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Learn how to develop and implement a peer education program.

 

  • What is peer education?

  • Different types of peer education programs

  • When a peer education program might be useful... and when it might not

  • Planning a peer education program

  • Setting up a peer education program

In the Middle Ages or the Renaissance -- or even the 20th century in some places -- if you wanted your son to become a stonemason, you begged or bought him a place as an apprentice with a master of the trade. Although he would begin by sweeping up, carrying stone, mixing mortar, and doing other menial tasks, over time, the master mason and older apprentices would teach him the skills that would allow him to become, eventually, a journeyman, and then a master himself. During his apprenticeship, as his expertise increased, he would spend part of his time teaching younger apprentices, who would, later, teach others. This situation could be seen as an example of peer education.

The word "peer" means an equal, someone of the same condition as oneself. (British nobles are called Peers of the Realm, meaning that they are all in some sense equals under the monarch.) A peer education program involves people being tutored or taught by others from backgrounds similar to their own. That might mean kids educating kids, people educating members of their particular community, people with particular experiences educating others with those experiences, etc. A peer education relationship is one of equals, not one where the teacher has all the knowledge or authority and the learner has none.

Peer education can cover any area: health issues, literacy, community development, schoolwork... whatever is needed. Peer educators are usually volunteers -- partially to keep that relationship of equals -- and learners may become educators themselves. Teachers and learners may switch roles from time to time as part of the program: imagine, for instance, a situation where young Native Americans teach elders to read, and the elders teach them the traditions or the language of their ancestors. Such programs exist, and they serve to connect old and young in a community, and to preserve a culture in danger of being lost.

A peer education program is a way of improving services by spreading needed information throughout a community. Through such programs, people can gain the knowledge and skills to strengthen their communities, advocate for themselves and their needs, and assert more control over their lives. Just as our apprentice stonemason could go on to become a master of his trade, and to teach apprentices and journeymen, learners in peer education programs may go on to become leaders in their communities, and to teach others what they have learned.

In some ways, peer education can be similar to mentoring or support groups, or even to skill-swapping programs. But, unlike mentoring, peer education needs to be a relationship of equals; unlike a support group, it has a particular practical goal; and unlike barter or skills exchange, the materials it concerns are information and education. Yet peer educators do act as mentors a lot of the time, they definitely provide support -- often mutual for teacher and learner -- and peer educators and learners often trade skills and knowledge. In other words, peer education may be a lot more than a simple teaching relationship, and a good peer education program can have a profound effect on the lives of individuals and their communities.

"Peer education" is used here to cover the broadest possible range of activities and services. We include everything from relatively formal peer tutoring situations to programs that are essentially street outreach by peers. Some topics discussed in this section - recruitment of learners, for instance - only apply to certain kinds of situations, while others address peer education in general. Keep in mind what your own purposes are in deciding what is relevant to your program.

What is peer education?

As explained above, peer education is a teaching or co-teaching relationship between people who are in some way equals. That equality can be defined by age, gender, geography (people from the same neighborhood, or the same village), income, racial or ethnic group, culture, background, disability... anything that people might have in common. The essential idea is that peer educators and learners share some degree of common experience and desire to help and learn from one another.

Peer education is based on the assumption that learners are often likely to relate to and trust others in their own circumstances more than professionals whose experience might be entirely different from theirs. The education relationship thus needs to be one of equals, not one in which the teacher holds the authority and gives out bits of knowledge or approval as she sees fit. The possibility -- and perhaps even the expectation -- of an exchange of knowledge, or of the learner becoming an educator is often an important part of peer education.

Much of the early research in peer tutoring, for example, was conducted at a time when the concept was one of a more competent person teaching a less competent one (an older student teaching a much younger one in a school, for example). It seemed to show that it was in fact the tutor, rather than the tutee, who experienced the most benefit from the relationship. The act of teaching helped the tutor to solidify her understanding of the material, and also served to boost her self-esteem and self -confidence, enabling her to improve her learning in general.

Current thinking takes this finding into account, reasoning that if it is the act of teaching that is so powerful, then everyone should be a teacher. Thus, peer tutoring is now conceived as a situation where everyone involved is both teacher and learner. As described in Peer Tutoring: Toward a New Model, this conception uses the tutoring process as a "central instructional strategy," in which tutoring itself is designed to facilitate learning, and in which everyone involved in a peer tutoring program is both tutor and learner.

In a true peer education situation, the peer educator acts less as teacher than as facilitator. The burden of learning is on the learner. In this situation, both peer educator and learner understand that whatever progress the learner makes belongs to him, not to the peer educator. At the same time, the educator doesn't bear the pressure of needing to know all the answers all the time, so that her authority won't be compromised. Sometimes, a peer educator can create a much more powerful learning experience by not knowing the answer: by learning alongside the learner and helping him to find the answer, she has taught him how to negotiate new learning.

Many educators believe that, in the words of an old proverb, "There are no teachers, there are only learners." It is impossible to cram knowledge or thinking skill into someone's head. She has to learn it, to understand and place it in context. Given that assumption, the educator functions best as a facilitator, someone who makes learning easier. By working problems through with the learner, by demonstrating to the learner how he goes about finding information or solving a problem to which he doesn't know the answer, the educator can often be more effective than if he simply told the learner something.

Peer education doesn't have to be a one-on-one relationship. In fact, the formal tutor-learner arrangement doesn't exist at all in some programs. Peer education can be done in groups, either with one or more peer educators and several learners, or with a group of co-learners. Who is a teacher and who is a learner may change in the course of a session, depending upon what's being discussed or taught. The whole relationship may be created as a reciprocal arrangement, with each participant teaching the other in return for being taught something else (remember those Native American teens and elders). Another possibility is that once the learner has mastered whatever is being taught, he will then become a peer educator in turn, as will those he then teaches.

It needs to be mentioned here that none of this is necessarily intuitive for volunteer -- or even paid -- peer educators. Knowing something doesn't necessarily mean that you can teach it well; and being a peer doesn't necessarily mean that you won't take on the mantle of authority when you're placed in a position where you could. Peer educators need training before they start, and support and supervision while they're working. Training, support, and supervision will be discussed in more detail later in this section.

Different types of peer education programs

Peer education programs can take different shapes for different communities, different issues, and different needs. While a homework help program in a school may work for teens, the school setting may not work at all for older dropouts who want to improve their reading and writing, but still have bad memories of formal education. A parent -to-parent program meant to reach mothers with young children needs to take into account their child care needs, and the needs of the kids themselves. A program in which seniors help to inform seniors about wills and negotiating the probate system should respect the physical limitations of all who might be involved.

Many of the possibilities for peer education may not include any formal education at all, although they do involve an educational process. Some forms that peer education may take include

Formal education programs

In formal education programs, such as Literacy Volunteers of America, community volunteers (or, occasionally, paid tutors from the community) help others learn particular skills or information. These programs are often one-on-one, but may also involve other arrangements: one tutor working with a group of learners, several tutors and learners all working together, groups of learners working together as well as with tutors, etc.

Formal education is often limited to a specific subject, but carries the possibility of ranging broadly, depending upon the interests of tutors and learners. Programs may meet in a formal space -- a library, a hospital conference room, a school -- or in tutors' or learners' homes. Meeting spaces are usually secluded enough to protect learners' privacy.

This sort of education carries the danger of turning into -- or of being from the outset -- an unequal relationship, rather than an actual peer education situation. Although volunteers and tutors may be from the same community, they may come from very different circumstances and experiences, and tutors may see themselves as "stooping" to help an "unfortunate" learner. Here is where careful training and support for the tutor -- as well as a serious screening process before training begins -- are extremely important. Many of the benefits of peer education can be lost if the tutor -learner relationship is not one of equal partnership.

Outreach programs

In outreach programs, the peer educator seeks out learners in the environment where they're most comfortable and most likely to be found. This type of program is often especially effective with teens at risk, who may be reluctant to come to any formal sessions, and who often distrust adults.

An effective AIDS education program in Boston trained teen volunteers in understanding the disease and in safe sex methods. The volunteers then hit the streets and schoolyards, equipped with supplies of condoms and printed information, to talk to other kids wherever they could find them. Once the trained teens were known, they were able to get peers to come to presentations to learn more about AIDS and its prevention, and to both practice and preach the gospel of safe sex.

As in the above example, peer educators in an outreach program may not be seen as "teaching" in anything resembling the standard way, but their message may be the more powerful for that reason. They may work with individuals or groups, and some of those they reach -- as in fact happened in the AIDS prevention program -- may then become peer educators themselves.

Workshops

In a workshop, a trained volunteer conducts scheduled presentations on particular topics in the community. A workshop may be sponsored by an established organization, or may be part of a free-standing program aimed at an issue of community interest or importance. It may be a one-time presentation, or part of a series that learners are encouraged to attend over a period of time. By the same token, it might focus on a specific topic (teen violence prevention in the community), or on a broader area (building a healthy community).

Workshops are often conducted in public places, and in the same place every time, but they may also travel to sites where learners are available. The workshop model is often the one by which peer educators are trained.

For example, a group of women in an adult basic education program were recruited as volunteer peer health educators. They attended workshops in areas of health (understanding breast cancer and the importance and technique of breast self-examination, smoking, nutrition, effects of legal and illegal drugs, etc.), and then in turn conducted workshops on those topics in their program. Eventually, they branched out into their own and other communities, presenting workshops to various groups. As a result of their training and the presentations they made, they were able to change many of their own and their families' practices, and to both raise awareness and help to effect healthier lifestyles among other community members as well.

On-demand or by-request peer education

On-demand education is where peer tutors staff a "center" to provide on-the-spot help to those who need it. Such education can cover a broad range of issues, but usually a particular center has a particular focus, depending on who runs it and how -- or whether -- it's funded.

Some examples of this type of peer education might be:

  • Actual academic education: in adult literacy, for instance, or in English for recent immigrants (An especially effective peer education program for Chinese immigrants on the waiting list for a formal English as a Second Language program used tutors who were graduates of the program). Similarly, high school students might offer homework help to other high school students in an after-school program.
  • Making available information to give learners more control over a particular area of their lives: health, tenants' rights, etc.
  • Help in understanding and negotiating a bureaucratic or other system: housing, unemployment, or Social Security, for instance.

A group of welfare recipients, frustrated by their own misadventures in trying to deal with public assistance, approached a Legal Assistance office. Ultimately, they received training in the regulations governing various agencies, and, with a small grant from a foundation, became community legal advocates. They helped others in the community learn to find their way through the alphabet soup of state agencies, and to gain some power over a system they had previously been unable to penetrate.

One of the most important aspects of the community legal advocate program was that the advocates didn't do things for those they advised. Rather, they helped people find out what to do and supported them in doing it. Thus, those who consulted the advocates actually learned the procedures and had the experience of making the phone calls, negotiating with agencies, etc. so they could do it again, without help, if they needed to.

Situation-specific peer education

In situation-specific peer education, the goal is to master a specific skill or understand a specific situation. A Teamsters' union local, for example, may set up a program where already-certified truck drivers help others learn what they need to pass the new and more complex Class 1 licensing test.

For example, after her 14-year-old son was beaten up on the way home from school, a woman decided that teen violence was a problem in her small town. She organized a meeting to discuss the issue which attracted 35 parents and teens. This core group then created an organization which ultimately ran, among other things, workshops and informal peer-education sessions in which teens and parents talked with others in the community about how to prevent teen violence.

Other examples of this type of situation-specific education, like that above, often don't look like education at all. A peer conflict resolution program -- which, if it's done well, not only deals with an immediate conflict, but teaches participants how to deal with other conflicts in the future -- is a good illustration of a peer education situation that doesn't appear to be education. An AIDS teach-in conducted by HIV sufferers and support workers is another.

Positives and negatives of a peer education program

Advantages of peer education

Peer education programs work well in some circumstances, but may not be the right choice in others. Some particular advantages of peer education programs are:

  • Low resource costs. Since they often use volunteers and have almost no overhead, peer education programs can be run very cheaply.
  • The potential of a high degree of contact. Volunteers who are themselves part of the community can spread information about programs easily and quickly, and their word will be trusted.
  • Growth for both educator and learner. Because of the equal relationship and the assumption that both peer educator and learner have valuable knowledge and skills, both can gain in knowledge and self-esteem from the education situation.

Circumstances where peer education programs can be useful

So when might you want to use a peer education program... and when might you not want to? There are a number of situations where a peer education program could be especially useful:

Where other programs are not possible

There are several reasons why a professional or formal program may not be an option in a particular circumstance.

  • Where there is very limited or no funding available
  • In a closed community, where outsiders are not welcome or trusted, or where language is a barrier
  • Where there are simply no professionals trained in the area in which people need to be educated (think of those Native American teens and elders)
  • Where people have difficulty getting to a program because of physical, geographical, or other constraints (in the huge and sparsely-populated rural counties of some western states, e.g., people may have to travel more than 100 miles each way to reach a logical program site)

Where peers are more likely to be listened to than professionals or others not part of the learners' peer group

Some examples:

  • Teens, especially teens at risk or gang members, who often have adversarial relationships with adults in general, and with adults in perceived positions of authority in particular.
  • Minority communities, where community members may be suspicious of those who represent past or present mistreatment, and where past or present discrimination may not be easily ignored.
  • Women who may either distrust men because of past or present mistreatment, or because of age-old patterns of discrimination. The need for peers may be especially acute among those women who are unaware that they are intimidated by the presence of men, particularly those in positions of apparent authority. In some cases, men, even with the best will in the world, may find it all but impossible to help women change those patterns and find their voices.
  • Ethnic groups where language, shared experiences, and cultural norms and style may create barriers for non-members. The Hmong people of Laos, many of whom were forced to exchange an ancient culture for refugee camps and the streets of American cities after the Vietnam War, come immediately to mind.
  • Groups of people who share a unique experience or trauma -- MS sufferers, families of murder victims, Vietnam veterans, refugees from genocide attempts, etc.

Where you need to reach a large number of people in the community in a relatively short time

An emergency community health initiative, for instance. Especially in non-literate communities, a group of trained peer tutors can reach and inform large numbers of people, particularly if they know the community well.

Where you are starting a process that is meant to be self-maintaining

Peer educators not only teach, but train learners as peer educators, who then repeat the process. This is often a way to institutionalize programs that are funded only for a limited period of time.

Where the "peer" is the most important part of the program, because of what it demonstrates

Peer mediation programs in schools, for instance, serve not only to resolve conflicts and teach conflict resolution, but to show kids that kids can be conflict resolvers.

Circumstances where peer education programs might not be useful or necessary

  • Where more expertise is needed than can be instilled in a tutor training. A program aimed at children with special needs, for instance, might employ volunteers in some capacity, but would probably need professionally trained staff.
  • Where peers are not available or not appropriate as educators. A program aimed at a population of immigrants from a group few of which had previously immigrated, for instance, might not be appropriate for peer education.
  • Where a fair amount of money is available for a professional program. Unless there are particular reasons for starting a peer education program, it may be better to have paid and well-trained staff and the other resources that a professional program can bring. Such a program may be able to incorporate peer education (learners working together, for example), and thus reap the benefits of that method while still partaking of the advantages a professional program can bring.
  • Where you can educate a broad range of people through the media. This may mean distance learning, TV courses for the general public, education over the internet, etc.

Planning a peer education program

There is a good deal of thinking and preparation to be done before you actually start recruiting volunteers and tutees and setting up a program.

General rules

To begin with, there are some general rules that should apply to any process that can truly be called peer education.

The relationship of equals is the absolute core of a peer education program.

There needs to be an assumption on everyone's part - peer educators, learners, trainers, program coordinator -- that the educator-learner roles are fluid, and that every learner -- either now or later -- is an actual or potential peer educator.

It is essential to plan the program with your focus on the community, rather than on what you want to do.

This means that

  • Potential peer educators and learners need to be part of the planning process
  • The program has to be one that fits the needs of the community, and shouldn't start before you've conducted a formal or informal needs and assets assessment of the community
  • The program has to be one that will work in the community. If there is some history of past program success or failure, it's important to find it out -- here's where involving potential tutors and learners in the planning process proves its worth -- so you can avoid either reinventing the wheel or repeating past mistakes.

Initial questions

As we've seen, there are many possible designs for peer education programs, and each can be customized for a particular community and particular circumstances. Before you decide what's right for your situation, you should answer some basic questions:

What is the actual purpose of the program?

Academics? Spreading a particular body of information (e.g. infant nutrition)? Changing the thinking of the community in a particular area (domestic violence prevention, for example)? Each of these may imply a different design:

  • An academic program may work best in a one-on-one or group setting in a quiet place
  • Spreading a body of information might best be accomplished in a support-group format, or through a community outreach program that can touch a large number of people
  • Changing community thinking might combine several approaches: outreach, modeling, learners becoming peer educators and training other peer educators, etc.

Who is the target population?

Parents of young children? The community at large? The homeless? The unemployed?

How will you define "peers" for that population?

If you're trying to reach the homeless, do peer educators have to be currently or formerly homeless, for instance? Or can they simply be people from the same community? How you answer this question may have a lot to do with the structure and, perhaps, even the eventual success of your program.

Where can the target population be reached?

If it's the homeless you're aiming at, the library may be a great place to have a program base, since that's where many homeless people spend their days, especially in bad weather.

What is the target population likely to respond to?

A group of alienated teens may not want to sit in a class, for instance, but might be totally comfortable talking informally in a park.

Are there successful examples of this type of program in similar circumstances elsewhere?

There's no need to reinvent the wheel if there's a good model out there.

Program structure

Whether it's run or staffed by professionals or volunteers, a peer education program needs a structure if it's going to operate effectively. There should be an individual or group that coordinates and administers the program, and either oversees or actually carries out a number of functions:

  • Recruiting peer educators and learners
  • Developing, continually refining, and conducting tutor training
  • Matching learners with appropriate peer educators or programs
  • Scheduling
  • Supervising peer educators
  • Handling problems among peer educators, learners, supervisors, and the program itself
  • Recordkeeping
  • Program evaluation and ongoing improvement

The program also needs a communication structure, so that peer educators and learners can easily be contacted about special events, cancellations, scheduling, etc. It needs a spokesperson who is trusted to speak for the program, sometimes -- in a crisis, for instance -- without having the opportunity to consult with others. And, if it's funded by any formal sources -- public money, foundations, etc. -- it needs someone to communicate with and report to funders. The coordinating structure, or lack of it, can have a great deal to do with whether a peer education program is successful or not. Coordinators are often paid staff, and need, at the very least, some experience in education, in tutor training and supervision, or in working in a program similar to yours.

Setting up a peer education program

Recruitment of peer educators and learners

It's obvious that, whatever your program looks like, it won't exist without peer educators and learners. Although in some cases, learners may be recruited by the peer educators themselves (as in the case of the AIDS education program described earlier), in many instances, you'll have to find both peer educators and learners. Depending on the type of program, it may make sense to recruit and train peer educators before you seek out learners, or it may be more effective to try to attract both at once. In either case, you'll probably want to use some or all of these methods to let people know that they can become involved:

Using the media

There are several ways you can recruit through newspapers, radio, and TV.

  • Formal, often paid, advertising. Using newspapers, radio, and/or TV ads to get your message out.
  • Public Service Announcements (PSAs) and other unpaid advertising. You may be able to run radio or TV ads as PSAs, which are free, or to convince a station or newspaper to run a free ad for you out of the goodness of its heart.
  • Press releases or letters to the editor. Another way of inserting your message in the media without cost is to either issue a press release or write a letter to the editor about your program. There is no guarantee that either of these will be published in a large, urban newspaper, but in smaller markets, they almost always are.
  • Holding a press conference or preparing a guest column or op-ed (opinion and editorial) piece

Community advertising, using fliers and posters placed in conspicuous places

Supermarkets, laundromats, fast food restaurants, schools, sports facilities, the Y, churches, and social clubs are all places where your information is likely to be seen by a large number of people.

Announcements in appropriate places

This can range from an announcement from the pulpit by a clergyman to a recorded message on a tape loop in the local shopping mall.

Outreach through agencies, organizations, religious centers, and other community hubs

Often staff people, clergy, or others who work directly with individuals, may know someone who is looking for a volunteer opportunity or who needs the service the program will offer.

Direct mailings to a list, or to all households in a particular area

You may have accumulated a list of potential tutors or learners in the course of developing your program, or an agency (such as welfare or unemployment), church, or service club may be willing to insert notices to all its participants in one of its own mailings.

Personal outreach in the community and word-of-mouth

For most people, perhaps the most effective recruiting method is hearing it from friends, relatives, or others whom they know and trust.

In using any of these recruitment methods, you'll want to remember to consider the community in framing your message. Some important points:

  • Use language that the people you're aiming at can understand, whether that means choosing your vocabulary carefully in English, or composing your message in Vietnamese.
  • Try to be as brief and as clear as possible about what you're offering or asking people to do.

An adult literacy program found that its best learner recruitment tool was a poster that said only "Need Help with Reading, Writing, Math, GED? Call (phone number)", and that included tear-off versions of the phone number at the bottom of the sheet. Even those with very low reading levels could read it, it was clear about what services were available, and people could carry the phone number with them -- in some cases for months -- until they decided they were ready to make the call.

  • Be aware of customs or word meanings that could make your message vague or, worse, offensive to the community.
  • Concentrate your efforts in the places where the target community is most likely to be exposed to it. That may mean Spanish-language radio, soccer clubs, churches, or particular community gathering places.
  • In general, messages describing the problem will help to recruit volunteers. Messages describing learners overcoming adversity or making their lives better will help to recruit learners.

Something you'll need to decide about recruiting tutors is whether you're going to screen people, or simply train everyone who applies. There will be some self-screening -- people will come to an orientation or go through the training, and realize that they aren't cut out to be peer educators, or disagree with the philosophy of the program. But there are always a few folks who are eager and enthusiastic... and just don't get it, in one way or another. It's better for the program -- and kinder to them -- if you can spot them before they make a commitment, and steer them to some other volunteer opportunity more suited to their talents.

One way to deal with this issue is to address it at an initial orientation, explaining that peer education, like anything else, is not for everyone, and that there will be a screening process. You may want to ask people to apply formally for peer educator positions, or your screening may be informal. Screening after training is another option, and will be discussed later in this section.

Another screening issue you might want to deal with is whether you'll set any specific criteria of eligibility or ineligibility. You may decide that all peer educators need high school diplomas, for instance. Substance abuse might be grounds for not accepting someone in a particular program, and may not matter in another. A record of child sexual assault would be an issue in an after-school homework help situation, but might not matter in a senior-to-senior program... or that program might decide it can't tolerate the issue philosophically. It's always best to try to anticipate matters like these, and make some decisions about them before you're actually faced with them.

Peer educator orientation and training

Although a peer education program might be both staffed and administered by volunteers, it is nonetheless absolutely necessary that peer educators be trained and supported. A lot -- perhaps most -- of a tutor's or other peer educator's expertise in working with learners may be gained on the job, but she still needs a grounding in the methods, philosophy, and assumptions of the program and some tools to start with. How, and to what extent, you provide this base is crucial to the success of your peer education program.

It may seem that training is unnecessary in situations where all learners are peer educators and vice-versa, as is the case in some adult literacy programs. In fact, training is especially important in those situations. It may differ from the relatively formal, structured process implied below, but learners need to have some idea of the expectations, the difficulties, and the rewards of sitting on both sides of the educational table. Training in education or teaching methods can give learners new insight into their own learning process, and change their approach to learning entirely. By the same token, being asked to think about the barriers that learners experience in approaching new ideas or material may enable them to understand and remove some of their own.

Orientation - helping people understand what the program and its issues are actually about -- can be viewed as the beginning of the training, but it can also be used as an introduction to help potential peer educators decide whether they want to enter training. An orientation could be held at the very beginning of training, or even before a training is scheduled, to help people decide whether they really want to become tutors or not. Some areas you might want to cover in orientation include:

  • What the program is about. What you're trying to accomplish, what areas the peer educator will be expected to cover, etc.
  • The basic assumptions of the program. This would include an introduction to the philosophy of the program, commitment to the partnership of peer educator and learner, any particular program biases about teaching or presentation methods or subject matter, relationship to the community... whatever may be unique or central to your program that tutors are expected to buy into.
  • Learners and their concerns. Depending on the type of program, potential volunteers may be drawn from the same pool as learners -- or might be learners themselves -- and therefore need less of an orientation in this area. In any case, it's best if learners could be included in this part of the orientation, to speak for themselves and answer questions.

In all orientation and training, it's ideal if you can include both learners and experienced current or former peer educators, in order to give trainees a real picture of what they're taking on. Knowing what to expect will filter out some of those who really aren't appropriate for the job, and will help to make others better. In addition, the inclusion of learners and peer educators together in a training process underscores the idea that peer education is truly a partnership, and that learners have much to offer as well as to gain.
 
Peer education training itself is meant to prepare peer educators to work with learners successfully. It should be long enough -- both in total hours of training and in the length of time over which the whole training takes place -- to not only give educators the background and knowledge they need, but to give them time to digest and absorb the material and ideas presented. The numbers in a training group should be small enough so that everyone can get some individual attention, but large enough so that there can be good discussion and role play opportunities. Eight to ten is usually ideal, with 15 probably being about as big as a group should be.

Perhaps most important, the training should reflect the philosophy and methods of the program. If you're asking peer educators to respect what learners already know, then their training should respect what they already know. If you're asking them to use specific methods in working with learners, then those same methods should be used, to the extent possible, in the training, both so peer educators can experience them firsthand (and thus have some idea what learners are experiencing), and because using those methods is the best evidence that you really believe in them.

Some important aspects of training:

  • A grounding in methods of instruction (in the particular style the program expects, if there is one)
  • Whatever content peer educators will be expected to know and/or help learners master
  • A copy and discussion of the written curriculum, if there is one
  • More on the program's philosophical framework, and how it meshes with the actual way the program is run and education is conducted
  • Real tools that peer educators can use, especially in initial sessions - specific curriculum, exercises, games, props, particular books, tapes, or videos, etc.
  • Lots of opportunities for peer educators to try out and get feedback - in a safe situation - on what they've learned (i.e. role playing or some other method that gives them the chance to practice before they face learners)
  • If appropriate or possible, the chance for peer educators to observe veterans at work, and to talk with them about what they're doing and how they view it
  • Opportunities to meet with learners, if learners aren't already part of the training process

At the end of the training period, you might consider providing closure in one or more ways.

  • A training exit interview for each potential peer educator, discussing with him what he's learned, and whether he feels ready to continue, or feels that peer education may not be for him. Such an interview can provide an informal screening, eliminating many people who simply wouldn't fit into the program. (This interview could also be used as a formal screening tool, as long as potential tutors understood that.)
  • A graduation ceremony, in the course of which each peer educator who decides to go on signs a contract, committing herself to the minimum time and work requirements of the program, and receives a certificate as a trained peer educator.
  • An individual meeting, where appropriate, of each peer educator with the learner or group he'll be working with.

Peer educator supervision and support

Like training, ongoing supervision is an absolute necessity for an effective peer education program. Each peer educator should have a designated supervisor -- whether the coordinator, a paid or volunteer staff member, a more experienced peer educator, or even, in a reciprocal arrangement, another peer educator of similar experience -- with whom she has regularly scheduled meetings to discuss her work, and who is available at other times for help and support when needed.

In most cases, the supervisor would deal with problems between peer educators and learners, or between peer educators.

There are at least two ways of looking at supervision. One consists essentially of the supervisor as watchdog, making sure that the staff member or volunteer does her job right, and follows the rules of the organization. Too often, this has been the model followed in education, the one that generates horror stories of teachers being fired because their skirts were too short, or because they were critical of an assigned text.

The other view of supervision sees it as a mentoring relationship, aimed at improving performance through constructive feedback, suggestions, and discussion of real situations and problems. This is the model generally used in counseling and psychology, and more frequently now in education and medicine. It is, in the writer's opinion, far more effective and useful than the other, and more apt to lead to improvement in performance.

In addition to supervision, peer educators need ongoing support. Some of this can be provided by the supervisor, in the form of advice, encouragement, help dealing with problems, etc. Ideally, peer educators should also have regularly scheduled opportunities to meet together --with or without a supervisor -- to discuss common issues and concerns. The feeling of shared experience and peer support -- as well as the understanding that others share the same difficulties with the work -- can be a tremendous resource for all concerned.

Regularly scheduled in-service training and workshops can provide another form of peer educator support. The opportunity for peer educators to continue to learn techniques, background information, and content will make them more effective, provide them with a benefit, and remind them that they are valued by the program. The nature of in-service offerings could be determined by educators' own expressed needs, the program coordinator's understanding of what is needed to do a good job, or -- most likely -- a combination of the two.

Personnel policies for peer educators and learners

Even in a program run entirely by volunteers, there need to be personnel policies that cover as many as possible of the situations that might arise with and among peer educators, learners, and the program. It would be ideal if everyone - educators and learners, as well as program staff -- is familiar with these policies from the beginning, so that there are no misunderstandings about the intent of the program. There are a number of areas that these policies might cover.

Peer educator time commitment

How many hours a week for how long a time period will you ask peer educators to commit to? Do the hours include particular days or combinations of days? Do they allow for holidays or vacations, and if so, how long?

One way to deal with this issue is by having peer educators sign a contract, with the terms spelled out. Not every program will find this sort of thing necessary or desirable, but many use it, and peer educators find it a reasonable and appropriate way to express their commitment. In fact, if you're dealing with volunteers, a contract like this is hardly enforceable: it's simply a way of making sure that everyone knows and agrees to the expectations of the program.

Peer educator rights and obligations

Policy here might deal with such issues as:

  • Notifying learners and the program when the peer educator is unable to attend a scheduled session
  • Notifying the peer educator if the learner or program must cancel a scheduled meeting
  • Who's responsible for providing substitutes, if that's applicable
  • Expectations for peer educators' behavior and philosophical stance (the partnership of educator and learner issue, for instance)

A peer educator job description

In order to run the most effective program, it is important for peer educators to know exactly what is expected of them.

A mechanism for peer educators to discuss problems

Although you hope that everything will go smoothly, it is important to build in ways to deal with problems before the problems occur. Problems that might arise include peer educators experiencing dissatisfaction with the program, learners, or other educators.

A mechanism for learners to discuss problems

Again, it is important to ensure that if problems do arise, there are already methods in place for dealing with them.

A mechanism for dealing with learners who create problems

Especially in programs that serve adolescents, there need to be clear policies about the rights and obligations of learners as well as those of peer educators. In the best of circumstances, learners should have input into developing those policies, and should know about them -- and be given a copy of them -- at the time they enter the program.

Personal safety and security

Depending on your resources, you might want to prepare a program handbook to give to peer educators, learners, and staff. The handbook could include not only training -related material (program philosophy and mission statement, for instance), but information on personnel policies, volunteer time commitment, security, necessary phone numbers, etc. If it's done in a loose-leaf format, you could put together different versions for peer educators and learners, if that were appropriate.

Program evaluation and refinement

A peer education program, like any other, needs to be able to look at what it's doing, figure out how well it works, continually refine those parts of the program that already work well, improve or rework those things that don't work well, and change to meet the changing needs of the target population.

In order to examine itself, a program needs to decide what to look at - what information it will gather, how it will interpret it once it has it - and how to look at it - the way it will gather that information.

In choosing what to look at, there are several - not necessarily mutually exclusive - possibilities.

  • Numbers. The number of peer educators, number of learners, number of education hours, number of education sessions, duration of education relationships (how long a tutor-learner pair continues to work together), changes in learners' levels (where they're engaged in some measurable learning activity) -- all of these can give you information about the effectiveness of some aspects of your program.
  • Peer educator and learner satisfaction with the program. Do people feel they're making progress? What kind of learning do they see happening? Is it what they hoped or expected? Are they getting what they need? Are they getting enough support? What would they change?
  • What really goes on in the program. Monitoring actual education sessions to determine what is happening in them, and whether the program's philosophy and goals are actually being carried out in the work that's being done.
  • Outcomes for learners. Outcomes come in many shapes and sizes. There may be some specific learning that the program is aiming at (facts about AIDS, ways that violence affects others besides the victim), but that learning may be evidenced by behavior (practicing safe sex more often, no longer using spanking to discipline children). In addition, behavior that seems totally unrelated to the apparent learning may in fact reflect it powerfully.

Adult literacy and employment training programs often see a huge leap in learners' self-esteem and, consequently, in their willingness to take risks and their ability to persevere and succeed at difficult tasks. Staff in such programs frequently note that learners begin to dress differently, to hold themselves straighter, to look others in the eye more often, to speak more loudly and decisively. These changes may seem unconnected to the subject matter, but are directly connected to the experience of learning, and can be markers of learners' success.

  • Changes in the community related to the desired program results. If your peer education program has been teaching mothers about immunization, and the percentage of immunized infants in the community has jumped from 40 to 70 in the year you've been in operation, there's a good chance your program can take some of the credit.
  • Community perceptions of the program. Does the community see changes? Does it ascribe any of those changes to the work of your program?

How you look at your information will depend to some extent on what you're looking at. The more different aspects of the program you're examining, the more varied your information-gathering might be.

Some of the possible ways to gather information are:

  • Surveys
  • Personal interviews
  • Phone calls
  • Gathering statistics from program records
  • Personal observation
  • Evaluation forms (usually check-off or multiple choice)
  • Tutor and learner self-reports
  • Community input forums

If you're going to gather information, you have to have a mechanism for collecting that information. Keeping some sort of records is absolutely necessary if you're going to conduct any kind of meaningful evaluation. You may want to keep attendance, a log of hours spent and what happened during that time, peer educator and/or learner journals about results and change, regular testing results... whatever will give you the information you need to evaluate the program accurately and make adjustments to it that actually make a difference for the better.

If your evaluation is going to be really useful, the combination of the information you choose to consider and the way you find it should reflect your goals for the program, your philosophy, and your mission.

In general, a good evaluation of a peer education program should:

  • Include feedback from peer educators, learners, and anyone else involved in the program
  • Take place at regular intervals
  • Focus on improved practice
  • Include a mechanism for incorporating suggestions for improvement and working out solutions to problems
  • Well-thought-out and carefully conducted regular evaluations are a giant step toward keeping your program dynamic and effective

In Summary

A peer education program can be an effective way to reach a large number of people, especially in situations where the population is suspicious of outsiders or there is very little money available for services. Successful programs are based on the assumption that the peer educator-learner relationship is a partnership, and that peer educators may become learners and vice-versa. Other elements of a well-designed program include:

  • Community involvement in both the design and operation of the program
  • A clear sense of purpose and an understanding of the target population
  • A coordinating structure that assures the smooth running of the program
  • Recruitment of peer educators and learners that takes their cultures, needs, and issues into account
  • A well-thought-out peer education training process that reflects the philosophy, methods, and goals of the program
  • Ongoing supervision, support, and in-service training opportunities for peer educators
  • Personnel policies for volunteers and learners that are clear about expectations, rights, and obligations
  • A format and regular schedule for program evaluation and improvement

If you can put together a peer education program that includes these components, you have a great chance of success.

Contributor 
Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

Counseling department, College of the Holy Cross is a peer education program with help for eating disorders/nutrition, relationships (tolerance, sexual abuse, etc.), responsible choices (substance abuse), and HIV/AIDS/STDs.

Interactive Sciences is an organization that uses peer education to teach technology.

Peer-Education: Toward a New Model by Audrey Gartner and Frank Riessman, from ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education.

Peer Education in Adult Basic and Literacy Education by Susan Imel, from ERIC Digest No. 146. ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education. Columbus, OH: 1994.

Peer Resources Bookstore provides publications on peer education and peer counseling.

Print Resource

Correctional Service of Canada. Final Report: Inmate AIDS Peer Education Project. A report on a successful peer education project at the Dorchester Penitentiary (New Brunswick). For copies of the report and/or the Facilitation Manual that goes with it, contact the Health Care Services Branch, The Correctional Service of Canada, 340 Laurier Avenue West, Ottawa K1P 0P9 Canada. Tel. (613) 995-5058. Fax (613) 995-6277.