A number of years ago I conducted a student health and lifestyle survey in my school to consider the effectiveness of our student support resources. What we discovered won’t surprise many but it was still an eye opener. In spite of having access to trained counsellors, health professionals and supportive teachers, our students turned to their peers first when they faced the struggles of adolescence. Thus began my journey in the world of peer support programs. Some may call them peer counsellors, peer mentors or peer advocates but by any name, they added a tremendous resource to our school’s student support structure. They now serve as primary referral agents for our student services. Without trying to be dramatic, I can honestly say they have saved lives.
There are several core components to having a successful peer program in a school setting. The adult facilitators in a school setting need training in order to support an effective training program for students. The administration, faculty and staff at a school need to be educated about the role these students will play. Students are not primary caregivers but receive training to support their peers as they struggle with adolescent issues while understanding when a peer might need a greater level of support. At this stage, they refer on to an appropriate resource.
Student training typically revolves around several fundamental skills, listening being the key focus, followed by questioning, decision-making and values. In my school, students applied for the role and are trained year long. Other than our start-up year, returning peer counsellors select the next group to be trained based on an application, essay and interview. The outcome of the selection process ensures that successful applicants broadly represent the diversity of the school population. For the training, other than the first and last sessions, returning peer counsellors run the sessions with the adult facilitators serving in a supportive role. Students study the importance and meaning of confidentiality and develop a code of ethics for the group. During my more than 20 years in peer programs, I have found the students to take this responsibility extremely seriously and have gone to great lengths to maintain this as the trust other students put on them is dependent on their performance.
There is a great deal of research showing the effectiveness of peer networks in schools and other communities. The Peer Resources Network (www.peer.ca) has been an invaluable tool for me over the years providing training, manuals, research findings, and professional development opportunities for peer trainers. In an age where bullying, mental health issues and social media have all made supporting students more and more complicated, students helping students can be a very effective strategy for any counselling department to consider. The system established in my school has now run for more than 20 years and continues to be a critical part of our student support initiatives.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA