Sunday, January 22, 2012

Peer Counseling: Making a Real Difference

As the issue of bullying in schools continues to draw the necessary attention and interventions, I am grateful for our Peer Counseling program at our school.  The school's Peer Counselling program provides a very important service to our students and plays a critical role in making St. Pat's a safe and caring school.  Ultimately the program gives students a tangible way for them to create a culture of safety, inclusion and safetly.
Below is a description of the program by St. Patrick Secondary school counselor V. Eckert.  Her description of the program was originally published in the Prairie Messenger.    

Student and peer counselor, Elizer, puts it this way:
 “My thoughts about peer counselling have changed. Before I thought the program was all about helping others, and now, I realize what it has done for me. I have learned to be less judgmental and more understanding when it comes to others telling their stories. I’ve learned to be empathic, gentle and humble. I feel blessed and grateful to those who selected me to be a PC, because without this experience, I don’t think I’d be the same person.” 
Every day teens go through hardships and pain that the rest of the world may never see. Peer counsellors are trained to reach out to those classmates and to help them overcome the challenges they face. The school counsellors skilfully match peer counselors (PCs) with those who seek support. A student may approach teachers, counsellors or PCs directly for peer assistance, or the service can be recommended to a student by an adult who perceives the teen is in need.

Beyond Counseling
In addition to the PCs’ responsibilities with individual students, they also help the counsellors organize workshops for the school community on such topics as anti-bullying, healthy relationships, alcohol and drug education and digital citizenship. They have the opportunity to work with volunteers and experts in the helping professions.

Becoming a PC
Aspiring peer counselor must go through a thorough application process which includes writing compositions outlining their personal characteristics, their experience helping others and their reasons for wanting to serve the school community in this way.   All applicants are interviewed by a team comprised of a sponsor teacher who works with the program, the two school counsellors and veteran PCs.

Important Skills
The peer counsellor training is vital and takes place during a two-day retreat. Deep listening is the main skill that peer counsellors cultivate. St. Benedict calls on his followers to: “Listen with the ears of your heart.” Peer counsellors say they are taught not just to hear words, but to listen to the deeper messages. They emphasize the importance of giving their counselees empathic responses, showing in both words and body language that they have heard. Their goal is to help their peers seek solutions to their own problems, not make them dependent. PCs are trained not to give advice but to empower those they assist.
“I try to hear the silent things people are saying,” Jennifer says, “and try to offer others a secure environment in which to share. I take pride in my commitment to confidentiality.”
According to Kim:
“Many of our peers look up to us and know that all they say to us is confidential, unless they reveal that they plan to hurt others or themselves; then we have to share that information with a trained counsellor. We let our counselees know the limits of confidentiality before each session.”
Meeting with peers
Peer counsellors schedule time to meet with peers before school, during break, at lunch time and after school. However, if a student is in crisis, a meeting may take place during school time with teachers’ approval.

Dalton, a Grade 11 PC, reports he often observes his counselees around the school to get information on how they are doing. For example, he says he has seen a counselee become more positive, show new confidence interacting with others and become less self-focused following his involvement.

Grace, another PC,  says the work requires a lot of learning about how to adapt to different counselees, yet, she states, she finds it constantly rewarding.  Kim, another PC, describes her growth this way: “I need to balance my own life and problems to be there for others, and I need to step away from my own life accepting that I am not the centre of the universe.”

Students often suggest that having someone trustworthy to talk to about personal issues is helpful and assists them to get through their problems. With the help of a PC, one teen said she was able to release emotions she didn’t even know were stored up inside her. Workshop participants appreciate the PCs’ presentations and say they come to realize that there is always someone there to help. A graduated PC said he valued how peer counselling is never done, unlike finishing a course.

Finally, parents appreciate the life skills development which they say is intrinsically valuable to their children.

I would like to thank all he teachers, parents, community professionals and students who work tirelessly to make this program so effective and our school such a safe and caring place to work and learn. 


  1. Learners often recommend that having someone reliable to discuss to about individual concerns is beneficial

  2. Excellent, John. Programs such as this lead to caring environments reducing lonliness, isolation and desparate solutions.