5 keys to empowering peer-to-peer student support programs

Here’s how students can provide social and academic guidance and mental health support

With the pandemic and issues of racism increasing students’ need for support, young people are turning to each other augment services provided by schools.

In fact, students often learn about school support services from their peers, but educators can do more to promote the effectiveness of these networks, says a new report, “Peer Connections Reimagined: Innovations nurturing student networks to unlock opportunity,” from the Christensen Institute, a think tank that studies disruption.

The report details tools and programs K-12 educators can employ to empower peer connections, says the author Chelsea Waite, a research fellow.

“With a range of emerging approaches to adopt and adapt, K–12 leaders have a tremendous opportunity to activate the latent social capital in peer networks to improve students’ experiences and outcomes,” Waite says.

“Whether they succeed depends on where and how schools activate peer networks, and for what purposes,” she says. “It’s networks—not just diplomas and degrees—that lead to opportunities and fulfilling lives.”

The report covers several emerging peer network models, in which students provide:

  • Social support to foster belonging, identity formation, and social and emotional skills
  • Academic support to drive learning outcomes and keep each other on track
  • Guidance support to expand options and ease transitions
  • Mental health support to promote wellbeing and reduce loneliness.

When it comes to academics, peer networks can create authentic opportunities for students to cultivate leadership and other hard-to-teach skills. Peer-to-peer models also provide a chance to scale support more widely.

The report also offers five considerations for educators:

  1. Scaling effective student support services remains a complex challenge, so schools should explore how peer-to-peer models can make these services more accessible, convenient and simple.
  2. When in-person encounters are not possible, schools should harness online connections as an innovation opportunity rather than a downgrade from face-to-face meetings.
  3. Schools should base peer-to-peer models on relationships—not just connections—to deliver social capital gains for students.
  4. Because peer relationships gain value over time, schools should ensure those connections endure as students gain experience, grow their social networks, and build careers.
  5. Schools should nurture peer networks as fertile ground for students to develop hard-to-teach skills like leadership and empathy, s.