Peer support or peer mentoring happen within an honest, virtuous relationship that actually helps both children involved. When children provide knowledge, experience, emotional, social or practical help to each other, both peers benefit.
A peer is a child who is similar in essential ways to the recipient of the support; their relationship is one of equality. A peer is in a position to offer support by virtue of relevant experience: he or she has “been there, done that” and can relate to others who are now in a similar situation. While one child may have more experience regarding the situation, reciprocity is an important element of this worthy, peer relationship. At some time in this relationship roles may switch between peers. The peer being the support recipient may become, at some point, the supporter of the former supporting peer.
Peer mentoring usually takes place between a child who has lived through a specific experience, the peer mentor, and a child who is new to that experience, the peer mentee. A good example would be an experienced student being a peer mentor to a new student in a particular subject, or in a new school*.
Peer support and mentoring can happen naturally, or can be guided by an adult. A child can actually be trained and guided to be more effective in helping his or her peers. They are chosen for their sensibility, confidence, social skills and reliability for this purpose. They can be trained to provide education, recreation and support opportunities to other children. A trained peer can be guided to challenge their peer with new ideas; new social opportunities; to encourage him or her to move beyond things in their comfort zone; to learn how to function in a particular environment; or to learn new concepts or academic material.
Peers are also valuable when they pose as behavioral and task modeling agents. An example of behavioral modeling would be to have a child demonstrate or prompt another child to raise their hand in school when they have a question rather than yelling out. Task modeling would be when a boy who missed part of the teacher’s instructions in how to do a lab practice, can follow his peer’s lead step by step, learning the lesson as he follows his peer.
In early childhood and early elementary years, peer support happens through play experiences, using strategies such as sharing, offering help, organizing play, and providing appropriate affirmation. For older children, peer support can help in academics and social networks**.
A key element for these relationships to be effective is compatibility and the quality of the relationship between peers. Usually peers are paired together by an adult, but it would be a good idea to allow the children a few choices. Eventually one of these relationships will grow strong, becoming much more effective and positive.
Mentors contribute to the autonomy and self-sufficiency of others, helping others develop, learn, grow and become more independent. When a child functions as a mentor they are demonstrating a kind, giving and generous attitude that should be acknowledged.