Peer support networks provide a place for students to meet socially with each other outside of classroom time. Peer support networks can have a single focus or broad mandate with a wide range of social justice and diversity topics, but they can also be a space for students with common interests to grow relationships with their peers.
Peer support networks are typically run by students and supported by school staff. Participation is always voluntary. When students do volunteer, they are encouraged to make a commitment. Peers meet regularly to participate in a range of shared activities and discussions. They may also organize school-wide events to raise awareness about topics related to inclusion or social justice.
Peer support networks offer:
- safe spaces
- increased visibility and awareness
- increased sense of belonging
They are a way to:
- build healthy relationships among students
- promote positive mental health
- foster social connections
- promote a welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment
By socializing together in a peer support network, students:
- recognize and celebrate diversity
- learn from each other
- provide mutual support
- serve as role models and advocates
Why peer support networks are important
School should be a welcoming, caring, respectful, safe and inclusive space for all students. Peer support networks help create this space by being a safe environment for students to connect with their peers in ways that may not be possible in the classroom. Where class time is structured around curriculum, peer support groups can be a place for students to learn and discuss topics that they are passionate about. The opportunity for students to share interests and ideas with likeminded groups helps them to foster relationships and a sense of belonging in school.
Peer support networks can also help to create healthy, respectful relationships and a developed sense of empathy, which can prevent or eliminate bullying behaviour and discrimination. They can also increase students’ sense of belonging and positive mental health by fostering meaningful relationships.
Other positive effects of peer support networks include:
- leadership opportunities
- sense of belonging
- fostering meaningful relationships
- expose students to different ways of thinking
- finding shared interests with other students
- give students a place to hang out in a safe place
- the opportunity to belong which may not otherwise exist
A peer support network will look different based on the goals of the group. The groups will consist of several students and a facilitator who guides meaningful group discussion and ensures all students are heard. Overall, the goal of a peer support network should be to help students find commonality and start relationships with their peers.
The following are examples of different types of peer support networks.
Gay-straight or queer-straight alliances
For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students, gay-straight or queer-straight alliances (GSAs/QSAs) provide a vital space for them to feel unconditionally welcomed and accepted in school. These groups also help interested students and teachers learn and understand how to become effective straight allies for their LGBTQ peers in the fight to end homophobia and transphobia.
Promoting an inclusive school
An inclusive school means that every student feels welcomed, accepted and supported no matter what their situation is. At some schools, students will take an active role in helping ensure that everyone feels welcomed.
One example of this is the creation of a peer support network for students with disabilities, where students may come together to help those with disabilities become more involved with extracurricular activities.
This particular kind of peer support network would offer students with disabilities the opportunity to develop social and independence skills. The peers supporting them also gain an understanding and appreciation for diversity, as well as increased advocacy and leadership skills. Both sides of this network would have the benefit of new friendship and a greater attachment to school, as well as an increased sense of self-esteem.
Some students simply have trouble connecting with others in classroom settings, making it difficult for them to find a group during non-instructional times. One way to help foster a sense of connection with students who are more introverted is to set up an informal peer-support network during lunch time. A facilitator can simply offer a space for students to connect with others through games, film or conversation. The group might not have had a chance to interact without the peer support opportunity.
Social justice groups
Social justice groups can be an opportunity for students to discuss a wide range of human rights topics that they are passionate about, such as gender equality, international conflicts, environmental issues and much more.
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