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Little people, big helpers: implementing elementary peer programs is possible and powerful.

A look through the window of the teacher workroom shows four students, one seated at each side of a table. They talk quietly, obviously very serious about their discussion.

Two of them, eleven years old, wear name tags, take notes, listen actively, and ask thoughtful questions of their eight-year-old tablemates. They are conducting a peer mediation. Just down the hall, two other peer helpers introduce themselves to a new student, hand him a gift bag, and explain how snack time works. On the playground, a peer helper sits near the jungle gym with a first grader to help her meet and talk to other students. In a second-grade classroom, a pair of peer helpers discusses the negative impacts of gossip with a group of girls.

All of these activities have taken place at Daphne East Elementary School, Daphne, Alabama, since its opening in 2004. However, as is the case at most elementary schools around the country, these activities were formerly conducted by teachers. The Daphne East Peer Helpers group was formed in April 2011 when teachers April Thomas and Ashley Townsend selected and trained a group of 24 fifth-grade students, but theirs is not the only new program in the area. As of this school year, Baldwin County now has a peer program in each of its 44 schools.

Programs with a Purpose

Elementary peer helper programs are as varied as they need to be. The Planning component of the National Association of Peer Program Professionals' Programmatic Standards is an essential first step. Begin by noticing the needs around you. Becky Lundberg, principal at Daphne East, describes their program as a proactive approach to bullying. We "emphasize the importance of peer relationships in social development by offering services that help students build and maintain healthy peer relationships. One of our goals is to replace negative behaviors with skills that involve treating others kindly." It is important to keep purpose in mind as the program grows and as the school's needs change. In an established program, the peer helpers can often take the lead in creating ways to solve new challenges that arise in the school.

Elementary schools do not usually have an elective class period for peer helpers. Selection often starts with teacher recommendations and is followed by a brief application process. Carol Cleveland and Jean Ingram, peer program coordinators at J.L. Newton School in Fairhope, Alabama, have designed a scoring system that uses teacher evaluations, among other components, to derive a numerical score for peer helper candidates. This helps with the objectivity of what could otherwise be a very difficult decision. Host a brief parent meeting to discuss your program's purpose and objectives. Most parents will be excited about their child's helping with such an important effort.

The Jennifer Claire Moore Foundation has been the driving force behind Baldwin County's implementation of peer programs. Supplying funding, training, and support to coordinators across the county, they have helped to ensure that the programs start strong. According to the Foundation (2012), peer programs are:
  a lifeline for youth. When a young person has a crisis or critical
  issue, he or she often doesn't know where to turn for help. With
  appropriate training, peers are in a unique position to get the
  right help at the right time. Peer Helpers are taught how to
  listen, observe and help others, and ultimately create a support
  system for their fellow students.

Their efforts have resulted in more than 30,000 students having access to a network of trained peer supporters. Grief counselors, peer mediators, mentors, and tutors are making a difference in their high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools.

Preparing the Peer Helpers

Training elementary peer helpers requires some advanced thought and planning, as well as knowledge of the students. What are they ready to handle? How long is their average attention span? Can they really be trusted to maintain confidentiality? Are there any components of the training that they will probably never use? All of these questions, and more, must be considered. Here are a few training notes to consider.

Confidentiality is Critical

Confidentiality is essential to a successful program. Students will not trust helpers with their personal lives if they think confidentiality will be breached. Elementary students are capable of understanding this. Know your group, and be willing to spend some extra time discussing the importance of privacy. Be very clear that a breach in confidentiality will result in immediate dismissal from the program. Spend time discussing examples of situations in which responsible reporting would be in order. Have students practice the "I have a friend who ..." method of checking to see whether they need to report. If you are not sure about a student, assign them to tasks for which confidentiality will not be an issue, for example, welcoming new students.

Purpose Drives Training

Keep your program's purpose, as well as the readiness of your group, in mind as you plan to train your helpers. Several good training models are available, but most will need to be adapted to meet the needs of your students. Some helping skills may be combined to make them easier to remember and understand, and kid-friendly language may need to be developed. You may choose to conduct several different training sessions for different teams within your group. The Daphne East Peer Helpers undergo basic training together; the students are then divided into teams (mediation, new student, mentoring, etc.) to receive further training.

Collaboration Breeds Creativity

The Baldwin County elementary programs began training together this year, with several schools at a time meeting together to teach basic helping skills. Students learned about Confidentiality (The Big C), Caring (attending and empathy), Communicating (summarizing and questioning), and Connecting (genuineness and assertiveness). High school peer helpers have also been instrumental in training their elementary counterparts. Ready-made role models for younger students, these peer helpers have created training outlines, role-play activities, teambuilding strategies, and more. Their professional delivery and real experiences with helping situations make them a hit with students and sponsors alike.

But What Can They Actually DO?

Most people who have worked with students have found that the answer to that question is, "Anything they decide to do." Your elementary program can be as vast or as limited as you like. A good rule of thumb is to start small, with one or two manageable activities, and set a goal to grow a little each year. Welcoming new students is a great place to start. Anita Drummond, counselor at Summerdale School in Summerdale, Alabama, has a "Pineapple Committee," complete with T-shirts, whose job is to welcome new students and be their buddies for one week. The Daphne East peer helpers present new students with a gift bag containing a few small school supplies and a coupon for the snack bar. Some helpers conduct tours of the school, sit with the new student at lunch, or check in with him or her weekly for a couple of months. April Thomas, one of the Daphne East coordinators, advises new sponsors to "be flexible. Don't be afraid to try things. If they don't work, change them!" The key is to keep it manageable.

Schools with younger helpers often use a buddy program. When teachers identify students who are struggling socially or emotionally, a peer helper buddy begins meeting with that student on a regular basis. Students talk, play games, and spend time together for a few weeks or months. The results are usually positive for both children. Drummond's Pineapple Committee consists of children as young as five years old and is a great example of how leadership training can start early.

Either the sponsor or the helpers will develop new activity ideas. Elementary students can tutor younger students, help in younger classrooms, mentor students who have a hard time fitting in, design (with help) and lead small-group or whole-class mini-lessons on a variety of topics, help with special needs students, get involved with Red Ribbon Week; and the list continues. Some peer helpers at several different schools have started a "Dear Abby"-style service. Students can ask an anonymous question using a drop box. Peer helpers work together to create a response which can then be posted to a bulletin board in the hallway. This works best for scenarios that are probably common to most children, such as the best ways to deal with teachers, parents, homework, or friends. Elementary students are definitely capable of conducting mediations. Training does take at least a full day, including time for role play. Students also need to review mediation practices and role play again on a regular basis, at least once a quarter.

"They need to reflect on the things they learn," observed Thomas. "They know areas where they do not feel as strong and things they need to practice." Some students have a natural knack for mediating. They are intuitive about situations, can read people well, and can communicate effectively. Often, you may not know which students will be good mediators until the role play portion of the training. For this reason, you may choose to train a large group in mediation (the skills will help them in life, to be sure), but select a smaller group to be your school's mediation team. These students can be go-to mediators as situations arise.

Supervising the Students

It goes without saying that elementary peer helpers require supervision. This can usually come in the form of feedback from the teachers present while the helping takes place. For example, the second-grade teacher whose student needed help making friends on the playground can be the best judge of the efficacy of the helping. Students need to have some privacy for mediations, but a supervisor needs to be readily available. A room with internal windows makes it easy for a sponsor to keep an eye on things. A larger room with a table at the far end can provide enough privacy when students talk quietly. It is important to consider the available space and select the best possible area in which to conduct mediations. Always have students conduct mediations with a partner. Create a mediation folder for the peer helpers so they will have immediate access to forms and procedures. Have them spend a few minutes reviewing the folder together before they meet with the students they will be helping.

In elementary schools, the task of organizing and sponsoring the peer helper group often falls to a teacher or counselor. Enlist another teacher to help! You will enjoy the group more when you can share the load, the ideas, and the management with someone else. If you have a large group, set up a spreadsheet to keep track of which helpers complete different tasks. You can even have a student help with this record-keeping. It will come in handy as the school year progresses.

Remember to decide ahead of time how you will evaluate your program, and connect the evaluation to your program's purpose. For example, a short survey may be given to students gauging their perceptions about bullying at their school. Give the same survey at the end of the year, or at the beginning of the following year, and compare results. It may take a while to see changes in the numbers. Changing school culture can be a slow process, but it is worth the wait. Focus on the students who were helped throughout the year, and success will be obvious.

Big Prizes, Small Packages

Establishing a peer helper program offers promising results in a variety of areas. Peer helpers make a difference in the lives of the students around them by helping them through life situations. The result can be a positive change in school culture, which makes school a nicer place for everyone. The Daphne East bullying survey showed a decrease in students' perceptions of bullying at the school after just one year. However, the students receiving peer helping services are not the only ones who benefit.

The peer helpers themselves flourish in their role as leaders. April Thomas believes strongly in her helpers' growth. "It's helped build the peer helpers' confidence and self esteem. They're not only helping other students; it helps them grow as people, too. They learn how to handle different situations." "He is a completely different person," remarked the parent of one peer helper. "Having the tools to handle things that happen and being able to help other students has completely changed his perspective." E. Hoffman (personal communication, June 29, 2012), one of the original Daphne East Peer Helpers, writes: being a Peer Helper is not only a job, an experience, and a responsibility, but it is an honor. Even though my job as being a Daphne East Peer Helper is over, my job as being a Peer Helper in life isn't over. If you want a change, then be the change.

Regardless of your school's needs, an elementary peer helper program will make it a better place. Students, teachers, and community all benefit from a purposeful, well-developed program that focuses on training student leaders to proactively help others. Children of any age can be taught basic helping skills and can be effective peer helpers. Sponsors provide the training and opportunity. Kids will do the rest.


Jennifer Claire Moore Foundation. ([C]2012). Peer helping. Retrieved from

National Association of Peer Program Professionals. ([C]2010). Programmatic standards. Retrieved from

Ashley C. Townsend, CPPE, Daphne East Elementary School (NAPPP Certified Peer Program)


Ashley Townsend

Daphne East Elementary School, 26651 County Road 13, Daphne, AL 36528

From the Peer Bulletin 216, September 4, 2012

"Reproduced with permission by Peer Resources Network member (Editorial Advisory Board Member Dr. Judith Tindall). Membership in the Peer Resources Network is available from Peer Resources at"

Research Findings:

Keller, T.E., & Pryce, J.M. (2012). Different roles and different results: How activity orientations correspond to relationship quality and student outcomes in school-based mentoring. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 33, 1,47-64.

This prospective, mixed-methods study investigated how the nature of joint activities between volunteer mentors and their student partners corresponded to relationship quality and youth outcomes. Focusing on relationships in school-based mentoring programs in low-income urban elementary schools, data were obtained through prepost assessments, naturalistic observations, and in-depth interviews with mentors and their mentoring partners. Adopting an exploratory approach, the study employed qualitative case study methods to inductively identify distinctive patterns reflecting the focus of mentoring activities. The activity orientations of relationships were categorized according to the primary functional role embodied by the mentor and the general theme of interactions: teaching assistant/tutoring, friend/engaging, sage/counseling, acquaintance/floundering. Next, these categories were corroborated by comparing the groups on quantitative assessments of relationship quality and change in child outcomes over time. Relationships characterized by sage mentoring, which balanced amicable engagement with adult guidance, were rated most favorably by partners on multiple measures of relationship quality. Furthermore, students involved in sage mentoring relationships showed declines in depressive symptoms and aggressive behaviors. For disconnected pairs (acquaintances), students reported more negative relationship experiences.

Findings suggest effective mentoring relationships represent a hybrid between the friendly mutuality of horizontal relationships and the differential influence of vertical relationships.

Watters, A. (August 27, 2012). The problems with peer grading in Coursera. Hack (Higher) Education blog. (Retrieved August 27, 2012 from coursera.)

This essay explores the role of peer grading in the newest system of delivering free courses in higher education. Research shows that students assess their peers' work similarly to the grades professors would give. But what happens when a class has thousands of students from around the world as is the experience of the highly successful Coursera? The author examines issues such as the variability of feedback, the lack of feedback on feedback, the anonymity of feedback, and the lack of community and how these factors impact peer grading. Links are provided for other key articles on peer grading.

Sobo, E. (August 7, 2012). School and self-esteem, or: Thank you for making those socks. The Blog of the American Anthropological Association. (Retrieved August 13, 2012 from

An anthropologist whose focus is early childhood education visited the Waldorf schools to study their impact on healthy child development. In this blog post, she discusses the lack of obvious positive reinforcement offered children at the schools such as saying "good job" to the students when they successfully completed or worked on a project/assignment. Instead the teachers offered "thank you's," or words that acknowledge a positive act without creating a dependency on external praise. In healthy development, the author notes, self-esteem comes from a sense of personal accomplishment, not from ego-stroking.
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Title Annotation:In the Field
Author:Townsend, Ashley C.
Publication:Perspectives in Peer Programs
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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