Tags: Classroom Teacher | Headteacher | Peer Support | School Leadership & Management | Teaching and Learning

In setting up peer mentoring schemes (see my previous article in Issue 7 of TEX) it would be foolish not to consider some of the pitfalls, especially before you launch a new scheme with pupils, staff and parents. If you can pre-empt as many questions as possible it will give a measure of reassurance that you have already put in place ‘safety nets’, especially for the students involved.

One of the biggest challenges will be to convince staff/parents/governors that a peer-mentoring scheme is a worthwhile initiative to introduce into your school. A good starting point could be to link it to the issue of bullying and using peer mentoring not only to help reduce the impact of this in school, but also to enhance the ethos of the school.

Following the acceptance of the Scheme by the Headteacher, a well-prepared presentation to (for example) a staff meeting could be the next step.

I would suggest the first step in launching a new scheme is for the co-ordinator, and members of the pastoral team who will be supporting the student group, to put together a well-prepared presentation for a staff meeting. This could then form the basis of a letter to parents and a submission to governors.

In my experience, concerns raised by staff and parents (or even the students themselves) usually include the following:

  • Dangerous situations
  • Safety of mind and body
  • Confidentiality issues – how much will staff get to know about?
  • What kind of problems will the students be trained to deal with?
  • Who will supervise the group?
  • Who will care for the peer counsellors, ensuring that they can meet all other academic commitments?
  • What will the training involve?
  • Unqualified and inexperienced trainers
  • Training and supervision of the member of staff managing the group
  • Permission from parents for students to join the scheme
  • Information on the scheme for parents
  • Record-keeping
  • Cost to the school – will the co-ordinator’s post be paid?
  • Time involved in running the scheme
  • Supervision
  • Location
  • Communication
  • Publicity

I make no apology that this is a long list and there are more points I could add regarding the administration of the scheme. However, fore-warned is fore-armed and if you and your students are committed to a peer-mentoring scheme, these concerns can be effectively dealt with and questions and negativity successfully fielded.

Here are some suggestions to counteract the above:

  • Limits of confidentiality. In many cases, once a student has talked to a peer counsellor it opens the door that enables them to speak of their concerns to a member of staff.
  • Have a pre-determined agreement on the member of staff that will be in charge and what the cost to the school will be. This is a student-run group but will obviously require a member of staff to supervise. Staff and parents will want to know who will this be, whether it will be a voluntary position and whether the member of staff is given extra time to run this group. A commitment by the senior management team that funding will be put in place, shows their backing for the scheme.
  • It is essential that the chosen member of staff undergoes a training programme and that they in turn are supervised. There must be an agreed chain of referral leading to the Head of Pastoral Care and designated Child Protection Officer.
  • How accessible is it? A ‘drop in centre’ could be made available to students during the lunch period. How will students contact a peer counsellor? (E.g. send messages via the school intranet or a ‘post-box’ ensuring regular collection and responses to messages.)
  • And what of the mentoring group itself? How large will it be and what will the age limit be? Will there be a specific ratio of male/female? How will they regulate their own behaviour? How will they be chosen? (Personally, I prefer it if the students develop a selection process based on how volunteers handled the training programme and how they performed in an interview.) It is important that becoming a member has some kudos – not everyone who applies gets in!
  • Confidentiality issues. Training must cover the issue of confidentiality boundaries. An agreed policy on what issues can and cannot be dealt with is vital and that the list is subsequently included in the publicity. Students using the service need to be aware that if they divulge certain matters it could be harmful to them; these will need to be referred on. This is required to safeguard the peer mentors from finding themselves in impossible situations, especially regarding their own peers.

And what of the sustainability of the scheme?

It must be remembered that this is a ‘student-run group’ and that these students have been given a fair degree of autonomy to manage and develop the group. How are you going to supervise them without it appearing to be ‘staff run’ and alienating students from using this service?

What will happen if there are problems within the group, or more importantly, a breach of confidentiality? How will you recruit for the future? How will you select students?

It is important that the co-ordinator assists and supervises rather than taking over the group and students must have their say. Although the above may appear rather off-putting, please don’t be discouraged. Although these schemes are hard work, they are enormously beneficial not only to the students themselves, but to the school as a whole. In the busy world we live in, what a gift to be able to stop and listen to each other for a while.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, July 2005.

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