Imagine what a difference it would make to your students to have another 20 skilled and compassionate people to turn to when they need help, people with whom they could freely share their concerns and problems. One way to secure such a resource is through a peer-helping program—a program that recognizes students as assets in solving problems.
Peer-helping programs typically work as follows. Professionals—usually a school counselor or teacher—train and support a group of students who then help other students by listening, providing information, and referring the students to others with the necessary expertise. The program may involve mediation, tutoring, cross-age tutoring or teaching, or other types of youth leadership. (These activities may also be offered independently of the peer-helping program.)
Peer-helping programs are sometimes erroneously referred to as "peer counseling," a term that suggests that trained students have more expertise than they actually do. This is unfortunate because it reinforces the tendency of many peer helpers to do more than is healthy for their friends or for themselves.
Whom Do You Trust?
The basic premise of peer-helping programs is that teens may not go to the school counselor until stress and sleeplessness have caused them to fall behind in schoolwork, yet they often confide in peers when they are just beginning to worry. Because of this tendency of teens to seek help first of all from peers, peer-helping programs encourage troubled adolescents to get help before their problems become severe or have serious consequences.
Some students, in fact, would never seek help from an adult. They may have had difficult experiences with the adults in their lives. Or, in the higher grades in particular, they may not easily fit into mainstream school activities, a marginalization that may lead to distrust of many adults. Peers can provide these students with support and possibly connections to adults. If trusted adults are included in the peer training, it can further strengthen connections.
In time, students begin to see peer helpers as positive role models. At a middle school in the Seattle area, for example, a group of girls who had participated in a peer-focused violence curriculum heard that some 5th and 6th graders had been spreading hurtful rumors. The older girls intervened. Using their status as upperclassmen, they talked to every class at the lower grade level to let all these students know that they didn't think cruel rumors were cool.
Natural Norm Setters
In addition to helping individual students, peer helpers—as leaders and influential students—can improve the school climate, contributing to its health and security in several ways. Some programs encourage youth leadership and service. Most programs establish positive norms for relationships and improve communication between young people and adults.
The Natural Helpers program is a peer-helping program that our Seattle-based organization—the Comprehensive Health and Education Foundation—developed in 1979. Peer helpers in the program promote the norm that it's okay to seek help; they spread the word that adults are there as resources and that, in general, people care. In fact, as part of the program, peer helpers develop and implement a plan to create socially positive norms.
This past year, we updated the program for a second time based on our research and nearly 20 years of experience in middle schools and high schools. Like a curriculum, the program includes lesson plans, as well as logs that the peer helpers use to report on their activities. We encourage the peer helpers and their fellow students to meet together as a class or group to continue to learn about new issues and to gain support from one another.
No Popularity Contest
How does a school go about identifying prospective peer helpers? One method is a schoolwide nominating process. Peer helpers should represent the entire student body, and the best judges of whether these students are representative are, of course, their peers. The organizers must specify very specific criteria for nominations and make it clear that this is not a popularity contest. To ensure the broadest representation, those tallying the results should record every student's response.
Once some students are nominated, those responsible for the program can apply other screening criteria: a student's ability to deal with his or her own problems, for example, and, again, how representative of the total student body that student is. Attendance and grades are not necessarily good criteria; they may eliminate some students who can offer the most to those who don't readily participate in school activities.
Peer helpers require certain basic competencies. These include:
- Helping skills—most notably, listening skills such as paraphrasing and asking questions and the ability to express support and empathy. Also important is the ability to refrain from giving advice—peer helpers must understand that they are not counselors or advisors.
- Skills, attitudes, and information that enable a student to rely on a team of experts—a helping network that includes counselors, advisors, and other professionals. Knowing to whom to turn and when is important.
- The willingness to get personal help when needed. Before students can help someone else, they must recognize and attend to their own issues and needs. They may be feeling stress from pressures in their own lives or even from the responsibility of being a peer helper.
- Being comfortable with the limits of their role. Again, peer helpers are not professionals; they are not prepared to handle many problems. Given the tendency of many students to take on too much themselves, this competency is especially important.
- Confidence in referring a student to an appropriate person when the student poses a threat to the well-being of others or to himself or herself—even after promising confidentiality.
Retreating for Training
Although peer-helping programs do not require salaries or offices to equip, they do entail other expenses. First is the cost of initial training and ongoing support, including associated administrative functions. Adult coordinators, often with the help of special curriculums or programs—as in the Natural Helpers program—must train these students to ensure that they are prepared and comfortable with their roles and limitations.
Ideally, training for peer helpers is provided in a retreat over the course of two to three days. This type of intensive session facilitates learning and practice. It also promotes bonding and trust among the students and adults.
At a recent Natural Helpers retreat in New Jersey, 30 high school students began the two-day experience separated into their respective cliques. One group of popular and rather boisterous boys made a point of ridiculing and excluding an overweight classmate in their circle. The time came when participants were asked to share something about themselves with the group and the excluded student shared the pain he felt at not fitting in. In the climate of trust, acceptance, and support at the retreat, the cliquish boys reacted sympathetically to this revelation. Their attitudes and behaviors then changed accordingly.
The next day, as the retreat concluded, the formerly excluded student sang a beautiful song—with his erstwhile tormentors providing backup. Such a moving experience would be unlikely to happen outside a retreat setting, or anywhere else where the group hadn't laid the groundwork of trust and acceptance.
To pay for the cost of retreats and other overhead, some schools have enlisted local businesses. (Parent and community support are critical at any rate.) In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, participants in a training retreat included representatives of the local business that helps fund the National Helpers program there. They were so impressed that they not only continued to fund the program but also began exploring the establishment of a similar program in their offices.
Planning and evaluation are vital in initiating a peer-helping program and successfully maintaining it over the school year. At a minimum, a small group of staff members should be convened at the outset to determine what they hope to accomplish, how they intend to accomplish it, and who will be responsible for what.
The plan should include ways of heightening the program's visibility, but without robbing it of its subtle appeal to students who will only participate in a program that is low-key. In addition, as with any resource, people need information on how to use the peer helpers to their best advantage.
Finally, organizers need to decide how they will know whether the program is successful. The method for measuring success need not be elaborate; just knowing that students like the program and that no one has registered a complaint may be sufficient.
When done well, peer-helping programs are well worth the time and money invested. One reason is that students participating in constructive school and community activities take some of the pressure off adults. For instance, at a Washington state high school, the Natural Helpers sponsor a drug-free school week, relieving their over-committed adult advisors of the need to take the lead. They help make a school a supportive community—a community to which students feel connected.
Many authors have emphasized the importance of such feelings of connection—for example, William Glasser (1990) in his concept of quality schools; Peter Benson (1994) in his work on asset building; J. David Hawkins and colleagues (1985) in their research on risk and protective factors; and Bonnie Benard (1991) in her concepts of resiliency building. These and most other educators agree that when students feel that schools care about them, they are more likely to care about school.
Benard, B. (June 1991). "The Case for Peers." The Peer Facilitator Quarterly 8, 4: 20-27.
Benson, P.L., J. Galbraith, and P. Espeland. (1994). What Kids Need to Succeed. Minneapolis, Minn.: Free Spirit Publishing.
Glasser, W. (1990). The Quality School: Managing Students Without Coercion. New York: Harper and Row.
Hawkins, J.D., D. Lishner, and R. Catalano. (1985). "Childhood Predictors and the Prevention of Adolescent Substance Abuse." In Etiology of Drug Abuse: Implications for Prevention, National Institute of Drug Abuse, Research Monograph 56, 75-125. Rockville, Md.: NIDA.
Gail Tanaka is Program Director, Health Education, and Kelley Reid is Senior Trainer for the Comprehensive Health Education Foundation, 22419 Pacific Highway S., Seattle, WA 98198 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and Kelley_reid@aol.com).