Peer-Counseling Programs Keep Lines of Communications Open

By Ellen Flax — October 31, 1990 9 min read

Dania, Fla.--When students at Olsen Middle School here need to discuss a personal problem with a trained listener, they simply turn to their classmates.

These classmates, who have taken a special elective course to be trained as “peer counselors,” work one-on-one with their “clients"--fellow students who are lonely, troubled, or need some extra academic help.

Although the peer counselors are instructed to never give advice, school officials believe that the students, who are taught to listen, paraphrase, offer options, and refer their peers to adult counselors when necessary, can help their classmates overcome small problems before they develop into personal or family crises.

For more than 20 years, schools nationwide have been using peer-counseling programs like the one offered at this Broward County school to expand their mental-health safety net. But over the past few years, the popularity of such programs has increased dramatically, mental-health experts say.

At the same time, some experts continue to question how effective these efforts, also called “peer helping” or “peer facilitating’’ programs, really are.

“I see a real need for these kinds of programs,” said Roger Hutchinson, a professor of counseling and psychology at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. “Kids don’t have anyone to talk to.”

“It has the potential to be fantastic if it’s properly monitored by school counselors,” he added. “It also has the potential to be horrible.”

‘Eyes and Ears’ of the School

According to mental-health experts, many peer programs are an outgrowth of research indicating that teenagers are far more likely to talk to their friends about their problems than to their parents or school officials.

But much of this informal, schoolyard advice is inappropriate, the experts said. Furthermore, teenagers are not always aware of the reources that are available to them and their friends during times of trouble, they added.

“There is a code of silence among young people,” said James Toole, a senior fellow at the Center for Youth Development and Research at the University of Minnesota who has studied peer-counseling programs. “Often when a problem comes to adult attention, it is too far along and too late.”

To counter this bad ad hoc counseling, schools across the country have developed programs to teach students appropriate “helping” skills.

In most of these programs, school officials deliberately try to attract a mix of students from different crowds and backgrounds that reflect the school’s enrollment. Students generally volunteer to be peer counselors and helpers, and are then screened by counselors and teachers.

Often offered for elective credit, these elementary- and secondary-school classes or after-school programs teach students how to listen, paraphrase what they hear, and offer options.

The students are cautioned about the need for confidentiality. They also are taught to recognize problems too big for them to handle on their own, such as sex abuse, potential suicide, and substance abuse. In these situations, they are taught to refer their troubled peers to trained professionals.

“With their communication skills, they are the eyes and ears in this high school,” said Fran Doyle, the adviser and trainer for the extra curricular Peer Leader program at Bayonne (N.J.) High School. Each week, Ms. Doyle sees about four students who are referred to her for further help by Peer Leaders.

“Kids are counseling kids all the time without training,” said Sandy Nearpass, a school counselor at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, Colo., who oversees 14 peer counselors. “At least if we train them, we have some control over the advice.”

Overworked Counselors

Barbara Varenhorst, president of the National Peer Helpers Association, said peer-counseling and peer-helping programs have become far more popular over the past few years. During this time, she said, membership in her organization has leaped from 60 to 1,000. Although no one can say how many of these programs exist nationwide, Ms. Varenhorst said, schools in virtually every state have them.

A primary reason for the programs’ growing popularity is that many qualify for funding under state and federal anti-drug programs, whose budgets have swelled in recent years, she said. Another major reason, she said, is that most regular school counselors are overworked.

“Peer helpers are an extension of a short-handed guidance office,’' she said. “It’s very common to have counselors with a caseload of 500 to 600 kids, and they have very little time to deal with personal problems and certainly not to deal with them in an in-depth, ongoing basis.”

She and others also said that schoolchildren today are subject to greater stress than ever before.

“Ten years ago, the issues we covered in the middle school would have been covered in the high school,” said Robert Holsaple, the coordinator of prevention programs for the Broward County district. The whole level of general dysfunction is a problem.”

In most peer-counseling and peer- helping programs, one-on-one work is one of several options offered to the newly trained students. Typically, students also take part in orientation programs for new students, tutor, lead classes about aids or drugs, or lead group discussion sessions.

But it is the one-on-one sessions that have proved the most controversial. In some schools, such as Olsen Middle School, trained peer helpers or counselors are assigned students by teachers or the counseling department, and work with their “clients” during school hours. In other schools, such as Smoky Hill High School, the peer counselors may have regular office hours during which any student may come in for help.

Under a third model, used by Bayonne High School, students are not assigned classmates at all. Instead, Peer Leaders are informally available to their friends and to any student who wants to discuss a problem.

Supporters of these programs say that students are taught to listen closely and refer, and not to counsel. But even they will acknowledge that students must be carefully trained and continually monitored to ensure program quality. “A peer helper can be hurt severely by carrying too much of someone else’s burden,” said Ms. Varenhorst, who said she does not support peer helpers being assigned office hours.

As a result of this controversy, many in the field are trying to change the name of these programs from “peer counseling” to “peer helping,” Ms. Varenhorst said. “People are saying that the name ‘peer counselor’ says that students are capable of doing more than they should be doing,” she said.

Listening and Referring

During a recent visit to Charles Hurd’s peer-counseling class for 7th-and 8th-graders at Olsen, students began their day by reviewing the “fact sheets” on their “clients.”

After a short introduction by Mr. Hurd, the 13 students, all of whom had received seven weeks of training, brought their clients into the classroom for either tutoring or a personal discussion.

Pairing off among the five old couches, chairs, and desks that filled the room, the peer counselors and their charges talked in low tones, trying to maintain some semblance of privacy.

“Everybody wants to pick fights with me, for no reason,” said a young girl to her peer counselor.

“So what you’re saying is that things are better in your home, but you’re being picked on in gym class,” the peer counselor replied, trying to paraphrase what she had just heard.

Between students running up to ask questions, Mr. Hurd said that more than half of the students see peer counselors for tutoring. The students, he said, typically are referred by other teachers, their parents, or the counseling department, and are seen, on average, about three or four times by a peer counselor.

“I basically take over when it gets real serious,” he said, explaining that the students primarily discuss family or social problems and refer the more complicated issues to him.

About 50 students are taking his course, he said, which meets five days a week. On Fridays, he said, the students meet as a group to discuss their problems and to learn more about specific topics, such as drugs or suicide prevention.

“I just think there would be a lot more kids who wouldn’t be served, if it wasn’t for peer counseling,” he said.

Mr. Hurd’s students said they felt they got as much out of the class as the students they were helping.

“Counseling gives you a chance to deal with other people,” said John, a student in the class. “Talking with people about their problems helps you with your own.” “A little bit of the reason why I got into peer counseling was because I had experienced the death of my mother,” said Sandy, an 8th-grade student. “It’s made me very aware of my feelings.”

Unlike many peer-counseling efforts, the Broward County program, which was started in 1977 and has expanded to all of the district’s middle and secondary schools, has been thoroughly evaluated.

A doctoral dissertation completed this spring by Michelle Reardon, the peer-counseling coordinator at the county’s J.P. Travella High School, found that students who had failed two or more classes in a quarter saw their grades increase by 25 percent if they had received peer counseling during the following marking period. A control group who did not receive peer counseling saw their grades drop, the paper found.

Just ‘Catharsis’?

Although supporters say that peer-counseling and peer-helping programs can aid lonely or troubled youths, others question whether adolescents are capable of handling these concerns.

Wade Silverman, the chairman of the psychology department at Barry University in Miami, said he believes that adolescents should not be expected to handle one-on-one consultations with their peers about any topic except those directly related to social issues or school.

“To be reflective and empathetic takes a certain amount of maturity, training, and supervision,” Mr. Silverman said. “I wouldn’t trust them to my child.”

Mr. Silverman said he does not believe that peer counselors will always be able to know when to refer students to adult counselors.

“Life doesn’t fall neatly into ‘This isn’t a serious problem,’ ‘this is a semi-serious problem,’ and ‘this is a very serious problem,”’ he said.

He also questioned whether students will benefit from sharing their feelings with peer counselors.

“Just talking to people is catharsis,” he said. “It isn’t changing behavior.”

Supporters of these programs argue, however, that peer counseling and peer helping are neither designed as nor meant to be seen as a substitute for adult counselors.

“I would prefer a trained psychologist to deal with them,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “But let’s face it, there aren’t enough school psychologists.”

“What we are doing is providing a service that they would normally never have,” said Ira Sachnoff, director of the San Francisco Peer Resource Program. “What we are giving kids are skills that they can use again and again for the rest of their lives.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 1990 edition of Education Week as Peer-Counseling Programs Keep Lines of Communications Open