We specially thank Margaret McNamara from St Johns College in Dubbo NSW, who is retiring from teaching. Ten years ago Margaret implemented the Peer Support Program at her school, to support students in forming positive relationships as well as reducing bullying. She was instrumental in extending the Program to schools across the Diocese.
Margaret told us, “One of my greatest joys of Peer Support – seeing our senior leaders step up, accept responsibility, develop leadership skills and give a glimpse into the wonderful adults they will become. Peer Support has given a whole new layer of depth to my relationships with these students.”
Thank you Margaret for dedicating your time to supporting the wellbeing of Australian students and making a lasting impact on the lives of your school community.
School connectedness is an important protective factor that contributes to students’ mental health and wellbeing. For students to feel a strong sense of belonging, they need to have positive experiences and good relationships with their peers at school. The multi-age Peer Support Program provides students with the opportunity to broaden their connections across the school community in a safe and structured format and also allows them to connect with teachers, by taking on a leadership role. Through hands-on fun activities and discussions, students explore and apply a range of social and emotional skills, leading to improved positive social engagement in and beyond school.
Member schools report that the Peer Support Program is increasing connectedness amongst their students and is helping to build a positive whole school culture. For new schools, the Program has been instrumental in laying the foundations for a positive and connected school community.
Joseph Banks Secondary College
Joseph Banks Secondary College in WA opened its doors in 2015 and has been running the Peer Support Program for three years. John Vandermark, Peer Support Coordinator, reports “The Peer Support Program continues to go from strength to strength. The Year 7s have responded very well to the program by building good relationships with Peer Leaders and appear a lot more settled and confident at school. Feedback from parents, staff and students alike is incredibly positive. Being a new school, we are focused on developing positive culture and know that this program is a huge step in the right direction.”
North Kellyville Public School
New primary schools also report that the Peer Support Program helps to develop positive relationships and connectedness amongst students. North Kellyville Public School in Sydney’s North West opened its doors in January 2019. According to Peer Support Coordinator, Jessy Smallacombe, “Students at North Kellyville Public School have welcomed Peer Support with open arms and look forward to our weekly sessions where they can connect with their new friends. Stage 3 students are understanding the importance of their leadership in creating positive relationships with their peers and leading sessions. Our Peer Support Leaders are committed to being encouraging and friendly to others.”
Busby Public School
Established schools are also reporting how the Peer Support Program is connecting their school’s community and building a range of transferable life skills in their students. Busby Public School are in their first year of implementing the Peer Support Program as part of their student wellbeing initiatives.
Nicole Brasier, Relieving Assistant Principal explains, “Busby Public School is a small school in South Western Sydney. We wanted to help bring a feeling of connectedness amongst our students so that they could develop peer relations and friendships with less teacher input. Students could then utilise the new skills they have learned in Peer Support to develop further friendships when they see each other out in the community. We celebrated our new Peer Leaders by holding a special assembly to present our leaders with a certificate of training and the badges to proudly wear when we hold our Peer Support lessons.”
Bourke Street Public School
Bourke Street Public School in Sydney is in their second year of implementing the Program. Laura McLaughlin, Assistant Principal, observes “Over this time, students have formed and maintained strong cross grade relationships, highlighted in the increased level of social problem solving evident in the playground, in conjunction with an enhanced sense of connection and widened support networks from students in Years K-6. Students are excited every Friday to attend Peer Support and this connection is fostered in following terms in which the school provides formal opportunities for Peer Support Groups to work together on community activities.
Peer Leader Training is a particular highlight for both our staff and students, as it is extremely engaging, enjoyable and beneficial in developing student leadership capacity and provides an opportunity for staff to really get to know students and witness their strengths develop within a different context. In regards to the Peer Support sessions, a supervising teacher commented that “leaders negotiated their roles and responsibilities with increasing awareness of their communication skills and interpersonal skills, and felt ownership over their responsibility in leading the group”. A group member thoroughly enjoyed “making friends with other students, learning how to be resilient and patient and discovering how to be kind and things you can do when you are sad”.”
Oxley Park Public School
This year was Oxley Park Public School’s first Peer Support Program. Tristan East, Learning & Support Teacher, observes “There was great anticipation among the staff and students about the benefits of the program and how well the atmosphere of our school community may benefit from such a fantastic opportunity. This was particularly evident in the senior student body that took a leadership position by teaching our younger students the important lessons each week.
Students were taught valuable lessons about building and maintaining positive relationships while at school. Each week students were encouraged to continue to build upon these valuable lessons with the goal of making new opportunities in the social sphere of school life and also by transferring these new skills into their wider community life. Also, students are now encouraging each other to solve social problems by themselves.”
The degree to which young people feel a sense of connection to school is also one of the prime motivators for attendance, hence it has clear links to learning outcomes. Beyond mere attendance however, the researchers have found that the experience of belonging which can arise under the right circumstances contributes to students’ readiness to engage deeply in their learning and immerse themselves in ways that can lead to higher achievement.
Developing connectedness between students, teachers and families ideally comes about as a result of effective policies and practices, realised within an inclusive and supportive school culture. Whilst it could be seen as a by-product of other actions, the significance of connectedness means that it deserves attention in its own right.
Schools can ensure that connectedness is fostered by providing effective adult support, creating a healthy physical and emotional environment, cultivating the belief that learning is important and ensuring that students have a positive peer group.
Connecting Through the ‘Squirm’
“True belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable and learn how to be present with people — without sacrificing who we are. We want true belonging, but it takes tremendous courage to knowingly walk into hard moments.”
– Brene Brown
Including a whole school cohort in the Peer Leaders’ training usually means that there will be some young people taking part who may feel vulnerable and uncomfortable, not having previously thought of themselves as potential leaders. However feedback from schools tells us that the connections that are created as a result of both the supportive training experience, and then later the group facilitation, are both effective and often enduring.
With the focus on empathy in the Program, the Leaders’ experience of ‘knowingly walking into hard moments’ is certainly recognised. The courage needed is real, and helps shape the true belonging that comes about as part of the group experience.
Our Student Representative Council Leadership Workshop and student training materials also support connections between young people. These resources are designed to create purposeful school structures and skilled leaders that can activate student participation and make a difference. Sometimes this process can cause a bit of ‘squirm’ for teachers, as they enable students to use their voice authentically. The experience of belonging to and making a difference for a community, that such opportunities can create, is well worth the ‘hard moments’.