By Maria Alonso, Upper School Counseling Psychologist
This past August, Carrie Timmins and I travelled across the country to participate in the Peer Helping-Peer Education-Peer Counseling Training for Trainers. Ira Sachnoff, who is well known for developing successful peer-to-peer resource programs in San Francisco for the past 35 years, led the conference. He has trained hundreds of school personnel to start up their own programs around the country.
The idea of starting up a peer-to-peer helping program at Westtown was actually initiated by a couple of students last year. One male and two female students individually approached me in the spring and relayed that students seek out students for help the majority of the time. The three students recognized that often helpers were not equipped to guide the student in need.
I began to research peer-to-peer helping programs in the spring and found that the research supported these programs as an effective strategy for improving the overall health of young people in a school setting. It is well recognized that youth are more influenced by their peers than by the adults in their lives, especially those who participate in high-risk behaviors. Additionally, I learned that peer-to-peer helping is a win-win for participants. It not only helps the one in need but it also provides the helper with the kind of life-long skills that can help them navigate challenging life issues and myriad stressful dynamics that arise in relationships. The peer-to-peer helping can also provide an avenue for developing positive student leadership when students have the opportunity to be a resource for one another.
We learned from the outset of the training that peer-to-peer resource programs in a school have many possible facets. Some of these include:
Peer Counseling: Students helping others through one-on-one contact to assist and refer when necessary. Counseling can be informal with students using skills with friends, or formal with specific drop-in hours or through referrals by faculty and staff.
Peer Education: Students develop and lead class presentations or school activities on subjects such as racism, substance abuse, smoking, bullying, decision-making, peer pressure, refusal skills, depression, anger management etc.
Conflict Mediation: Students are trained in a conflict resolution process and then mediate disputes involving other students or between students and faculty.
Tutoring: Tutoring can occur before school, after school, during lunch and in class. Tutors can be volunteers, receive elective or service credits. In class tutors usually are assigned to a specific class where they tutor every day.
Support Groups: Students lead or co-lead groups on special or general topics, as drop-in or informal groups, at lunch or after school. Possible targeted student populations: children of alcoholics, at risk students, 9th graders, smokers, and women’s groups.
Peer Connection: Outreach to our lower and middle school, for one-to-one or small group activities with an educational component.
Buddy Connection: Match older students with freshman, transfer, or high-risk students. This is usually a very active project around student orientation time that tapers off during the year.
ESL Rap: Students helping international students needing practice in speaking English and helping them learn about the American culture in small, safe discussion groups.
SASH or Students Advocating for Student Health is the name of our new peer-to-peer resource program at Westtown. The students have begun training this fall and are excited to develop this program at Westtown. Ultimately, it is an opportunity for them to connect, to learn and develop skills that promote positive change and to feel a sense of pride as they learn that they can make a difference in their community.