- Beyond the school gate
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- Curriculum for the 21st century
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- Teachers and Teaching
Wellbeing and connectedness
Harnessing the social juggernaut
Research shows that peer led intervention promotes student wellbeing. Sharlene Chadwick outlines the potential for a peer led approach using the ‘Peer Support Program’.
The ‘Peer Support Program’ is a peer led, skills-based, experiential learning program. The emphasis is on developing and enhancing skills for lifelong learning and wellbeing. Based on extensive anecdotal evidence and informal evaluation, it has been developed over a number of years and is integrated into curriculums from kindergarten through to year 12.
A longitudinal study by the Self-Concept Enhancement and Learning Facilitation (SELF) Research Centre, University of Western Sydney, was published in 2003. Funded by the Australian Research Council, the study involved 2300 secondary students across New South Wales (NSW) during 2001–2002 to determine the efficacy of the NSW Peer Support Program. The results found that achieving cultural change has positive long-term benefits for students and school communities. A school’s long-term plan for positive cultural change can only be effective when it is developed collaboratively by the whole school community through the incorporation of a range of strategies.
A sound approach
These results are valuable for teachers and highlight several challenges that schools may face in the implementation of the Peer Support Program.
In primary schools, peer groups are facilitated by two year 6 students with small multi-age groups from kindergarten–year 5. In secondary schools, the traditional approach is to have year 10 facilitating small groups for year 7, to support them through their transition into secondary school.
Student learning materials, known as modules, are underpinned by current thought in teaching and learning, have a cross-curricular focus and are consistent with key educational policies and perspectives. They are particularly relevant to the key learning areas of personal development, health and physical education, English, and human society and its environment.
Modules cover a range of focus areas such as orientation, relationships, optimism, resilience, values and anti-bullying. Sessions within all modules include opportunities to develop positive relationships with others; engage learners; develop skills, understandings and attitudes; work cooperatively and collaboratively; and reflect on their experiences. All of these enhance student wellbeing over time.
Many forms of peer support have been implemented in Australian schools and have been given a range of titles such as peer education, peer tutoring, peer mentoring, buddy programs, peer mediation, peer counselling, peer support and peer support groups. Until the recent study, very few studies have critically analysed the benefits of peer intervention strategies.
In view of the preference of young people to be supported by peers, the potential of the program is compelling. One study found that secondary school students spend twice as much time with their peers as with their parents or other adults. Peers become potentially powerful models for socialisation, positive behaviours, motivation and achievement. ‘It gave us the opportunity to interact with each other, to get to know people we didn’t know before and to interact with an older student,’ commented one student.
Schools remiss in capitalising on the help-seeking patterns of adolescents may be forfeiting valuable opportunities to address student wellbeing. Recently, researchers have acknowledged peer groups in bringing about positive changes. Given these findings, traditional mental health programs may not succeed in providing effective intervention.
The Peer Support Program provides an excellent mechanism for facilitating social change across year groups and hence creating a positive school climate. It can also be a powerful strategy for enhancing the leadership ability of students. There is solid evidence to suggest that it has the potential to make significant contributions to schools efforts to achieve positive outcomes.
In addition, 33 per cent of students reported that the Peer Support Program enhanced communication, social, decision-making and problem-solving skills. There is further support for the role of coping strategies, social support and self-efficacy in assisting the adolescent’s adjustment and psychological wellbeing. ‘Peer Support is like a key to unlock the qualities you never thought you’d have for your life,’ reported one peer leader.
The NSW Peer Support Foundation advocates that teachers actively supervise the groups to maximise the potential for success. School-based interventions such as this require the continued support of teachers, including those not directly involved, as the program can result in disruptions to the normal school routine. The ‘Peer Support Program would be a good starting point to build relationships and have students interacting and modelling appropriate behaviour,’ suggested one teacher.
Results are clearly a positive endorsement of the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Peer Support Program in schools. It provides students with a source of social and psychological support that may be otherwise lacking in their lives and develops capacity building skills.
When asked to consider the benefits, there was consensus among students and teachers that the participants gained a sense of acceptance and understanding from their peers. ‘It has helped me gain stronger friendships with my peers,’ concluded one student. Several students also indicated that the experience provided them with a sense of social connection and self-worth and improved their coping skills.
Mental health is considered to be a state of emotional and social wellbeing in which individuals can cope with the normal stresses of life and achieve their potential. It includes being able to work productively and contribute to community life. There is strong evidence that school-based intervention programs can achieve positive mental health outcomes in terms of reduced risk and increased functioning. There is also strong evidence that the Peer Support Program is effective as a prevention program related to adolescent mental health.
The Peer Support Program is a valuable learning experience for students and, in conjunction with other strategies, provides a powerful tool for bringing about positive cultural change in school communities.
For further information, visit www.peersupport.edu.au/
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