that is intended to stimulate a lively discussion. The trainer manual gives trainers all the information they would need to conduct the activity, review learning points, and assist in facilitating a meaningful discussion. The workbook gives trainers all the support materials they would need to conduct each session. 

For example, one of the content areas is communication.  It begins with an activity called the “Space Invader Message,” in which a whimsical story is passed from one participant to three others in the age-old game of telephone. By the time the last person repeats the story, it is nothing like the first story.  The talking point is, “even the best listener doesn’t always remember everything that was said and we should never take listening for granted.”  Additionally, this activity generates a discussion of how important it is to make sure one understands the details of a message and obtains correct information. 

Before finalizing the product, Words Work was tested in at a number of pilot sites. Based on the input from the pilot sites, Words Work was modified and finalized for distribution. Since 2009, the Section has distributed more than 1000 copies of the Words Work curriculum. To date, the evaluations have been exceptional.

In receiving feedback from groups after they had implemented Words Work, we learned that after-school programs were only one audience. As noted by Tobi Inlender, executive director of the Center for Civic Mediation, “[T]his curriculum is easy to use and is adaptable to different settings and age groups. We have delivered it in summer school programs, in workshops at community centers, Boys and Girls Clubs, and to the entire 6th grade of a middle school as a part of school wide work in conflict prevention. We have even discussed adapting some of the activities for our Board Retreat.” She added that the Center for Civic Mediation was a recipient of a JAMS Foundation grant to promote law firm and business sponsorship of Words Work in local schools.

Marnie Huff, ABA Dispute Resolution Section membership chair, approached her local Women’s Bar group for grant funds to train Girl Scout leaders in her home of Nashville, Tennessee. She noted that the group was “eager to assist girls reach their leadership potential by being better skilled to communicate and resolve differences.”

It was the intent of the committee, the JAMS foundation, and the Dispute Resolution Section to make this curriculum widely available and used. You are encouraged to download a free copy of the curriculum from the ABA at http://apps.americanbar.org/abastore/index.cfm and take it to schools and youth in your community.  It would be hard to imagine a more worthwhile task than giving youth the advantage of having a better understanding of conflict and communication as they look to their futures. 


[1] http://www.cruinstitute.org/ .

[2] http://afsc.org/resource/help-increase-peace-project-hipp .


Gail Nugent, Master’s in Social Work, is a mediator, meeting facilitator, and trainer in Southern California.  She works with Sharp Resolutions, http://www.sharpresolutions.com , and can also be reached at ganugent@pacbell.net.




DISPUTE RESOLUTION MAGAZINE is published quarterly (4 times a year) by the American Bar Association Section of Dispute Resolution. Dispute Resolution Magazine provides timely, insightful and resourceful information regarding the latest developments, news and trends in the growing field of dispute resolution throughout the world and features internationally-known scholars and practitioners as authors.


Dispute Resolution Magazine Editorial Board

Joseph B. Stulberg
The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law
Columbus, OH


Nancy A. Welsh
The Dickinson School of Law of the Pennsylvania State University Carlisle/ University Park, PA


Chair Emeritus
Frank Sander
Cambridge, MA


James Coben
Hamline University School of Law
St. Paul, MN


Howard Herman
San Francisco, CA


Bennett G. Picker
Stradley Ronon
Philadelphia, PA


Effie D. Silva
McDermott Will & Emory LLP
Miami, FL


Donna Stienstra
Federal Judicial Center
Washington, DC


Zena Zumeta
Mediation Training & Consultation Institute
Ann Arbor, MI


Gina Viola Brown


Associate Editor
Louisa Williams


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