Students as Helpers: What Young People Can Do

Peer Support Training for Young People: enhancing students' natural abilities. What young people lack in experience they can often make up for in enthusiasm, energy, and a constant availability to each other that hard-pressed teaching staff cannot accomplish. Some, indeed are natural born helpers, students who are known to their peers for fairness, an ability to listen and good interpersonal problem-solving skills. They have a quality of "being with you" and tend to be positive and resilient. Think how good they'd be with some training! (In fact, I consider the question of resilience to be so fundamental that I have given it a page of its own, in fact the next one!)

Besides, the experience young people do have is qualitatively different from that of adults a generation or more apart from them. As teachers and parents we imagine that we know the world that they live in, but discover that we cannot enter their experience any more than (often) we can appreciate their music or fashion. There are issues and concerns that are common experience for young people, just as their experience of life in school, in the corridors, in the playground may be quite different from how the adults see it, or from how school values and policies suggest it to be.

This is not to suggest that the adults have got it wrong, nor that enlightened and properly monitored policies are unimportant. The point is that there are different voices and different pressures informing behaviour and "culture" in any school. Engaging and involving such voices can only be helpful. Some examples follow.

Peer Support is not supposed to replace anything, but to provide an additional, largely informal layer of help and support in a school. The aim of the training is not to turn them into "counsellor clones" gazing inscrutably at their prey with all the "correct" body language! Rather it is intended that they will retain all of the advantages of their youth to be natural and approachable. On top of this, they will gain in knowledge, listening, questioning and intervening skills, and crucially, they will know the support system in the school so that difficulties are promptly referred (with consent) to the person in the best position to help .
For the Service to really work, it is essential that there is a true working partnership between experienced adults who have access to resources and decision-making and the young people freely giving their time to help. It is important also to recognise not only that involvement is a serious commitment of time and energy but that, for the institution, it is a long term development that will outlast those currently delivering it. Such attitudes will prevent the scheme from the dangers of becoming detached or unsupported, or at worst tokenistic. In brief it's all about better connectedness between school staff and young people.

Robert Blum, points out that better connections between teachers and young people, and between teachers and parents, through ordinary day-to-day activity is "transformative", improving achievement, diminishing negative behaviours, and improving social and emotional learning.

This then raises other questions in a "systemic" approach to helping, such as outreach and support to vulnerable parents/families; using services in the community; identifying pupils who are failing in school as early as possible; building competence in young people, and; having an atmosphere of positive regard that builds self-esteem (in staff too!)

Given this supportive context, there is a massive amount that young people can contribute - and so many are yearning for the opportunity - remember those heady days of idealism? A further key element of an effective scheme will be that the students organise themselves so that they can be efficient and are empowered, within sensible constraints, to act. This means the group will have to struggle with some form of leadership structure; parcel out tasks based on skills and interests, and (it has to happen at some point in life); create a committee! Although there will need to be briefing meetings co-ordinated by the staff lead, students will feel like an organised body rather than a passive group that cannot get on with anything unless or until an adult takes the lead.

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