Peer to Peer Support is a Participation Model


Children smiling in the snow

This article originally appeared in START Connecting in December 2021. 

Do you want to be helped through life, or do you want to be an active participant? 

Whether you’ve supported a Peer to Peer program for one semester, or for multiple years, you have undoubtedly seen the powerful impact on relationships, school culture and lived experiences. As we approach the new semester, this might be an opportunity for school teams to reflect on their Peer to Peer programs and move toward a stronger participation model.

The participation model shifts from a helping approach -- where one student is the helper and the other is the recipient of help – to a model where all students actively engage together in natural friendships.  All participants in Peer to Peer, regardless of whether or not they have disabilities, benefit. They learn, they grow, they gain new skills, and they develop new friendships. All are helpers, all are friends. That is the reciprocal power of Peer to Peer.   

Steps to move toward a richer participation model

1. Language Matters: Reflect on the Labels and Messages in Your Program

Listen to the language team members and students use in your Peer to Peer program. Does your school use terms like “mentor” and “mentee”?  “Tutor”?  “Helper”?  In what ways could you shift terms to make them more inclusive and capture the reciprocal benefits of Peer to Peer through using words like “LINKS,” “friends,” “peers,” or “classmates” instead?  

Consider the messages students hear about their roles in the program. If you’ve heard staff using language and terminology that implies peer supports are tutors, this is what your students are going to think they should be. When a teacher says “can you help Ramiyah with the assignment?” it creates a hierarchical scenario where one student has authority over the other. Instead, make sure each student has their own assignment and encourage them to talk together and collaborate as they complete their work. This changes the dynamic from “I’m helping her” to “we’re working together.” Similarly, when a school staff member says, “Can you take Eric to his locker?” it frames a different message than “why don’t you go to your lockers together?” These are subtle, but powerful shifts in messaging about the roles of students in your Peer to Peer program.

"All participants in Peer to Peer, regardless of whether or not they have disabilities, benefit. They learn, they grow, they gain new skills, and they develop new friendships. All are helpers, all are friends. That is the reciprocal power of Peer to Peer."

2. Use the Peer to Peer Program Fidelity Checklist

The revised Elementary and Secondary Peer to Peer Program Fidelity Checklists are now available. In these updated versions, we have included several questions that help teams reflect on whether their Peer to Peer program is a helping or a participation model. These and other questions cue teams to assess the quality of their Peer to Peer programs so gaps in implementation can be identified, and teams can connect with resources to help address those areas.

3. Where do you go from here?

If your program is focused on a helping model, now is the time to begin transforming. Remember the START-ism: “We did what we did when we knew what we knew. When we know better, we do better.”  

Design trainings that will help staff and students think differently as you shift to a participation model. Remind them that Peer to Peer is about friendships, building relationships, and engaging together, not about having students acting as mini-paraprofessionals. Foster social opportunities in a range of activities: at lunch, during hallway or locker time, and in after-school activities. Emphasize that Peer to Peer is not only occurring during one period in one classroom, but it is the foundation of the entire culture of your building.   

Here’s a PowerPoint about the Participation vs. Helping Model and a tissue-worthy video demonstrating the participation model, Titletown, TX.  These resources may help as you begin training others and transforming your program.  

"[P]eer to Peer is not only occurring during one period in one classroom, but it is the foundation of the entire culture of your building."

Just START.  START the conversation. START thinking differently. START training. START the change. Build a participation model that promotes the future we all desire – one where students are not helped through life, but one where students are happy, connected and active participants in life. 

“Clearly, there is nothing wrong with help; friends often help each other. However, it is essential to acknowledge that help is not and can never be the basis of friendship. We must be careful not to overemphasize the “helper/helpee” aspect of a relationship. Unless help is reciprocal, the inherent inequity between ‘helper’ and ‘helpee’ will contaminate the authenticity of a relationship” (Van der Klift & Kunc, 1994).  

Resources:

First and Foremost, Peers are Friends - Focus on Creating a Participation Model

One of the most critical components of designing a successful Peer to Peer program is grounding it in a foundational “Participation Model” mindset. Students who want to be a Peer Support are not interested in taking on the role of teacher, teacher assistant, or parent. Keep in mind that kids are kids, they want to be kids, and should be given the freedom to be kids. Replace words such as “mentor,” “mentee,” and “role model” with “peer,” “friend,” and “LINK” as you develop program materials and as you train staff and peers. The shift in philosophy and practice from “help” to “participate” will yield powerful outcomes. The goal of Peer to Peer programming is authentic inclusive opportunities that promote belonging. Teach, advocate, and continually revisit with staff and students what a Peer Support is and what a Peer Support is not.

Written by: Jamie Owen-DeSchryver, Ph.D. - Project Faculty

START Connecting Homepage