Peer Counseling Programs
Peer counseling programs have been developing in elementary, middle, and high school settings in the United States over the past four decades. With the multitude of challenges facing schools today, including significant social problems, professional "helping resources" are often inadequate to adequately meet the social and psychological needs of students (Cowie, 1999). Peer counseling programs utilize the power of positive peer influence as an effective way to supplement these services. Schools with strong programs can create a heightened sense of community as communication between students and staff is improved and a climate of care and respect is fostered.
Keywords At-Risk; Conflict Mediation; Literacy; Mentoring; Peer Counseling; Peer Helper; Peer Helping; Peer Influence; Peer Mediation; Peer Tutoring; Peer Support; Peers
When students have concerns or problems, they often turn to each other for support instead of consulting with parents, teachers, counselors, or administrators. As the American School Counselor Association (2002) explains, "In our society, peer influence may be the strongest single motivational force in a student's life." Though students can exert negative influences on one another, they can also be strong positive forces. They can act as positive role models, demonstrate appropriate social behavior, and listen to and understand the common frustrations and concerns of other students (Varenhorst, 1992; Carr, n.d.). This peer support can be a valuable social support for many students who feel socially alienated.
Peer counseling may also be called peer tutoring, peer facilitation, peer support, peer education, and peer helping. Although "peers" typically refers to students of the same age and status, peer counseling programs may also match younger students with older students who serve as mentors, or provide students with disabilities with assistance from other students who do not have disabilities (Varenhorst, 1992).
Peer counseling programs developed in elementary, middle, and high school settings over the past four decades have utilized peer influence in a positive way, creating programs that have multiple benefits for schools and students. With the multitude of challenges facing schools today, support services are often too limited to adequately meet the social and psychological needs of students (Cowie, 1999). Peer counseling programs are an effective way to supplement these services. They teach student values such as cooperation, tolerance, and responsibility, thus making peer counseling a great instrument for preparing students to live in a more cooperative world (Varenhorst, 1992). Peer helping "activates and empowers students (an often underutilized resource in the schools), and it builds an ethos of cooperative values" (Center for the Advanced Study in Education, n.d.).
The American School Counselor Association (2002) states that "peer helping programs enhance the effectiveness of the school counseling program by increasing the outreach of the school counseling programs and raising student awareness of services. Through proper selection, training and supervision, peer helping can be a positive force within the school and community."
Peer counseling programs have been successful in addressing many school-related issues, such as transitions to higher grades, substance abuse, bullying and violent behaviors, conflict resolution, sexual harassment, pregnancy, depression, suicide, relationship problems, family problems, academic problems, grief, racism, stress, anger, anxiety, stalking, and eating disorders. These programs take many forms and may include activities such as listening and understanding; friendship and support; decision-making assistance; tutoring and academic support; role modeling; mediation and conflict resolution; education activities; problem-solving assistance; and referral to professionals (Peer Resources, n.d.). Numerous research studies have documented the effectiveness of these programs (Black, Foster-Harrison, Tindall, Johnson, Varenhorst, & Moscato, n.d.; Varenhorst, 2002).
Students who participate in peer counseling programs either as peer counselors or as counselees and their sponsoring schools all derive benefits from these programs
Counselees can experience:
• An increased sense of self-worth;
• Stronger feelings of connectivity with others;
• Improved social skills, including impulse control, and creative, critical thinking, and friendship skills;
• Improved communication skills;
• Improved decision-making and problem-solving skills;
• Increased resiliency;
• A more positive attitude toward school (Tanaka & Reid, p.31);
• Improved personal and academic achievement;
• Reduced feelings of loneliness, alienation, and depression;
• An increased acceptance and respect for diversity;
• An improved ability to face future conflicts in life such as marriage, career, and family; and
• A greater recognition of the help and care that professionals can provide.
Counselors can experience:
• Increased empathy, understanding, and compassion;
• The development of active listening skills and improved communication skills;
• Increased social awareness;
• Increased self-confidence and self-esteem;
• A personal satisfaction derived from helping others, playing meaningful roles, and acting as positive role models for peers;
• An increased awareness of the positive impact students can have on their communities;
• A lowered likelihood for becoming at-risk themselves (Center for the Advanced Study in Education, n.d.);
• An increased acceptance and respect for diversity;
• A increased focus on cooperation, lessening competition; and
• The development of leadership skills.
Schools can experience:
• Improved communication networks within the school;
• A healthier and safer school climate with emphasis on care and respect (Center for the Advanced Study in Education, n.d.);
• A stronger sense of community among students and professional staff;
• Improved early detection and prevention of bullying and violence;
• An greater amount of time for professional staff to assume other duties, thus expanding services while decreasing costs;
• Peer counselors' unique skills and perspectives, which can enhance the school's counseling program; and
• Better communication between school professionals and the student body as peer counselors serve as a link between the two (Frenza, 1985; Tanaka & Reid, 1997; Varenhorst, 2002; Bernard, 1995)
Schools that develop peer counseling programs must first define a program mission and purpose (King, Vidourek, Davis, & McClellan, 2002; Varenhorst, 2002). Peer counseling programs need to have administrative as well as parent and community support to succeed. A program coordinator, usually the school counselor, should facilitate the design and implementation of an appropriate program that matches the requirements of the school population. This individual has the responsibility of overseeing recruitment efforts for peer counselors; designing and coordinating a training program; meeting with peer counselors on a regular basis for continued training, supervising and sharing experiences; building parent and community support for the program; and continually evaluating the program in order to make appropriate adaptations as needed.
Students who are recruited to participate must have a specific set of skills to be effective peer counselors (Tanaka & Reid, 1997). Grades and attendance are not always good predictors of success for peer counselors. Peer counselors must be able to handle their own problems to be able to aid peers with their concerns. They must demonstrate helping abilities such as the ability to listen, ask questions, and express support and empathy. They must also be able to maintain confidentiality and neutrality. It is especially important that peer counselors know and respect their own limitations as nonprofessionals and know when and how to refer their peers for professional help.
Traditional Peer Counseling Programs
Although peer counseling programs have become popular in schools nationwide, their approaches vary widely and take many forms. Six different elementary, middle school, and high school programs are described here.
Hill-Murray Peer Helping Program
This St. Paul, MN high school program is a "program by students for students" (Hill-Murray School, 2007). The Peer Helping Program offers non-elective credit to juniors and seniors who enroll in coursework that enables them to utilize their academic and communication skills to work as Peer Tutors or Peer Listeners. The school has created a P.E.E.R. Center (Peer Education & Encouragement Resource Center) where Peer Helpers and fellow students meet to tutor and listen. Peer Listeners meet with students who need to talk in confidence about...
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