Peer support works, with support

Peer support is effective, but needs structure and monitoring, otherwise the program risk becoming ineffective or having a negative effect
Apr 28, 2021
PSA's program is good, but ongoing evolution and research are needed.

A little help from your friends works well; peer support, mentoring and tutoring all have positive effects on a school community, but they in turn need support.

Peer tutoring and mentoring have been found to be effective in multiple randomised trials, compared to usual practice controls, students receiving peer-tutoring demonstrated significant improvements in academic performance.

Peer-tutoring is more effective than tutoring from an adult and tutoring programs had significantly larger effects where they were well structured, shorter (less than 5 weeks), in the subject area of maths rather than reading, and focussed on skills that were easily taught.

There is also a range of health and social benefits including reduced antisocial behaviours, smoking, drug use, increased adult help-seeking for suicide risk, and for females, physical activity.

Clearly structured programs have clearer benefits, inadequately structured peer programs can be detrimental, if a program is unstructured, negative aspects like unhealthy attitudes and behaviours can creep in encouraged by hierarchies and persuasion by peers.

The findings come from research around the long running Peer Support Australia (PSA) program which has been evaluated in a published, rigorous school trial which demonstrated school-wide benefits.

Participation in the service leads to improvements in emotional literacy/emotion regulation, social inclusion (including enhanced peer relationships), reduction in experiences of bullying, improved social skills and positive youth development in care for others.

The contemporary PSA program has been modified since it was evaluated, the process found that while most students saw the intervention favourably, a proportion were critical of one or more components. Now, Year 11 or 12 students no longer act as senior peers with Year 10 students taking up the role.

PSA are designing implementation monitoring platforms to support schools and will investigate the formation of university partnerships and involve schools and student peers in research tasks to improve implementation systems.

PSA will investigate the feasibility of including schools and student peers in coalitions such as Communities That Care, which support community-school partnerships to implement innovative prevention science practices to enhance child and youth development outcomes.

As in Australia, recent evaluations of UK school peer support programs found failure to achieve measurable effects was associated with weakly structured and poorly implemented programs.

The research has indicated that there needs to be program monitoring to ensure essential elements of a peer support program are implemented and there must be continuing evaluation of user experience in diverse student populations and multiple school settings.