A quick Google search for "student peer-counseling" returns roughly one million results. There's a lot of information out there, and a lot of schools are already employing peer-counseling programs with successful results. But, the idea of having students counseling other students can create some understandable hesitation. However, according to nearly every piece of research, and an actual licensed school counselor I questioned at length, the key is to use peer-counseling in the appropriate situations, under the guidance and tutelage of an adult trained to handle the more serious issues.
For example, you do not want peers counseling peers about suicide, rape, divorce, abuse, death, etc. However, with topics like conflict resolution, relationship building, confidence and self-esteem, study skills, academic motivation, and school attendance (among others), peer-counseling or mentoring can be highly successful. According to Building Effective Peer Mentoring Programs in Schools, an introductory guide created by The Mentoring Resource Center in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, peer-mentoring programs have grown in popularity thanks to a number of benefits of cross-age programs. Cross-age refers to a program in which an older student mentors a younger student. Benefits include:
- Positive outcomes for both the mentor and the mentee, providing growth and learning opportunities.
- Fewer resources required because mentors are gathered from the student population, compared to if the school had to recruit adult mentors
- Peer relationship building, especially because youth are at a critical point in life where they're looking for relationships, and younger kids in particular are looking for a role model
- Improved transitions from elementary to middle, or middle to high school
So how do you create a program that fits your school or district? It will likely be helpful for you to talk to other schools and peers who've already implemented a program and learn from their successes and mistakes. But, keep in mind that no two programs have to, or should, be alike. You can look at our own school or district, your needs, resources, flexibility, etc. and design a program to best accomodate your school.The introductory guide also details guidelines to follow when designing a cross-age peer mentoring program.
1. Design a program fit to accomplish your goals.
Your design should take into account your student population, who you are planning to serve, logistical issues you may face, and the specific needs of your mentees.
2. Outcomes should be defined and supported by a logic model.
A logic model will show exactly how the relationships and activities work to achieve the positive outcomes. This model should show specific activities, partnerships and resources, data. Consider how your efforts and activities would differ if the end goal was to decrease absenteeism verses a goal of increasing exposure to career paths.
3. Match mentors and mentees based on developmental focus.
The developmental focus should emphasize competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring. While academic achievements, tutoring, and more instructional approaches can be weaved in, the relationship between the mentor and mentee should be developmentally focused.
4. Have support from school administration.
As is the case with any program, you need to get administrative backing and buy-in for success. Support is critical, and as teachers and staff promote peer-mentoring, getting student involvement will be much easier.
5. Clearly define roles of staff and partners involved.
You will need a coordinator who is responsible for getting participation and matching mentors with mentees. This coordinator needs to provide supervision and support to the mentors but other teachers and staff play a role as well. They can refer participants, advise on successful matches, and prove to be valuable supporting players in the overall success. Who is actively involved will likely depend on your program and your desired outcomes. If outside partners are involved, they must know their role. Students must also know what is expected of them. Communication is key here.
6. Understand and account for the risks.
Understand that while you may clearly define the roles for students, they may night fully understand them. Also know that while most mentors may have the best of intentions, some may not. Still others, may unintentionally or unknowingly prove to be a negative role model. Additionally, acknowledge that consistency and quality are critical to success.
Building Effective Peer Mentoring Programs in Schools provides a wealth of other information helpful in the implementation of a peer program including Participant Recruitment, Screening, and Selection, Training Peer Mentors, and Choosing Match Activities.
You may also wish to look into other research and success stories. Below are a few resources you will find helpful and encouraging.
- Schools Explore Benefits of Peer Counseling: Details how one school uses peer counseling to help freshmen transition from middle school to high school.
- Peer Group Connection: This site provides advice and tools to implement a PGC program.
- Peer Counseling: Proceed with caution: This article details the need for structure and supervision, and cautions that the repercussions are great if such structure is not in place.
- A Peer-Led High School Transition Program Increases Graduation Rates Among Latino Males: Research shows an increase in all male graduation rates, with improvements greatest among the Latino males in the study group.
Have you implemented a peer-counseling or mentoring program at your school? Tell us about it in the comments section below. Every program can improve, and we can all help each other in that effort!