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Peer Helper Programs: Definition, Purpose & Overview

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

This lesson defines what a peer helper program is and, also, tells you about the purpose of such programs. Finally, you will learn how peer helper programs work in schools.

The Scenario

Karen is a middle school student with lots of problems at home. Mainly, Karen's oldest sister recently gave birth and Karen has become a babysitter with very little time to study and no consideration for her own needs. Karen, of course, is very unhappy and does not have any close friends in school to talk to since she has always been very shy. As a consequence of this whole scenario, Karen's academic achievement is low and she is often distracted in class. The school counselor has tried to talk to Karen, but she does not feel she can relate to the counselor because of age differences mainly. Karen feels lonely and lost, with no one to trust.

What Is a Peer Helper Program?

Based on the above scenario, we can imagine why school peer helper programs exist. It is not so difficult to understand if we go back to the time we were in school: we found it so easy to confide in our friends and peers because they were our same age and had similar interests. So, that is precisely what defines a peer helper program.

A peer helper program is a set of services for support of students in elementary, middle, and high school, who receive such support from trained peers.

Now, let's see, based on the above, what a peer helper is. Let's meet Kevin, who is a very mature and responsible middle school student. He has a high level of academic achievement but is also very popular among his peers because he is kind, helpful, and open. Kevin is now part of the peer helper program in his school. As a peer helper, Kevin is trained and supervised by school professionals such as the counselor.

The training Kevin receives along with other peer helpers involves learning skills such as identifying students who might be struggling, listening, empathizing, asking key questions, guiding in the form of suggestions, and offering problem-solving assistance and even academic help so Karen can improve as a student. All of these skills are taught by always reminding peer helpers that their duty is to keep things confidential, just like the school counselor would do.

As a consequence of this program, we can now imagine that Karen has been able to benefit from it. Kevin is now her peer helper. He listens to her, expresses his understanding, offers some guidance based on what he has learned and, most importantly, keeps things confidential. Karen begins to feel relieved. Now, let's go on to the purpose of peer helper programs.

Purpose of Peer Helper Programs

The key purpose of peer helper programs is to assist students who are struggling emotionally, socially, or academically, with support coming from a peer with whom they can identify.

For this reason, it is important to clarify that peer helpers are not there to tell others how to act or what to do in a given situation. Also, they do not provide therapy or treatment because, simply, they do not have the needed knowledge to do that. Instead, peer helpers listen, share their own experiences, discuss possible consequences of a situation, identify possible solutions, but do not give advice. In short, they help by becoming a confidant for other peers.

It is very important to note that if a student threatens to harm themselves or others, shows psychotic behavior, or reports abuse, then the peer helper must involve the coordinator of the program immediately.

How Peer Helper Programs Work

Now, you might be wondering how a school puts a peer helper program in place. Usually, once school staff, such as counselors, principals, and teachers, identify the need to offer students a space in which they can use the help of peers for emotional, social, or academic needs, the school defines what exactly their program would do (e.g., listen, empathize, assist with projects, participate in problem-solving alternatives, etc.). However, to effectively put a program in place, the school counselor must be certified by the National Association of Peer Program Professionals. This allows the counselor to effectively serve as a Peer Program Coordinator.

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