Peer Support in primary school: 6 tips for running your program

Primary school teachers: Have you started running your Peer Support program this term?

We encourage you to run your Peer Support Program in Term 2 or Term 3. This timing enables students, particularly your kindergarten kids, to settle into the school year.  But it also means they have time to benefit from, and deepen, the cross-grade relationships formed during the program.  

Our Wellbeing Education Consultant, Sophie Sedgwick, shares her insights on how to get the most out of your program.

Take the opportunity to build student-teacher relationships beyond the classroom

The Peer Support Program provides an opportunity for teachers to get to know students outside their class.

“You’re getting to know students from across all school groups,” Sophie says. “The program gives you an opportunity to get to know more students on a deeper level.”

There’s research to show that increasing student-teacher relationships benefits the school culture. For example, a study of 2,000 students across 18 high schools found that the number of positive relationships with teachers correlated with a student’s engagement in school.

“At a time when we’re hearing many students are struggling with their sense of belonging, having additional teacher relationships is going to help them feel more connected to the school community,” Sophie says.

Build capacity within the school to nurture healthy relationships

The Peer Support Program is designed to be fully managed by your school, with our consultants available for any support as needed.

“It’s an 8-week program, but the legacy carries through beyond the program,” Sophie says. “Our approach builds capacity within the school so teachers and students can own and run the program.”

This model is supported by evidence: a literature review of school wellbeing programs found that a ‘train the trainer’ approach had the best outcomes.

“Why do we get time poor teachers to train the Peer Leaders and supervise peer-led sessions? We do it to build capacity within the school — so the staff involved in the program have a deep understanding of the Peer Support Program and why they’re doing it,” she says.  

The approach also empowers teachers to embed a Peer Support approach across the school.

“We know that teachers’ mental health and role modelling is really important,” Sophie says. “Being trained as a Peer Support Coordinator gives teachers a better understanding of the mental health space. It helps them know how to build protective factors, and they can model that to students.”

Support inclusive leadership

Teachers play an important role in supporting inclusive leadership.

“We hear time and time again how, for some students, having a leadership opportunity changes their trajectory,” Sophie says. “It gives students the opportunity to learn and practise leadership skills in a safe environment.”

Sophie urges teachers to give every student the opportunity to be a Peer Leader. 

“The Peer Support Program is not about creating perfect leaders,” she says. “It’s about giving all students that opportunity to be a leader. For some, this will come more naturally, but for others, it’s important that we encourage and support them.”

“It’s an opportunity for kids who struggle with their social and emotional skills. These are the kids that need it most, and it’s where this opportunity can be the most powerful,” Sophie says.

According to Sophie, the program can change students’ views about themselves, and how others view them too.

“And these skills are transferable — they can use them in other roles in the school and even beyond the school gate, such as in sports or even at home,” she says.  

Remember to give your Peer Leaders feedback on how they’re going, including what they’re doing well, and what could they work on for next time.

“For many it will be their first time in a leadership role,” Sophie says.

These skills will also support your Year 6 students as they transition into high school.

Create groups that foster new connections

The Peer Support Program for primary schools includes all students, from Kindergarten to Year 6.

“Every student in Year 6 is used as a Peer Leader, and sometimes some Year 5s too,” Sophie says. “We ask schools to mix the groups up across years, so you’re maximising connections across grades. This builds protective factors for mental health, by creating connections across the school community.”

Sophie recommends splitting up siblings and friendship groups.

“Try to put together a mix of kids who don’t normally hang out together. Invite all staff to have input into who goes into each group,” Sophie says.

Sophie also encourages schools to include students with disability, including providing leadership opportunities.

“Some kids may need additional support, and you could have three Peer Leaders in one group,” Sophie says.

Actively support Peer Support sessions

Our best practice implementation structure involves teachers briefing and debriefing their own class for each session.  This ensures it’s done at an age-appropriate level, before students break into their Peer Support groups. There are resources in our membership portal to help teachers with this process.

Sophie advises Year 6 teachers to set their students up for success as Peer Leaders.

“Think about the group of students your Peer Leaders are working with. Does any material need to be modified? Does the language need to be modified? Do the activities need to be modified?” Sophie says. “Do this before the sessions, so it’s a truly inclusive session.”

Classroom teachers across the school supervise two to three Peer Support groups each, which will include students from outside their class.

“Supervising teachers should let the Peer Leaders lead the session, stepping in if the Peer Leader needs support, such as managing behavioural issues,” Sophie says.

Help your Peer Leaders feel valued

The Peer Support Program gives Year 6 teachers an opportunity to deepen their relationships with their Year 6 students.

Many schools take extra steps to help their Peer Leaders take their responsibilities seriously.

“Some schools choose to train their students off-site,” Sophie says. “This can help make the Peer Leader training feel special. Other schools let their Peer Leaders wear casual clothes to training, or order pizza for lunch. These things make the kids think, wow this is something special.”

There’s also a supplementary resource, Supporting Change, that you can run with your Peer Leaders later in the year. This is available free to members on our portal.

“Supporting Change involves four sessions of 20-minutes each that Year 6 teachers can use with their students,” Sophie says. “It’s teacher led and helps Year 6 students transition to high school.”

Get in touch with your Wellbeing Education Consultant if you have any questions about the Peer Support Program.  

Kids Need Extra Support

It shouldn’t surprise anybody to learn that kids who don’t feel emotionally at their best don’t perform well in the classroom either.

The latest review of the National Schools Reform Agreement – the deal between the states and Commonwealth to lift student standards – makes this point clearly and highlights the need to prioritise student wellbeing in schools in response to Australia’s youth mental health crisis. Importantly, the review cites the link between student wellbeing and academic performance.

This is a crucial fact raised at a critical juncture, distilling the simple point that it’s hard to perform well in the classroom if you don’t feel mentally well.

This is something that Peer Support Australia has known for a long time. Negative mental health outcomes for school-aged Australians are directly linked to detrimental impacts on their learning outcomes.

As the Productivity Commissioner’s review of the Agreement states: “Student wellbeing is both a desired outcome of schooling in its own right, as well as a vehicle to achieve improved learning outcomes.”

Similarly, a 2022 study from the Australian National University (ANU) found that Year 9 students who experienced feelings of depression scored 7 per cent worse in NAPLAN literacy and numeracy results, compared to statistically similar students who had not.

In addition, a report from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute’s Centre for Adolescent Health found that students with persistent emotional or behavioural problems between Years 3 and 7 fell an entire year behind in numeracy compared with their peers.

These facts are even more sobering considering that there is an entire cohort of young people who have experienced bushfires, floods, and the pandemic – an entire cohort who are still living with the aftermath of these events.

As a national non-profit organisation, delivering a vital student led wellbeing programs that has been running in Australian schools for more than 50 years, Peer Support Australia has seen the growing need to prioritise preventative wellbeing measures firsthand.

Schools are the ideal setting to support all students – from early childhood through to young adulthood – develop the relationships and emotional skills to support them throughout life’s ups and downs.

The Productivity Commission’s report firmly puts the issue of student wellbeing and academic performance on the agenda.

It is now critical that funding is invested to ensure that all young Australians get the extra support and guidance they need.

Samantha Brown is CEO of Peer Support Australia.

First published in the Daily Telegraph and Courier Mail on 08 February 2023. Republished with permission.

Anxiety and connection at high school

Research suggests one way to prevent depression and anxiety is a strong sense of connection at high school

Monika Raniti, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute; Divyangana Rakesh, Harvard University, and Susan M Sawyer, The University of Melbourne

About one in five young Australians will experience a mental health problem like depression or anxiety each year. The COVID pandemic has only intensified mental health concerns in young people.

In Australia, decades of investment in early intervention and treatment services have not decreased rates of depression and anxiety. This has sparked more interest in what we can do to prevent mental health problems. Schools are ideal settings for prevention because you can reach large numbers of students, help build healthy skills and habits, and capitalise on schools being both learning and social environments.

Our new research suggests, one promising way to prevent depression and anxiety is by ensuring students feel a strong sense of belonging and connection to their high school.

What is ‘school connectedness’?

School connectedness” is about the quality of engagement students have with their peers, teachers, and learning in the school environment.

It can include things such as, knowing teachers support them, having a friend to talk to about their problems, feeling like they can be themselves at school and like school is an enjoyable place to be, and actively participating in school activities.

School connectedness has been linked to better academic achievement and wellbeing. But it is now attracting attention as a possible way to protect against depression and anxiety.

However, existing research reviews have tended to look at cross-sectional studies (data collected at one point in time) rather than longitudinal studies (data collected over time). And they haven’t considered anxiety and depression specifically, making it difficult to determine if there is a preventative effect.


Our research

In a new study, we investigated whether school connectedness prevents the onset of later depression and anxiety in 14 to 24 year-olds. We did this with funding from the UK charity, the Wellcome Trust as part of its push to identify innovative interventions for anxiety and depression.

We systematically reviewed ten years of evidence examining relationships between school connectedness and depression and anxiety. After screening 3,552 potential articles, we found 34 longitudinal and two intervention studies which met our inclusion criteria. The intervention studies measured the change in participants’ depressive symptoms before and after a program, compared to participants who did not receive the program.

We then summarised the findings from the included articles.

To ensure young people’s perspectives informed our review, we also partnered with five youth advisers aged 16 to 21 with lived experience of mental health problems and/or the schooling system in Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Our findings

Most studies found higher levels of school connectedness predicted lower levels of depression and anxiety later. Most studies examined depression.

For example, United States one study of nearly 10,000 students found higher levels of self-reported school connectedness (questions included, “you feel like you are part of your school”, “the teachers at school treat you fairly”) led to reductions in self-reported depressive symptoms in the past week. This effect occurred both later in secondary school and persisted into early adulthood, even when accounting for previous depressive symptoms.

Another study investigated the effect of a whole-school health promotion program in over 5,000 secondary school students in India.

The program encouraged supportive relationships between members of the school community, promoted school belonging, increased participation in school activities, and promoted social skills among students. The study found this led to a reduction in depressive symptoms 17 months later.

Reflections from youth advisers

Our findings resonated with the experience of our youth advisers. For example, one 18-year-old adviser from Australia reflected,

I’ve had mental health issues my whole life […] I noticed the second that I moved schools to a more healthy environment, the rapid improvement of my mental health.

Another 18-year-old adviser from Indonesia explained,

Knowing your school is there for you really calms you down, takes one more thought out of your head, and more weight off your shoulders.

Most of the studies were from high-income countries, primarily the US, yet our advisers stressed the importance of cultural context. One 16-year-old youth adviser explained the importance of religion.

In Indonesia you can’t really dismiss religion. You can’t ignore it because it’s so deeply rooted in our society and that in turn reflects (on) other things like our mental health and even school connectedness.

Interestingly, we found one study reported higher levels of school connectedness led to higher levels of internal distress. Our youth advisers noted that sometimes feeling more connected to school can come with increased expectations from teachers and pressure to perform, which might increase anxiety in some students.

What does this mean for schools?

Our findings show how schools matter for mental health and that fostering school connectedness might be a way to prevent depression and anxiety.

Existing research shows there are a lot of “little things” teachers can do throughout the day in their ordinary interactions with students to foster school connectedness.

This includes, actively listening to students, being available and accessible, advocating for students, encouraging students in their school work even if they are struggling, having empathy for students’ difficulties, and treating students like “humans”.

Students are also more likely to ask for help with their learning when teachers say hello, talk to them and take an interest in what they are doing, and show they are proud of them.

Our youth advisers reinforced the importance of feeling acknowledged by teachers and peers and that students need to be able to safely express their identity. One 16-year-old youth adviser from Australia explained that feeling connected to school has many parts.

You’ve got that social aspect, but you’ve also got extra-curricular activities, how you’re going through your studies, your classes […] it’s the positive emotions, it’s the relationships, it’s the meaning, it’s engagement, the accomplishment, it’s all of that. Once you feel supported in all these areas is when you feel connected.

Across the pandemic, school closures and remote learning have shaped a different appreciation of the significance of schools for mental health and wellbeing. The question now is how governments, schools and communities act on this information.

If this article has raised issues for you or your child, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

Monika Raniti, Research Fellow, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute; Divyangana Rakesh, Postdoctoral research fellow, Harvard University, and Susan M Sawyer, Professor of Adolescent Health The University of Melbourne; Director, Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Adolescent Health, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Main image credit: Shutterstock

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5 tips for high schools running the Peer Support Program

Starting high school can be filled with both excitement and nerves for Year 7 students.

When young people transition to high school, they are faced with new people, new routines, and a new environment. They also shift from being the oldest in their school, to the youngest. Finding their way around school grounds, understanding expectations and requirements, and getting to know their peers and teachers, may be overwhelming for some students.

The Peer Support Program helps ease the stress around this transition.

Our Wellbeing Education Consultants share their advice on how to follow best practice implementation, and deliver the best possible outcomes for your school community.

Focus on building relationships

Wellbeing Education Consultant, Sophie Sedgwick, has helped hundreds of schools implement the Peer Support Program. She says that relationships are at the heart of the program.

“As teachers, you will know better than most, the benefits that come with building strong relationships between students, including across grades,” Sophie says. “The program means that Year 7 students form relationships with new peers, and with Year 10 students, who they often look to for ongoing support.”

“Knowing there is always someone to go to when experiencing a problem, helps to reduce anxiety and forge friendships,” Sophie says. “And Year 10 students develop a sense of responsibility in stepping-up and becoming leaders.”

Sophie recommends building on the skills developed during the program across other areas of school life.

“Give your students opportunities and encouragement to develop their communication skills, leadership experience, and emotional literacy. By helping them nurture these skills and their peer relationships, you’re helping them to build their resilience,” she says.

Raise awareness of the Peer Support Program in your school community

Samuel O’Leary is Peer Support Australia’s newest Wellbeing Education Consultant. Last year, he was involved in running the Peer Support Program at Redlands, a high school in North Sydney.

Samuel advises Peer Support Coordinators to raise awareness of the program amongst the whole school community, including staff, students and parents.

“The program is an opportunity to talk to your school community about wellbeing and the importance of relationships,” Samuel says. “Including parents and teachers in the conversation ensures “everyone understands what the program is and what it aims to achieve. This generates a shared language, maximising engagement and ensuring the best chance of success”

“There are resources on the Peer Support Australia portal to help you with this. Resources are free to member schools and provide everything you need to run the program and promote the program,” he says.

Foster inclusive leadership

Jill Pearman our Senior Wellbeing Consultant with many years’ experience in supporting school communities to build whole school wellbeing and, like Sophie, has supported hundreds of schools to implement the Peer Support Program.

Jill is passionate about inclusive leadership.

“If you can, train your entire Year 10 cohort to be Peer Leaders,” Jill says. “This allows all students the opportunity to learn transferable leadership skills, which can be used in other roles within the school, and into their futures.”

She recommends giving all students the opportunity to take on Peer Leader roles, rather than being selected by staff. This allows them to take ownership of the role, particularly those students who don’t usually put their hand up to lead. Some schools expand the program to include Year 8 students, creating more leadership opportunities. 

Jill says: “If you are unable to use all the Year 10s as Peer Leaders, provide opportunity for them to apply to be a Peer Leader using the application form on our portal. This process helps to build student agency and inclusive practices.”

“Be sure to include students who may have struggled at school, or who are not usually seen in leadership roles. Inclusion in the program will help them to flourish and can change a student’s trajectory,” she says.

We recently spoke to students at a high school in Western Sydney, and one student who was described as having a ‘rocky start’ told us how the opportunity to be a Peer Leader transformed his life, emotionally and academically.

You can watch the video here.

Students and teachers share their experience of the Peer Support Program at their school in Western Sydney.

Jill also recommends using the same teacher for the two days of Peer Leader training.

“This deepens relationships with the students and builds on existing and developing knowledge of the teacher and the group,” she says.

Brief and debrief your Year 7 and Year 10 students

Samuel recommends briefing and debriefing students before and after each 40-minute session. This will help set students up for success and encourage them to reflect and learn from their experience.

He says: “Provide supervising teachers with all the information they need to brief and debrief the Year 7 students before and after each session. Ensure Year 10 students are also briefed and debriefed at each session too.”

“Some schools find it difficult to bring students together before and after the session, so have one session instead, with students being debriefed after the session and then briefed for the following week’s session,” Samuel says.

Session summaries and debriefing questions are available on our members’ portal.

Samuel also suggests sharing a copy of each week’s session on your online learning platform.

“This provides Peer Leaders with the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the upcoming session,” he says. “They can then make changes if required for their group and ask questions beforehand if needed.”

Use the resources available to you

Sophie reminds schools that Peer Support Australia’s members’ portal hosts a comprehensive collection of resources for schools to run their program.

Make sure your school’s membership with the Peer Support Program is current.

“Not only does this provide your school with a 12-month license to run the program, it provides your school with access to resources to deliver your Peer Support Program effectively and efficiently,” Sophie says.

“Peer Leader Training certificates are also available on our members’ portal for students at completion of their training.  You can also order Peer Leader badges,” she says. “Both of these celebrate their achievement of completing the training and raise the profile of the Peer Leader role at your school.”

You can also access additional resources to extend your core Peer Support Program and support your students’ overall wellbeing. 

“Also know that we are just a phone call or email away,” Sophie says. “Our role is to help schools run a successful program, so get in touch if you need support.”

Our Wellbeing Education Consultants can help you navigate the resources on our members’ portal, guide you through the steps to reinstate your school’s membership and work with you to ensure the best possible outcomes of your Peer Support Program, within your school’s unique context.

Log into the members’ portal here. If you’re membership has lapsed, you can renew here.

The Student Wellbeing Boost: what it means for schools

The Student Wellbeing Boost means that every school in Australia will receive federal government funding to put towards student wellbeing.

In its most recent Budget announcement, the Australian Government said it “doesn’t want any Australian child held back because of the pandemic. When you’re struggling with stress or anxiety, you’re missing out on learning.”

The federal government announced $203.7 million in funding initiatives to help schools and students bounce back from the disruptions caused by COVID.

The announcement said: “The past two years have been hard for all Australians. But our kids have suffered a unique loss. They’ve been robbed of some of the simple joys of growing up – school camps, team sports, playground friendships and sleepovers.”

The government says its plan will help make sure “every kid can get back on track and benefit from a world class education.”

Here’s what we know about the Student Wellbeing Boost.

How much will schools get?

Schools will receive $20,000 on average. The exact amount is expected to vary depending on the school population and possibly other factors. It’s a one-off funding boost.

When will schools get their Student Wellbeing Boost?

We don’t know exactly when schools will receive their funding. We will update you as soon as the Australian Government makes an announcement.

How can you use the Student Wellbeing Boost?

The Student Wellbeing Boost can be used for student wellbeing and mental health initiatives, according to the Australian Government’s budget review. The aim of the boost is to address impacts on student wellbeing caused by disruptions to school due to COVID.

The announcement from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s office said: “Schools will get a big say in how they use the extra money to best help their kids, with funding able to be used for: Extra school mental health professionals like psychologists and school counsellors, camps, excursions, as well as sporting and social activities that improve kids’ wellbeing.”

Can the Student Wellbeing Boost be used for Peer Support?

We expect that the Student Wellbeing Boost can be used for Peer Support Australia’s programs and services, although the specific funding criteria has not been released.

Consider allocating part of your Student Wellbeing Boost funding to Peer Support Australia as part of your wellbeing strategy.

The benefits of the Peer Support Program include:

  • Boosting student wellbeing across the whole school community.
  • Building positive relationships across peer groups and cohorts.
  • Leveraging an approach to mental health that is universal, preventative, and holistic.
  • Empowering students to take personal responsibility.
  • Equipping students with the skills and tools to manage life’s ups and downs and help prevent mental health difficulties.
  • Embedding a culture of connectedness and accountability into your school.

The Peer Support Program is evidence-based, cost-effective, and has a long-term impact on the mental health of students and the school culture. 

What other student wellbeing initiatives is the Australian Government funding?

The Australian Government also announced it will invest $10.5 million in a ‘new voluntary mental health check tool that schools will be able to use, with parents’ permission, to identify kids who are struggling and make sure they can get the help they need.’

The Budget also includes funds for consent and respectful relationships education, to address teacher shortages and to upgrade school infrastructure. You can read more on the Parliament of Australia website here.

There is also funding in the latest budget for Headspace, mental health support for flood-impacted communities in NSW, and regional mental telehealth services.

References and more information

Starting high school: how to help students transition smoothly into secondary school

Starting high school is a big deal.

You can probably still remember your early days at high school: an unfamiliar environment, new faces, older kids, noise and chaos, timetables, and multiple classes and teachers.

It’s easy to feel lost and overwhelmed.

In fact, students’ engagement and their sense of wellbeing takes a dive during this time, according to research by the NSW Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation.

The good news is, there are many ways schools can support students during this time. And doing so, will help set your Year 7 students up for a positive school experience from the outset.

Early connections are the key

Positive relationships are vital to starting high school on the right foot.  

Friendships become increasingly important during the high school years. Teenagers start to put more trust in their friends over their parents, carers and teachers. Most teenagers – 81.5% — value their friendships more than anything else in their lives, as found by the 2022 Mission Australia Youth Survey. This points to the importance of fostering peer relationships that are strong and healthy.

The start of high school is usually the time when peer groups are established. Offer opportunities for students to interact, and broaden their friendship networks. Consider allocating a hang-out space for the year group to gather during breaks. Some schools, like Cessnock High School in Northern New South Wales, hold a camp early in the year as a way to help students bond.

Empower your senior students to help

ReachOut recommends creating formal and informal opportunities for older students to support your incoming Year 7s. This will help your Year 7 students feel welcome and supported.

The Peer Support Program is a great way to involve senior students in the transition process. The program provides Year 7s with an opportunity to connect with their peers in a safe environment. In fact, 86% of teachers involved in the Peer Support Program said it enables students to experience a better transition into high school, according to research by Deakin University.

Peer Support Australia offers an orientation framework. This includes activities and discussion guides for senior students to use with small groups of Year 7 students. This resource can be used to help Year 7 students make connections early, get to know the school, and be organised.

The program also enables senior students to take on leadership roles.

“The Peer Support Program has become part of our transition process for Year 7 students. We run it in Term 1 so the Year 7s have the familiar face of a senior student in their first term and year.

A rewarding aspect of the program is having Year 7s come through and then become Peer Support Leaders in Year 11. It’s great seeing them excited to work on the program and give back to the Year 7s.”

Dan Sawade, Encounter Lutheran College

Starting high school can be overwhelming. Communicate clearly and regularly.

Make sure you’re in contact and working with your feeder primary schools to create a transition plan. Organise the Year 6 students to visit your high school, and include additional trips for students with disability and additional needs.

Some schools create a welcome pack for students with information about bell times, timetables, teachers, study routines, and where to go for support. Students, including kids with neurodiversity, may benefit from a social story including images of the school, classrooms and teachers. 

Parents and carers also play a crucial role in ensuring students feel positive about high school. Hold an information night for parents and carers, consider creating an information pack or sheet for them to take home.

Download our free guide for teachers supporting students starting secondary school.

4 ways the Peer Support Program boosts student wellbeing 

Are you looking for strategies to rebuild the wellbeing of your students? 

The Peer Support Program provides an opportunity to grow student connections, empower students, build resilience, and have fun. 

The program also enables students to learn and practise a range of transferable life skills, via structured modules. 

Peer Support Australia’s CEO Samantha Brown says that many schools are running the Peer Support Program to increase students’ wellbeing which hasn’t fully recovered since the pandemic.

“The program enables students to form connections with peers and across grades,” Ms Brown said. “It also empowers students to step into inclusive  leadership roles, and equips them with skills and tools to navigate life’s ups and downs.”

Here are four ways the Peer Support Program can help your students.

1.  The Peer Support Program increases social connections across the school 

Research shows that a student’s feeling of connectedness impacts their attendance, academic outcomes and mental health. In fact, a feeling of connectedness impacts our physical health too. 

Ms Brown says that building connections between students is one of the major benefits of the Peer Support Program. 

“Students meet weekly in small groups and follow a structured program,” she says. “This format nurtures relationships between peers and across grades.”  

Teacher Leeann Hardes witnessed an increase in student connections at Cardiff Public School, after completing the Peer Support Program this year. 

“They started to broaden their social networks and look for those students in the playground,” Ms Hardes said.

2. Students feel empowered 

The Peer Support Program is led by senior students in small groups, offering leadership opportunities to all students, including those who may not be identified as traditional leaders. 

“The program gives many students the chance to be leaders,” Ms Brown said. “We see young people stepping into Peer Leader roles and delighting teachers and parents with their capacity to lead.”

Ms Hardes agrees.

“The seniors that we were concerned about leading stepped up and, once confident, embraced the opportunity to lead, and you could see their confidence increasing each week,” she said. 

“These were the students that would never have volunteered for any other leadership jobs in the school,” Ms Hardes said. 

Ms Brown added that students take this sense of leadership into their everyday lives, learning that they can have influence and create positive change. 

3. Students increase their resilience 

Resilience is made up of many facets, including a person’s ability to bounce back from adversity. 

The Peer Support Program helps build students’ resilience by nurturing strong, positive relationships. 

“A feeling of connection is known to improve resilience,” Ms Brown said. “The program also aims to instill young people with a sense of optimism, which helps them look forward to the future.”

There are different modules that schools can choose as part of the program, including optimism, positive relationships, resilience, and anti-bullying. These resources are available to current member schools in Peer Support Australia’s online portal. 

4. The Peer Support Program is fun 

Students enjoy participating in the Peer Support Program. 

“The modules are interactive and engaging,” Ms Brown said. “But it’s also the emerging friendships between students that make the weekly sessions enjoyable.”

According to a recent study by Australian researchers, ‘friends’ is the most-liked aspect of school. 

“Friendships help get students to school each day, and are often the highlight of going,” Ms Brown said. 

Ms Hardes said the program was a highlight for students. 

“The students looked forward to their session each week and would cheer when it was on the daily timetable,” Ms Hardes said. “We have since utilised the groups to engage in education and science week activities.”

“We look forward to running the program next year,” Ms Hardes said. 

Contact Peer Support Australia to find out more about the program. 

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Long dark shadow hangs over our kids

By Samantha Brown, CEO at Peer Support Australia

As Australia’s youth mental health crisis continues to wreck families and devastate communities, it is time for decision-makers in this country to invest in preventive policies that focus on tackling the problem before it becomes a tragedy.

It is clear to mental health professionals that young Australians are still suffering from the aftershock of the pandemic, which so disrupted their lives and isolated them from their peers.

The damaging consequences hit young people at a time in their lives when many of them were not yet emotionally mature enough to cope with the wildly uncertain times they found themselves in.

The fact the pandemic wrought so much instability on the tail of the bushfire disaster should not be downplayed. All at the same time they are being told there is not much to be optimistic about for the future as the climate crisis bites.

Researchers at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre warned the disruption caused by Covid would cast a “long shadow” over mental health. That shadow is indeed leaving our young people in a dark place. Suicide is the leading cause of death among Australians aged 15-24. In the year to July 2021, nearly 8500 people under 18 were hospitalised for self-harm and suicidal ideation – more than 40 cases a day, according to NSW Health data. This was up 31 per cent over 2020, and a 47 per cent increase over 2019.

Calls to Kids Helpline in NSW were up 52 per cent, while between December 2020 and June 2021, duty of care interventions to protect children and young people was nearly twice as high (99 per cent) as the same period a year prior.

With numbers rising, it is time to take a preventive approach that helps build resilience and strength among our young people. This means teaching them the skills they need to deal with adversity and difficult moments in their lives.

Australia has many high-quality mental health services supporting young people in times of crisis, but now we must accept that when it comes to mental health, early intervention programs for our young people are key. The younger population has always required that extra support and guidance, as they navigate the realities and complexities of youth, and in times like these that need has escalated.

Peer Support Australia is a national non-profit organisation, which delivers a vital student-led program which itself has been present in Australian schools for more than 50 years. We provide essential support and Social Emotional Learning (SEL) to schools and communities to positively impact students’ wellbeing and to develop happy, confident and resilient young people.

The program benefits are school-wide, supporting the mental health and wellbeing of students, teachers and school leaders – this then has a direct uplift on the educational outcomes of school students.

By helping young people to understand how to cope with hardship, we can make sure they have the best chance possible to live happy and successful lives.

Two and half years on from the beginning of the pandemic, we are at crucial point. Let’s put the focus on prevention and early intervention by investing in proven programs to support young Australians before they get to the crisis stage.

First published in the Sunday Telegraph on 04 September 2022. Republished with permission.

Bullying in schools: how the Peer Support Program can help

Bullying in schools is a big problem, with long-term repercussions for both victims and perpetrators. Kids who experience bullying are more likely to experience serious mental health issues later in life, and those who bully are at an increased risk of ongoing behavioural problems.

So what can schools do?

Anti-bullying expert Dr Ken Rigby says the prime responsibility lies with schools, because this is where the bullying mostly happens. Dr Rigby details actions schools can take to address and prevent bullying, from creating an anti-bullying policy to adopting intervention strategies. 

Peer support, such as buddy schemes and peer mentoring, is an important part of an anti-bullying approach. Dr Rigby says ‘schools can help students perform supportive roles at school.’

The Peer Support Program builds supportive relationships between students, and can also address the issue of bullying directly via our anti-bullying modules. 

What is bullying? 

The Australian Human Rights Commission defines bullying as a repeated and intentional use of words or actions to cause distress and risk to a person’s wellbeing. There is often an imbalance of power. 

Bullying is more common in person, but it can also happen online. Four in ten young Australians report having a negative online experience in the last six months, including 15 per cent who received threats or abuse, according to an eSafety Commissioner report

During the year, about 15% of Australian school students experience bullying


School culture plays a crucial role in preventing bullying in schools

Research shows that school culture has a direct impact on the prevalence of bullying.

Peer Support Australia’s CEO Samantha Brown says students of all ages need to feel safe at school. 

“The Peer Support Program helps build a culture of connection, empathy and safety,” Ms Brown says. “This leads to confidence and connection which can positively impact a student’s capacity to learn.” 

Building strong peer relationships is part of the solution. 

Mission Australia’s annual survey of young adults found that 81% of young people turn to a friend when seeking advice. Young people are more likely to confide in a friend than a parent, teacher or another adult.

“The Peer Support Program was founded on this insight 50 years ago and is the reason it has been so successful,” says Ms Brown. “The Program equips young people with the tools and skills to support each other, build strong relationships and navigate their own mental health.” 

The Program covers different modules that schools can use across 8-weeks in structured sessions that are led by more senior students. The anti-bullying modules, Stronger Together (for primary students) and Strengthening Our Connections (for secondary students), helps schools build a culture that is safe and supportive. 

Students with disabilities experience greater rates of being bullied. 


Relationships are key to reducing bullying in schools 

Evidence tells us that many protective factors for mental health are associated with positive relationships. 

“Relationships impact our mental, social and emotional wellbeing,” Ms Brown said. 

The Peer Support Program’s anti-bullying modules focus on:

  • Growing student safety through building better relationships. 
  • Peer leadership that complements other actions to reduce bullying. 
  • Building skills and capacity among students to problem solve and take action for themselves and on behalf of other students. 
  • A whole-of-school approach that combines student leadership, staff and parent understanding and support. 

The Stronger Together and Strengthening Our Connections modules complement other activities within a school to address and reduce bullying.

Michelle has used the Peer Support Program to reduce bullying in her schools 

In 2015, Assistant Principal Michelle, was teaching at a primary school in Melbourne that was experiencing high rates of bullying. 

Michelle and her team addressed the problem through a whole-of-school approach, adopting several tactics to change the culture. This included implementing the Peer Support Program, and running the Stronger Together module. 

“I think the Peer Support Program really helps. It helps students to say that, ‘I can be a leader, I can make a change, I can make a difference.’  And when they step into those leadership roles, they become empowered.”

Michelle, Assistant Principal

In addition to running the Peer Support Program, the school set up a ‘bully blocker pledge’.

“The students all brainstormed on a Google form, and then they came up with the top five agreements as a whole school as to what the school would look like in order for it to be a bully blocker school. That went up in the hall on a big sign, and every assembly we refer back to it. These are the behaviors we have here at our school. And it just really helped to change the kids’ mindset as well.”

Michelle is a long-time supporter of the Peer Support Program, and has implemented it at several schools during her teaching career. 

“I’ve always loved the program, and I’ve always seen its benefits,” Michelle said. 

Adopt a whole-of-school approach 

Ms Brown says that positive student relationships are best achieved through a whole-of-school approach.

“This means addressing all facets of the school community and its relationships,” Ms Brown says. “This includes having a committed leadership team, a focus on culture and the physical environment, and integrated approaches to teaching and learning including professional development and strong partnerships with parents and carers.”

Contact Peer Support Australia to find out more about the Peer Support Program, including the Stronger Together and Strengthening Our Connections modules. Email [email protected] or phone 1300 579 963. 

Build connections at your school with a free Talk-And-Walk-A-Thon 

Last year, more than 250 schools around Australia signed up for the Talk-And-Walk-A-Thon, a free event that encourages students to build peer connections. 

Carcoola Primary School in Western Australia ran a successful Talk-And-Walk-A-Thon in 2020. 

Peta Kapor, Deputy Principal said: “Students had the chance to chat with students of other year levels who they might not have spoken to before.” 

“They chatted about a variety of topics, including what they are grateful for, subjects at school, and things that make their mums and dads most proud,” she said.

The school held their event during Mental Health Month in October as part of their wellbeing strategy. 

“There was such positive feedback from students, staff, and parents that we will definitely hold this event again,” Ms Kapor said. 

Carcoola Primary School’s event enabled students to make new connections across grades.

Feeling connected is vital for our mental health 

Connectedness is one of the top indicators of child wellbeing. 

We all need to feel connected to other humans to thrive and flourish, but it’s especially critical for mental health and development in school-aged children. 

In the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in loneliness and disconnection due to the pandemic and the continued rise in social media use. Our kids spend less time face-to-face and more time looking into screens or out of windows, as was the case during lockdown. 

This October, we’re hosting our annual Talk-And-Walk-A-Thon, an event for schools across Australia to build connections and help students work on their conversation skills. The Talk-And-Walk-A-Thon provides a simple way to make a difference to both your students and your school culture.

Samantha Brown, CEO of Peer Support Australia, said: “Providing opportunities for intentional connection can make a big difference to students’ sense of belonging and self-esteem.”

“This event supports our mission to enhance student wellbeing, and I believe true connection is what students both need and long for, even if they aren’t able to articulate the need themselves,” Ms Brown said.

Connection boosts both your mental and physical health

Feeling connected to others not only improves our mental health but our physical health as well. People who have strong social connections report lower blood pressure and a lower rate of obesity. 

In students, connectedness is tied to academic success compared to students with a lower sense of connection. Students with greater connections also report greater feelings of overall health and wellbeing. 

Did you know that 60% of Australians report feelings of loneliness?

Journal of adolescence, 2022

One post-COVID study reported an increase in depression and a decrease in positive mental wellbeing among adolescents in Western Australia. While the study focused on the impact of school closures, we continue to see lockdown’s lasting effects on our students every day. This tells us that we’re at a critical moment to make a difference for our students. 

Making mental health and connectedness a priority can look a few different ways. Most often it starts with teachers and staff setting the example to create a positive, inclusive classroom environment. From there, schools can build their own policies and opportunities to improve student connectedness. 

How to bring the Talk-And-Walk-A-Thon to your school

The Talk-And-Walk-A-Thon is free to participate in, and easy to run. We’ll send you a digital toolkit with everything you need to run a successful event for your students. 

Set aside one or two hours during a school day. You may like to run your event in October to coincide with Mental Health Month. Before students begin talking and walking, separate them into pairs or small groups. During the walk, they’ll move past checkpoints pre-stocked with conversation cards to help prompt conversation and deepen connections. The conversation cards are particularly helpful for students who find talking with others more challenging, as they help ease any tension or awkwardness that may arise. 

Not only does the event help bring students together and broaden their connections, but it also helps them build confidence, improve their social skills, and create a safe space to address mental wellbeing.

Did you know eight out of ten kids turn to their peers in times of need?

Mission Australia Annual Youth Survey Report 2020

Ms Kapor was delighted to see different students engage in conversation, including a female student with a disability, connect with a boy, who often has difficulty mixing with others. 

“When asked what she was grateful for, she mentioned the boy she was talking to,” Ms Kapor said. “This provided such a boost for the boy, and he wanted to stay with her for the remainder of the activity.”

“It was heart-warming to see the younger students chatting to older students who they would never have the opportunity to speak to,” she said.

Ms Brown said the Talk-And-Walk-A-Thon is a creative way to open the door to more conversations about mental health in our schools.

“One positive conversation can spark a transformation in a child’s life in ways we can’t imagine, just by inviting them to connect with a peer,” Ms Brown said. 

The Talk-And-Walk-A-Thon is available to schools across Australia. By taking a few hours out of your school day you can have a tremendous impact on your students by providing the means for building strong connections.

“While we can’t know what each student is going through, we can provide ways to help them out of isolation and loneliness into a true sense of belonging,” Ms Brown said. 

Register for our free toolkit to start planning today.