Peer support schemes can transform schools, by reducing bullying, increasing pupil confidence and involvement, and lowering teachers’ stress levels, as Carol Smart explains

Research shows that often the first person a child turns to for support is a friend. Le Surf and Lynch (1999) speculate that adults may be perceived as a poor source of assistance because age and status gaps can act as barriers to communication. Peer supporters conversely are easily accessible and have the potential to support outside formal interventions. In addition, they can offer unique solutions in order to support their peers and provide a catalyst for peer rejection of anti-social and negative behaviour.

What does peer support involve?

Peer support involves recruiting and training pupils in basic communication skills so that they can develop the confidence and competence to support their peers. This enables them to reach decisions about what they can do to resolve difficult situations.

Peer support provides young people with a route to develop skills in citizenship and take an active part in contributing to a positive school environment. Supporters usually consist of a group of peers of similar age, status and background to the pupils who are being supported. Peer support has been used with pupils of all ages and can be directed to help address a range of problems, including bullying, race equality, isolation, effective learning etc.

Peer support offers an initial action to reduce and perhaps resolve minor problems, but it must never be seen as a way of delegating responsibility for dealing with pupils’ emotional and learning difficulties, away from adults to pupils.

Models of peer support include:

  • Peer Mentoring – a peer mentor acts as a positive role model on a one-to-one basis. They may also be described as buddies or befrienders.
  • Peer counsellors/listeners – peer counselling is a term that is used less frequently and is now being replaced with peer listeners. It suggests a peer who has been trained in active listening, verbal and non-verbal com-munication, confidentiality and problem solving.
  • Peer mediation – this term describes peers who are trained in conflict resolution strategies.They may act as mediators in the playground or in response to bullying.
  • Peer tutoring – a peer tutor helps other pupils with reading or other academic work. They may also support with social learning.
  • Peer education – this involves training peer supporters in specific area such as drugs awareness, sexual health, mental health and bullying. They then deliver training to their peers.

What are the advantages for schools?

Peer support projects can address the following key skills outlined in the framework for citizenship:

  • developing confidence and responsibility by making the most of pupil abilities
  • preparing pupils to play an active role as citizens
  • developing a healthy, safer lifestyle for all
  • developing the ability to instigate good relationships and respect for the differences between people
  • increase opportunities for pupils to learn about their own behaviour and the impact that has on others.

What are the advantages for pupils who are being supported?

Pupils who are supported by their peers are given the message that they are valued and that they belong to a caring community. Support from peers also removes issues of judgement and can support honest dialogue, particularly with pupils who might find discussing sensitive issues with adults intimidating.

Peers communicate in the same language and belong to the same youth culture.They are therefore more able to build relationships of trust and provide a bridge to encourage the resolution of difficulties by bringing them to the attention of an appropriate adult, if this is necessary.

What are the pitfalls?

Peer supporters are not professional therapists or counsellors. They are young people who require careful selection, training, monitoring and support themselves, in order to ensure that they do not become overwhelmed by their responsibilities.

On occasions, there has not been enough thought given to the outcomes of peer support schemes and they have consequently not received sufficient direct supervision. It is essential that a member of staff accepts responsibility for the overview of any peer support project and mentors the scheme to ensure that referral routes are being used.

Consideration of ethical issues and the identification of safety checks must be undertaken, as well as identifying the boundaries of the peer support, in terms of the nature and type of support provided.

Practice

Sharp, Sellars and Cowie (1994) evaluated the effectiveness of peer counselling in a secondary school. The role of the service was to offer a safe forum where pupils could talk freely about inter-personal difficulties and explore solutions. The main benefits were assessed as including:

  • the cost-effectiveness of the system
  • provision of a safety net during lunch and other out-of-classroom times
  • the sense of responsibility it gave to the peer supporters
  • the service being valued by staff and pupils.

In addition, research by Smith and Sharp (1994) demonstrated that levels of bullying could be significantly reduced by using peer supporters, if it was used as part of a whole school policy.

Further Information

The National Children’s Bureau provides a great deal of useful information, freely downloadable from its website. Included are peer support newsletters, fact sheets on promoting racial equality through peer support and much more at www.ncb.org.uk

Copies of Every School Should Have One – and more information about ChildLine’s peer support programmes – are available to download from www.childline.org.uk. For teachers who wish to set up and assist with peer support schemes, there is also a 12-page guide to download.

NSPCC Peer Support has lots of helpful information that contains the references mentioned in this article, along with draft guidelines on setting up a peer support scheme and links to other organisations. Visit www.nspcc.org.uk and search for ‘peer support’ through the home page.

References

  1. Le Surf, P. and Lynch, G. (1999) Exploring young people’s perceptions relevant to counselling: a qualitative study. In: G. Lynch (ed) Clinical counselling in pastoral settings. London: Routledge.
  2. Sharp, S., Sellars, S. and Cowie, H. (1994) Time to Listen: setting up a peer-counselling service to help tackle the problem of bullying. in Pastoral Care, June 1995
  3. Smith, P.K. and Sharp, S. (1994) School Bullying: insights and perspectives. London: Routledge

First published in Teaching Expertise magazine Issue 11 Spring 2006

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