There are lots of ways of running peer support schemes. We've picked out some of the main ones to highlight.
Buddy schemes provide targeted social and emotional support to vulnerable students. These can include bullied and bullying students or newcomers to the school. There are two types of buddies:
- Older – where older year groups are recruited to support both groups of younger students and individual vulnerable students,
- Peer – where pupils are assigned a buddy from their year, either because they are new or, sometimes, where they need to develop social skills and confidence.
Depending on the scheme, buddies can be trained in area like leading playground games, or in mediation skills like listening and confidentiality. Buddies should be supervised and supported by a designated member of staff.
Circle of friends
Circle of friends is an approach to enhancing the inclusion of young person who is experiencing difficulties in school. The ‘circle of friends’ approach works by mobilising the young person’s peers to provide support and engage in problem solving with the person in difficulty. ‘Circle of friends’ is not the same as ‘circle time’ though it can involve some similar skills and techniques.
In circle of friends, a class or group of pupils meets with a trained person in the absence of the pupil concerned, and agrees on steps to help this pupil. Volunteer pupils are trained to befriend and support other pupils who are identified as isolated or rejected by their peers and hence vulnerable to bullying.
Circle of friends help students feel less isolated in the knowledge that peers would not remain passive if they are intimidated or troubled. A friendship group breaks down isolation of bullied students and helps them to belong. Outcomes can include producing ingenuity in devising practical strategies; developing a flexible and creative method to form positive relationships with peers; supporting victims and increasing empathic skills of befrienders; and supporting those who bully as a result of themselves feeling isolated and rejected.
Peer mentors support the emotional and academic wellbeing of younger students.
Peer mentoring schemes are most popular in the secondary sector, although some primary schools use mentors too. Staff interview and select students, who receive training either in-house, often by the scheme supervisor using resources provided by charities and local authorities or by outside trainers coming into school. Mentors are trained in listening skills; empathy; body language; confidentiality and when to refer on to an adult (e.g. child protection issues). They are identified by badges and organised in three ways; by being paired with a designated mentee; by providing support ‘on demand’ at a drop-in service in a designated room usually at lunch break, or are on duty around the school at break times. Mentors are trained to deal with ‘low level’ relational conflict and bullying (e.g. friendship fallouts; name-calling) but refer more serious cases on to a member of staff.
Peer listeners are older students who provide a sympathetic ear for younger pupils who may prefer to talk someone close to their own age rather than an adult.
Listeners can provide both emotional and academic support and it is used less as a reporting mechanism for bullying. It is usually used in secondary school. Active listening skills are central to the training with some listeners receiving additional training in counselling and more formal interventions (e.g. restorative approaches).
In the primary sector, peer listeners are informally organised and accessible to all year groups in the playground at break times. They are identified by a badge or ribbon. In the secondary sector, listeners are targeted at younger students during transition and attend form groups on a weekly basis. They also run lunchtime sessions or clubs in a designated room where they are available on demand.
Peer mediation is a problem-solving process which encourages pupils to define the problem; identify and agree key issues; discuss and brainstorm possible options; negotiate a plan of action and agreement; and follow-up and evaluate outcomes. Peer mediators are trained in conflict resolution and work to defuse tension between peers; enable both bullying and bullied pupils to identify problems and solutions, such that all involved come away with a sense that the outcome is fair to both sides and promotes pupil’s self-esteem. These schemes can help contribute to a strong ethos of responsibility among pupils for others, their class and the school. Training can be provided by same age or usually older peers supported or supervised by school staff. It is important that supervisors of a peer mediation scheme are trained themselves.
Bystander defender training is an intervention targeted at the group dynamics of bullying. The aim of the training is to turn passive bystanders into active defenders of a bullied student, thus providing a spontaneous peer intervention. It is one of the most inclusive forms of peer support as potentially all students can be trained.