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Lessons from a Journey with Peer Counselling

By Michael Peirce, Ed.D.

Article Information

This article was published in the Peer Resources on-line magazine Peer Bulletin No. 169 (October 7, 2008). It is a discussion about Dr.. Peirce's experiences while establishing a peer counselling program in his school and an outreach program with First Nations students in the Northwest Territories.

Published in Peer Bulletin No. 169 (October 7, 2008)

 
Abstract

From a fledgling program started as a result of a simple survey, peer counselling at Appleby College has developed into a sophisticated support network which extends well beyond the boundaries of the school. The program facilitators have learned and adapted much from the successes and challenges during the fifteen years since the inception of the program. The school is an independent day/residential school with approximately 750 university-bound students in grades 7 through 12. As with any adolescent population issues such as stress, relationship issues, family struggles, alcohol and drugs, to name a few, are present. While many challenges such as appropriate candidate selection, understanding of faculty, and training methods were evident in the early days of the program, its current effectiveness is a testament to all the students who took part in the program over the years. This article is a reflection of this journey, the early challenges, the lessons learned in developing the school program and an example of where it can take you.

Introduction

The peer counselling program at Appleby College started as a result of a need and a research paper written by the author during a graduate counselling course. The corner stone of that original research paper was a publication by Rey Carr (1984) titled “Theory and Practice of Peer Counselling”. While it is not the intention that this article to review the vast research on the benefits of peer counselling, there is no doubt that peer counselling serves as a wonderful example where theory and practice form a very strong partnership. Without this partnership our school’s program would not have survived for the time it has at Appleby.
The school had recently established a small Student Services department which was struggling to reach those students who were in the greatest need. Following the eye-opening results of an anonymous student health and life style survey, the obvious became clear.  In spite of having access to counsellors, health professionals and supportive teachers, our students turned to their peers first when they faced the struggles of adolescence. That being said, the dilemma was that there are situations where the best intentioned friends simply may not have the appropriate skill set to truly support their peer.

The Birth of Peer Counselling at Appleby

Armed with “Caring and Sharing” (Myrick & Erney, 1978) and “Youth Helping Youth” (Myrick & Erney, 1979), the survey results and the best of intentions, an announcement was made to the student body of the inception of a new club, “Peer Counselling”. The selection process was straightforward; students in grade 11 or 12 expressed an interest in joining and attended an interview. The interview panel consisted of three faculty members who put their heads together to come up with a series of appropriate questions. In that first year the only ten applicants were accepted into the program. These applicants shared one common bond: a desire to help their peers. Weekly one hour training sessions were conducted throughout the school year. In those initial training sessions, it took time to establish a level of trust between the facilitators and the students as well as between the student participants. Looking back, it was a very satisfying and constructive start to the program but there were a number of challenges the group faced. The lessons in the first year, based on “Caring and Sharing” (Myrick & Erney, 1978), covered the topics well but students were learning skills which they weren’t naturally applying in general practice. The student body knew neither who the peer counsellors were, nor their purpose. In addition, the group was not as diverse as the student population. Faculty also questioned whether it was appropriate to have students working with other students to help with personal issues and whether they would respect the confidential nature of this type of work. At the conclusion to the first year, the students recognised these issues and developed a number of strategies to introduce the group to the greater school population and to commence the long road to establishing a level of trust with the school population which would allow them to be of service to the community.

The importance of facilitator training

A few years after the inception of the program at the school I found I was struggling to keep the lessons on track and fresh. I heard of a training program for facilitators run by Peer Resources.  Although the formal education and theory were strong in my background, practical feedback and structure were missing from the program.  In her article “Should Coaches in Training have Coaches”, Francine Campone reviews an article by A. Grant (2008) which supports the positive impact coaching can have on coaches. My experience is certainly consistent with this. Taking the initial course leading to the Training Peer Counselling (Level I) certification provided me with a structure and purpose to each lesson. I have gone on to retake the initial level course three additional times as well as the advanced workshop twice.  Each time, new realizations have happened and skills have become further refined. The network of facilitators one grows to know through the intimacy of the training provides an invaluable resource of knowledge, support and experience.  All three facilitators at Appleby have completed formal training and continue to seek further. The learning and growth that has taken place has been remarkable, most importantly adding to the richness of our students’ experiences.

The importance of establishing trust in the community

Our experience has shown that the effectiveness of a peer counselling program is directly influenced by the level of trust earned within the borders of that community. Following the completion of that initial facilitator training course, the role of a Code of Ethics became obvious. Based on samples of several counselling bodies as well as the models provided in “Peer Counselling Starter Kit” (Carr & Saunders, 1980), the Appleby College group formulated its own Code of Ethics (appendix 1). The Code is annually reviewed by the group and has been fine tuned to suit our environment by the students. More recently, the Native Code of Ethics and Code of Friendship from in “Kit & Culture” (Jorgenson, 1996) has also served as a source of discussion during the revision process. The Code of Ethics is publicly available in our school environment and has served as a reminder to the peer counsellors to their responsibilities while allowing the greater community to gain a level of trust that guidelines are at the forefront, especially concerning confidentiality.
Simply publishing a Code of Ethics does not establish trust in an adolescent community; words need to be put into action. As such, each year the group seeks ways to be involved in the community while explaining the purpose of their services. A number of activities now take place in our school annually. The peer counsellors hold session with the grade 7 and 8 students in the school to discuss decision making. They are very popular experiences for both the students and the peer counsellors and allow the introduction of the peer counselling role to the younger portion of our school population. Announcement and skits are performed at school assemblies by the peer counsellors to make their faces known and to introduce the idea that seeking assistance is okay. In residences, peer counsellors are introduced by house faculty and have identifying labels on their doors. Trained peers counsellors wear a pin on their lapels to identify them.
In order to address the faculty concerns, the adult facilitators gave a presentation about the program, including the initial survey results which supported the idea that students did approach student first when in need (especially those whose family situation) was at all tenuous. Once faculty understood the extent of the training and more importantly that the role the peer counsellors was a supportive (primarily listening) rather than a therapeutic role, their comfort with the program grew.
The current peer counsellors have now established a level of respect and trust where they consistently are called upon to help in the school community. During the start of each year, they ensure no student sits alone at meals; students who are home sick have a friend who can listen; students who are lost are pointed in the right direction.  They are also considered a formal part of the school’s crisis plan. Following the recent tragic death of two parents in the school, the peer counsellors served in a number of roles to support the community. They staffed a number of common areas where students congregate, simply to provide a listening and supportive ear. They were also invaluable in identifying people at risk as they have a much better idea of the relationships amongst peers. They also provided invaluable support to each other during the process.
With trust comes responsibility. The group is well aware that the actions of any individual peer counsellor can dramatically affect the reputation of the entire group. Each year the experienced peer counsellors spend significant time discussing this aspect of their responsibility with the new trainees. 

The importance of the training sessions

Each year, the group conducts fifteen to twenty training sessions throughout the year which typically are based on the lessons outlined in “Peer Counselling Starter Kit” (Carr & Saunders, 1980). The introductory lesson and final are the sole lessons led by the adult facilitators. All other sessions are conducted by two peer counsellors who completed their training in the previous year.  All rookies and trained peer counsellors are expected to take part in every lesson. The structure of each lesson involves a period of time to share about their week, a warm-up exercise, the main lesson and exercise followed by a warm-down. Introducing this structure to each lesson significantly improved the experience of the participants when compared to the early days of the program. They have become much more dynamic and interactive.
The introductory lesson introduces the group to the expectations of the group within each training session as well as an opportunity be introduced to each other. Intermediate lessons focus on listening skills (extensively), questioning, values, and decision making. The final lesson covers the topics of suicide prevention protocols, ethics and confidentiality and the critical role of referral. Before the end of the school year, a very significant session is dedicated to the graduating peer counsellors allowing them to reflect on their experiences as a peer counsellor to the incoming and remaining peer counsellors.  It is a powerful and rewarding session which reinforces their responsibility and dedication to their role.

The importance of the candidate selection process

Ensuring your program has students with a positive attitude and motivation is critical to the cohesiveness of a program. At Appleby, the applicant process grew in complexity for the subsequent groups. The peer counsellors now take on the primary role of applicant evaluation and selection.  As they have become more involved in the selection process, the program has been better advertised amongst the student population. The process involves submitting an application explaining the applicant’s beliefs about the relevance of peer counselling. Each essay is read and scored on a scale of 1 to 5 by four readers (the readers do not know the identity of the applicant at this stage of the process). As a number of our applicants are second language speakers, grammar is not graded, rather the focus is on the genuineness of the application. Each candidate also has a one on one interview conducted by a trained peer counsellor. The questions focus on the general ideas surrounding peer counselling and the motivation of the applicant. Since the first group, the selection of every group has been decided entirely by the peer counsellors, who have a much better understanding of each applicant’s personality and interest. The final selection is formulated through a group discussion of each applicant while considering their application and interview.  The outcome of the selection process now ensures that the successful applicants more broadly represent the diversity of the school population. Currently, applications outnumber the available spaces by a ratio of 1 in 4 applicants.

Reaching out: An Intercultural Peer Counselling Project

About five years ago a chance meeting of interested parties, combined with a flyer from Peer Resources announcing the workshop of peer counselling with a First Nations perspective, moved the school’s peer counselling program into the next level of development. The school has a long history of participating service projects around the world. Through Appleby’s social worker, the school had established a link with a First Nations Healing Society located in Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories. Following strategy meetings with members of the northern community to establish a potential site for the project, the Gwich’in Peer Counselling Project was born.

The project involves two student groups coming together to conduct service work and complete peer counselling training in Fort McPherson for a period of approximately two weeks. The students are made up of approximately 10 youth from the Fort McPherson community and 10 students from the Appleby College community. The adult supervisors are two adults from the Fort McPherson community and two faculty members from Appleby College. The four adult programme facilitators attend a training workshop in the early summer through Peer Resources in Victoria, British Columbia. Appleby students then attend a pre-project training session for two days while en-route to Fort McPherson in Yellowknife. The pre-project training involves a brief introduction to historical and cultural elements of the Dene Nation and the Gwitch’in peoples. The program is held at a the Tl'oondih Healing Centre located 18 miles upstream from Fort McPherson and is comprised of three components. 1) participants completing a peer-counselling program over the course of ten days; 2) participants provide a service to the community (i.e. build or repair a needed facility, work on an environmental concern or any other work which physically enhances the community); and 3) participants learn about Gwich’in culture, language and traditions.

Throughout the first three years of the program, there have been remarkable learning experiences for the facilitators and the adolescent participants. Based on those experiences, the following represent some of the strengths and recommendations for the ongoing program.

Strengths:

  1. The pre-training in Victoria allowed the adult facilitators to bond and to do some preliminary planning of lessons. This was a very important to the success of the programme.
  2. The Tel’oondih Healing Centre is a spectacular facility located 18 miles upstream from the community with limited access by boat during the summer. Being away from the everyday distractions of community life, it allowed the adolescents to focus on the training.
  3. Combining the two communities for the training allowed the two groups to support each other with their own areas of expertise and also encouraged risk taking.
  4. The structured peer counselling lessons provided an excellent framework of learning for the students for both communities. When appropriate, the groups were divided by community to discuss issues which were more relevant to the individual groups.
  5. An Elder is invited to join the participants at the facility. The Elder’s presence, knowledge and wisdom, as well as the cultural excursions added a rich cultural component to the students’ learning.
  6. A family evening celebrating the successes of the participants allowed members of the local community to hear about the training the participants had received. Their support was very valuable.

Recommendations:

  1. The continuation of a program in the local community is dependent on the commitment of the adult facilitators and the adolescent participants. Also a meeting place and will ensure the program is viewed as a valuable commitment by all the participants.
  2. The initial activities introducing the participants to each other are critical to the bonding and building of trust between the groups. These should not be underestimated.  It is important they are dynamic, fun and continue until the positive group dynamic is established.
  3. It is important to ensure that the project participants are aware of what they are becoming involved in. The program is not designed to be a healing exercise but instead an empowering experience. Organizers should ensure the participants are followed up for their feedback of their experiences. As with any project involving self discovery, it is important to provide supports for any participants who may need.

Conclusion:

To say that the lessons learned through the peer counselling experience at Appleby have been rich and rewarding would be a vast understatement. Our school has benefited greatly from the presence of a peer counselling program and is a kinder and safer community as a result. The peer counsellors have assisted numerous members of our school community grappling with the growing pains of adolescence, expecting nothing in return. I know they have saved lives. As for the experience of the adult facilitators, I can personally attest to the rich rewards and satisfaction one reaps when working with such a remarkable group of dedicated and compassionate individuals.

References:

Campone, F. (2008). Should Coaches in Training have Coaches? Peer Bulletin, 166.
Carr, R. (1984). Theory and Practice of Peer Counselling. Educational and Vocational Guidance, 42, 1-10.

Carr, R & Saunders, G. (1980). Peer Counselling Starter Kit. Victoria, BC: Peer Resources.
Grant, A. (2008). Personal life coaching for coaches-in-training enhances goal attainment, insight and learning. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 1, 1, 54-70.
Jorgenson, R. (2006). Kit & Culture: Supplemental Resources for Peer Counselling in First Nations Communities. Victoria, BC: Peer Resources.

Myrick, R. & Erney, T. (1978) Caring and Sharing. Minneapolis, MN: Educational Media Corporation.
Myrick, R. & Erney, T. (1979) Youth Helping Youth. Minneapolis, MN: Educational Media Corporation.

Appendix 1: The Appleby College Peer Counsellor Code Of Ethics

The Appleby College Peer Counsellors is a volunteer group of students who complete a training programme offered through Student Services at Appleby College.  Upon completion of this programme, they submit a written letter explaining why they want to be considered peer counsellors by the school and agree to abide by the code of ethics outlined below.
Principle 1: Ethical behaviour is expected from peer counsellors, and they will make every effort to rectify unethical behaviour on the part of the other peer counsellors.  Peer counsellors should represent their roles in a positive and constructive light.
Principle 2:  Peer counsellors have a responsibility to protect the confidentiality for the peers they deal with except when the welfare of that peer or another is at risk.  If peer counsellors become aware of a situation where there is a risk to the peer, they are obligated to report it to an appropriate authority.  Peers should be informed of conditions where confidentiality must be broken before any counselling takes place.
Principle 3: Peer counsellors will not deal with counselling situations for which they are not trained or for situations beyond the skills they possess.  If a situation arises they should either: seek advice from a competent professional, refer the peer to a competent professional and/or terminate the counselling relationship.
Principle 4: Peer counsellors are expected to seek opportunities to continue their training and growth as peer counsellors.
Principle 5:  Peer counsellors will abide by acceptable social codes and moral expectations of the Appleby College community.  Abuse of alcohol or drugs is an offence which will result in the peer counsellor being asked to withdraw membership from the peer counselling group.

 

   

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