At its simplest level, peer support is about making children and young people feel safe and supported by their peers. In schools, it is about empowering pupils to address a wide range of problems others may have, from transition to family problems to bullying. On a school-wide level, peer support can radically improve the atmosphere, allowing pupils to feel safer and more supported whilst simultaneously freeing teachers of time spent dealing with disputes and grievances often encountered during break times.
Selected volunteers undertake training, including listening and communication skills, techniques for helping others, confidentiality and role play. Where levels of aggression are high, peer supporters may struggle to challenge the culture of bullying. However, where peer support systems are firmly established, the ethos can improve and those who experience bullying report finding it easier to talk to someone (Cowie and Wallace, 2000). Successful peer support schemes harbour an anti-bullying ethos, provide direct support for those who need it, and promote the development of social skills and confidence in those who participate.
If more support is required, volunteers can be assigned to ‘buddy’ or ‘befriend’ peers whom staff have concerns about. Buddies need friendly personal qualities to give support with emotional and social problems and may share a common difficulty – for example, bereavement or disability. Clubs can be set up to offer support in particular areas, and the befriended generally feel more positive about themselves having had someone to talk to about their problems. Buddies feel more confident and value other people more. As above, buddies need training in active listening, assertiveness and leadership. They will also need support from a key member of staff.