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Theories & Approaches

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Characteristics of Effective Peer Education Programs

What makes a peer education program effective? Even though the program characteristics depend on the program's specific goals (e.g., support, or education, or outreach, or some combination), there are some common themes.

What are the General Characteristics and Strategies of Effective Peer Addiction Programs?

Like other youth initiatives, well-designed peer education programs follow a progression of planning, implementation, and evaluation. ETR Associates recommends these elements to develop a successful peer education program:

  • Preparation
    includes developing specific program objectives and recruiting peers and program coordinators. (See the list of criteria for good peer educators for more details.)

  • Training
    emphasizing participatory methods like small group discussions and role plays. The initial in-depth training may take between 30 and 40 hours, and ongoing "booster" sessions are recommended too. (See the recommended training topics for some suggestions.)

  • Program Activities
    Depending on the program's goals and scope, these can include everything from workshops and community outreach to condom education, teen theater, radio shows, or assisting adults with similar activities.

  • Monitoring and Evaluation
    to understand how peer educators react to the program and detect any changes in knowledge, attitudes, or behavior among both peer educators and the peers they are trying to reach. (See sample evaluation forms — Program Evaluation and Program Coordinator Evaluation — for some ideas.)
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Hedgepeth and Helmich's guide to sexuality and HIV education programs offers similar suggestions, especially for program managers:

  • Allow teens to make decisions such as who is recruited, what the application should include, and which program activities will be undertaken.

  • Support the development of multiple skills — writing for school or city newspapers and web sites, working one-on-one with friends, making referrals, resolving or mediating conflict, facilitating support groups, educating classes, or participating in teen theater.

  • Recruit teens who are members of the target population (and don't forget to include nontraditional leaders, such as members of disenfranchised or high-risk groups) .

  • Train, train, train — on the content of what they will be asked to educate their peers about (information about HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), contraception, sexual abuse, harassment, physical abuse, substance abuse, homophobia, racism, safer sex, gender roles, etc.) as well as the methods (communication skills, public speaking, acting, counseling, facilitation, etc.)

  • Provide incentives — stipends, clinic services, food, retreats, etc.5

How Should Peer Educators be Recruited and Trained?

Since peer educators are at the heart of any peer education program, it makes sense to devote resources to both recruiting and training them — and to supporting them once they are in place.

Perry and Sieving suggest these conditions must be met for peer programs to be effective:

  • Peer leaders must be thoroughly educated about the program's theories and approaches and committed to its goals.

  • They must recognize the need for the program and the importance of their role.

  • They must be skilled in implementation, especially in handling potential problems.6

Even though several suggestions involve recruiting peer educators who are similar to the groups with whom they will work, similarities are not always easy to see or determine. Philliber points out that adolescents often subdivide themselves into groups with labels that can mean a lot (such as "preppie" or "nerd"). Mixing members of various groups thoughtlessly can undermine the benefits of peer education. She suggests using existing peer groups rather than trying to form news ones. Note that age is not the only — or even the most important — characteristic that makes people peers. Of course, as Hedgepeth and Helmich pointed out, teens themselves are probably the best guides to their complex subcultures, so don't guess — ask!

What should you look for in a peer educator? Peer educators, according to ETR Associates, should:

  • Be responsible
  • Be able to keep confidentiality
  • Have parental permission
  • Maintain at least a "C" average in school
  • Demonstrate leadership abilities
  • Have an interest and desire to help other people
  • Resemble the race, gender, social, and cultural heritage of the youth they serve
  • Be open to expanding self-awareness and willing to take risks
  • Be willing to sign an agreement specifying their role in the program and how they will contribute.

See "Dos and Don'ts of a Peer Educator" for other ideas.

One of the reasons peer education programs become labor intensive is the need for in-depth initial training, followed by ongoing support and training. ETR Associates recommends an initial training session for peer educators that covers the following topics:

  • Active listening skills, including:
    • "I" messages
    • Asking questions effectively
    • Understanding nonverbal messages
    • Giving congruent nonverbal and verbal messages
    • Listening fully

  • Values awareness
    • Knowledge of one's own values and an ability to accept another's values without agreeing with them

  • Decision-making skills

  • Local community and school resources

  • Role and job expectations

  • Information about when it is appropriate to make a referral to a professional counselor

  • Content topics such as reproductive anatomy and physiology, contraception, HIV, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), sexual abuse, laws related to minors, and others

  • Facilitation skills such as leading large group discussions, role plays, games, skits and other learning activities

Ongoing support and training should include:

  • Continued reinforcement of knowledge, skills, and behavior topics from initial training

  • Assisting in answering youth questions

  • Teaching skills related to their specific roles and tasks

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