School-based peer programs have been shown to foster positive youth development, school connectedness, and academic achievement. They provide a wide range of social and academic support services for students, while addressing topics related to inclusion, mental health, substance use, bullying, cultural competency, conflict resolution, and study skills. Despite this positive potential, studies indicate that some peer programs can have a neutral or even a negative impact on mentees. Given the conflicting findings, this study sought to understand why certain programs are more successful than others.
Using a sequential mixed-methods approach, this study addressed the following research questions:
• What do peer program professionals identify as program strengths at their respective schools, and what factors do they identify as contributing to these program strengths?
• What do peer program professionals identify as challenges to the effective implementation of peer programs at their respective schools?
• What attempts to address these challenges have peer program professionals found to be effective? To what do they attribute their effectiveness?
Analysis of 13 expert interviews and 623 survey respondents revealed a variety of peer program benefits as well as key challenges affecting successful program implementation. Some of the strengths included easing school transitions, developing student leadership skills, increasing school connectedness, improving peer relations, and providing valuable academic and social/emotional services. Some of the challenges included insufficient time for program coordinators to plan, supervise, and evaluate their respective programs, difficulty with getting student leaders to follow through on their responsibilities, alternative programs competing for student interest, and insufficient time for consistent meetings between student leaders and mentees.
Recommendations for practice consist of schools and districts: (a) giving full support to the value of peer programs particularly through funding and scheduling; (b) selecting effective program coordinator(s); (c) prioritizing recruitment, selection, and training of student leaders; (d) developing a response protocol for occasions in which student leaders make mistakes; and (e) planning in advance for all facets of program structure such as the match process, outreach format, curriculum, facilities, program evaluation, and public relations.
Key words: peer program, mentoring, peer leadership, peer influence, positive youth development, school connectedness, program structure