Opinion

Training Young People to Be Peer Leaders and Educators Is Powerful

peer leadership: Young people discussing paper sketch at brainstorming meeting behind glass of modern office interior.

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Youth engagement, youth leadership, youth participation, youth voice and choice, youth as leaders and decision-makers: These are ideas that are not new to the youth development and youth work field; and yet there are many challenges to engaging youth at meaningful levels. This challenge is a result of the longstanding norm that most of the information youth receive comes from adults. 

Peer education, or peer leadership, is a youth development strategy that incorporates powerful child-centered education models. This strategy involves youth in meaningful interactive, educational experiences focused on a public health issues like violence, HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, or alcohol and other drugs. The peer leadership model provides information, builds skills and involves young people in positive group interactions as they are trained as peer leaders or educators. 

peer leadership: Laurie Jo Wallace (headshot), managing director of training at Health Resources in Action, smiling woman in pink sweater.

Laurie Jo Wallace

The strategy is built upon the belief that young people listen to and respect their peers in different ways than they do with adults. Peer leaders serve as positive role models providing accurate information and skill building for their peers or younger children. They are young people who have been empowered to use their voices to help other young people and to have a voice in creating change within themselves and within their communities.

Other educators have shown the power of learning from one’s own experience. The philosophy of Paolo Friere, Brazil’s eminent educator, focuses on the idea that teachers and students offer each other a “piece of the truth,” meaning that teachers and students learn from each other, and through each other’s perspectives. Present-day educator Carol Gilligan of Harvard University has studied the importance of being heard and the power of “voice,” especially for girls. 

The field of youth development and youth work today has begun to center around engaging young people and providing meaningful opportunities for them to participate in creating better schools, neighborhoods and communities. My own 40-year experience with young people has shown that they learn more authentically with their hearts and their heads if they have a voice in deciding what to learn and how to learn it. 

How to make peer leaders more effective

Peer leadership programs capitalize on the ability of young people to influence one another in positive ways and is a tried and true health promotion strategy. Health Resources in Action’s (HRiA) models of community-based peer education and youth/adult collaboration, developed and implemented over the past 25 years, bring new and innovative ideas to the youth development field. HRiA has pioneered the development of practical and effective peer leadership programs and has published three widely used related curricula: “Peer Leadership Preventing Violence,” “Peer Leadership Preventing HIV-AIDS” and “Peer Leadership Preventing Tobacco Use.”

In addition to educating their peers, peer leaders take the form of advocates, event planners, campaigners and spokespeople. To be effective, peer leaders are diverse and representative of a cross-section of young people who bring different skills, talents and levels of healthy behavior. A peer leadership model can be implemented with elementary-, middle- and high school-aged students. 

Peer-to-peer education can occur across levels. The LEAH project at Health Resources in Action trains students of color in high school to become mentors and teach inquiry-based science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum to elementary school students, create strong relationship between students of all ages and increase students’ exposure to STEM education. This model is mutually beneficial for younger children and the high school-aged mentors, who benefit from having meaningful employment and developing leadership skills. 

Considering equity when developing a peer leadership program is also essential to a successful model. While peer leadership programs can be used as volunteer and leadership opportunities for youth, paying youth is one way to ensure peer leaders remain engaged, their time is respected and they are compensated for the important work they are doing to improve their communities, particularly youth from marginalized communities. 

Many young people face financial burdens at home and are forced to choose between having a part-time job after school and being involved in community or leadership work. Paying youth ensures that youth from all financial backgrounds are able to participate and feel valued for their work. 

Youth must help plan for youth leadership

The critical foundations of a successful peer leadership program start with vision and planning, and, at its center, including youth input in the planning process. Training for peer leaders should be robust and focus not only on developing youth as experts on the topic, but modeling evidence-based facilitation techniques. Bonnie Bernard, a public health researcher and practitioner, has written several articles concerning peer education models and positive youth development in general. She states that one of the most important components is the adult involved in the program. 

She writes, “The type of peer program is far less important than the attitude and style of the adults involved … the attitude of the adult, then, must be one of acceptance and comfort of youth … and the style of the adult should be facilitating and guiding — not controlling.” The National Association of Peer Program Professionals has additionally supported peer programs and adult advisors of peer programs for more than 30 years. It has developed a variety of resources and tools to support the development and evaluation of both school-based and community-based programs. 

Peer leadership is an adaptable, comprehensive model for a variety of topics from public health and STEM to social justice and more. However, the core of any peer program is the focus on young people as leaders, as they grow and develop new skills. One peer leader from the LEAH Project, a 10th grader named Andrianne, sums it up like this: 

“The LEAH Project has given me the opportunity to grow as a person. I have come to understand the importance of youth voice and how I have the ability to influence the lives of others. I have gained new friends, leadership skills, and wonderful experiences with the kids I work with.” 

Young people have the potential to create meaningful change at the individual, interpersonal and community level through this peer leadership model. As youth work professionals, it is our job to make sure we are uplifting youth voice and leadership wherever possible. 

Laurie Jo Wallace has spent the last 30 years at Health Resources in Action promoting healthy communities and healthy youth in Boston. In her role as the managing director of training and capacity building, she has special expertise in the areas of training and facilitation, and she has provided consulting and support to numerous youth programs, coalitions and public health and other nonprofit agencies in the Boston region, Massachusetts and nationally.

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