Peer Counselors Help Kids With Behavior Problems, UF Study Shows
GAINESVILLE — Peer counseling groups can help students with behavior problems improve their grades, attendance, attitudes and behavior, a University of Florida study shows.
“Kids respond very well to other kids,” said Bob Myrick, a professor in the University of Florida’s department of counselor education. “Organized peer intervention makes a difference in terms of several certain kinds of things.”
The findings are particularly relevant because in the wake of tragedies such as the school shootings last year in Littleton, Colo., peer counseling programs may be more necessary than ever, Myrick said.
“This is so timely now, because there is such a concern over school safety and school violence,” he said. “Peer counseling programs can help catch these types of problems before they start.”
In a study published in the journal Professional School Counseling, Myrick and Andrew Tobias, an assistant professor at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, put together six groups of Alachua County middle school students with behavior problems. Three were used as control groups with no counseling, and three were placed in peer counseling programs designed by Myrick. The 25 students in each group were chosen based on documented behavior problems, such as fighting, skipping school or classroom disruption.
Each experimental group was divided into subgroups of five students each, and each subgroup was assigned two eighth-graders to act as peer counselors. The eighth-graders were trained to establish supportive relationships, respond to problems, lead small group discussions and use a problem-solving model. They met with their subgroups at least once a week and also worked with group members on an individual basis during homeroom, study hall, lunch or other downtime.
Over the six-week grading period in the study, students who had worked with peer counselors had a 60 percent decrease in the number of discipline referrals, while those in the control groups had only a 27 percent reduction. Their attitudes toward school, as measured by a 20-item test, improved by 15 percent, while those of the control group dropped 2 percent. The students’ school attendance rose by 64 percent, and their grades jumped 20 percent, while those of the control group remained unchanged.
“This provides solid evidence that peer helpers can really make a difference,” Myrick said of the study, published in October. “Many of these kids have never had the chance to sit with somebody and talk about their problems this way. Now they have a friend, a person to talk to who can listen and help them work through their problems.”
Amy Wunder, a guidance counselor at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, said peer counseling programs are very effective and popular ways to reach out to students who need someone to talk to.
“These types of programs give you another 10 or 15 pairs of helping ears,” she said. “Many times, despite our best efforts to relate, kids will listen to other kids better than they listen to adults. Also, the things that peer counselors say often have more relevance to kids because they’re speaking from similar experiences and a similar viewpoint.”