What is Peer Support?
Peer support is something that happens naturally among young people in friendship groups where they offer one another emotional and practical help. Over the last few decades peer support schemes have been developed that enable schools to generate an ethos and system of support within the whole school community.
Organized peer support typically involves training a group of pupils to act as peer supporters. Some of the most common types of peer support schemes include:
- Peer Counseling - Pupils trained as peer counselors support other pupils in drop-in sessions or at arranged times.
- Befriending/Buddying - Pupils offer support in a less formal way and may supervise games and activities. This method is especially popular in primary schools.
- Mediation - Trained peer supporters support conflict resolution between other pupils by acting as a neutral third party.
- Mentoring - Peer mentors act as a role model, offering support and guidance to another student (usually younger).
A key aspect of peer support is that students are actively involved in creating and developing the schemes to help meet the specific needs of the school. One of the main reasons schools choose to develop peer support is to help reduce bullying.
Peer Support as an Anti-Bullying Initiative
Peer support can be used as part of a whole school anti-bullying approach. Most bullying incidents occur in the presence of peers. These bystanders could potentially intervene and attempt to stop the bullying. Therefore, many believe that one key to reducing bullying is through the active involvement of the students themselves.
Peer support schemes can aim to directly reduce levels of bullying within the school as well as provide a source of support for the victims of bullying.
- Victims of bullying may feel more comfortable talking to another young person rather than reporting directly to adults.
- An important factor is that peer support tackles the issue within the whole school community.
- Adopting a whole school approach to peer support promotes a culture of care and support between students where bullying is less accepted.
Evidence for the Impact of Peer Support Schemes
The research relating to various outcomes of peer support initiatives suggests that they provide some benefits for peer supporters themselves, users of the scheme, and schools in general. Most users of peer support schemes found them helpful: it provided them with somebody to talk to, the strength to overcome bullying, and showed that somebody cared about them. These findings support previous evidence obtained from teacher and student reports (Naylor & Cowie, 1999). Advances in students’ self esteem and other aspects of social and emotional development have been reported as a result of being involved in peer support schemes (Ellis, Marsh & Craven, 2005).
Can Peer Support Actually Reduce Bullying in Schools?
There is a lack of evidence that peer support can directly reduce bullying levels in schools. Rather, it appears that peer support has an indirect effect upon bullying behavior by fostering a climate of care within the school. The school gradually develops a sense of being a caring community, where bullying is not tolerated, and builds upon its reputation in the local community (Cowie & Hutson, 2005).
Factors Which Influence the Success of a Peer Support Scheme
Factors that influence the success of peer support schemes include:
- Having one or two members of staff, responsible for establishing and co-ordinating the scheme, who have enough time to devote to it, and receive support (e.g. being allocated a room that is well located and resourced for the peer supporters to be based in, help in advertising the scheme and recruiting pupils).
- Having support from senior management to encourage a well integrated scheme within the school which is accepted by students and members of staff alike.
- Aiming for a gender balance in recruitment of peer supporters.Peer supporters have and retain high status in the peer group.
- Giving peer supporters high quality training that continues via regular supervision and follow-up.
- Advertising the scheme effectively throughout the school
- Adopting a scheme that uses peer supporters effectively and does not stigmatize users of the system.
Students Must Feel Empowered for Bullying to Stop
It is crucial that students themselves are responsible for running the scheme. Empowering young people allows them to identify and meet the needs of their peers and gives the scheme greater kudos in the eyes of other pupils. Once the scheme is running, the job of the co-ordinating staff is to provide regular supervision and ensure adult support can always be reached. This mutual co-operation between teachers and pupils can in itself be a factor that has a positive impact upon the school climate as a whole.
Peer support represents a student driven anti-bullying initiative. Research suggests that when a whole school approach is used it is possible to create a successful scheme which provides valuable support for pupils and promotes a better school environment.
Cowie, H., & Hutson, N. (2005). Peer support: a strategy to help bystanders challenge school bullying. Pastoral Care in Education, 23, 40-44.
Ellis, L. A., Marsh, H. W., & Craven, R. G. (2005). Navigating the transition to adolescence and secondary school: A critical evaluation of the impact of peer support. In The New Frontiers of Self Research (pp. 323-349): Information Age Publishing
Naylor, P., & Cowie, H. (1999). The effectiveness of peer support systems in challenging school bullying: the perspectives and experiences of teachers and pupils. Journal of Adolescence, 22, 467-479.
Smith, P. K., & Watson, D. (2004). Evaluation of the CHIPS (ChildLine in Partnership with Schools) programme. Research report RR570 to DfES, London. http://www.dfes.gov.uk/research/programmeofresearch/projectinformation.cfm?projectid=14190&resultspage=1
Additional Links and Suggestions for Further Reading
http://www.childline.org.uk/Schools.asp ChildLine is part of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty in the United Kingdom and offers training for schools in peer support through the CHIPS programme.
http://www.mandbf.org.uk/ The Mentoring and Befriending Foundation supports a wide range of mentoring and befriending services within the United Kingdom.
http://www.scvo.org.uk/ PeerSupport/Home/login.aspx The Peer Support Network is a group of development workers which aims to develop groups and voluntary organizations.
http://www.peer.ca/ Peer Resources is a membership based network which offers a large database of articles and resources on peer support.
http://www.goldsmiths.ac.uk/psychology/research/usfs.php The Unit for School and Family Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London, specializes in social development research relating to children within schools and families. It has carried out a number of projects relating to peer support.