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Theories & Approaches
Challenges and Benefits of Peer Education Programs
If you are considering a peer education program (or adding peer education to an existing program), some challenges you can expect are:
- Maintaining quality and sustaining the intervention may be harder than with adult educators. For one thing, peers (by definition) age out of their target group within a few years, so programs must continually train new teams of peer leaders. That may not be the case (or at least not as frequently) with adult leaders. For other reasons — maturity, experience, and being part of a high-risk group, for example — peers may need more supervision than adults, which can affect program quality.
- Logistics can be tricky. If peer leaders are in school, working around school and extracurricular schedules can be limiting. In addition to scheduling problems, there may also be transportation and liability issues to consider.
- Peers from the same high-risk group may not model positive behaviors, or may not model them consistently. The transition from risky behaviors to maintenance of healthier behaviors can be rocky and full of relapses. Placing peers in a position where they are asked to consistently model healthier behaviors may be asking a lot.
- Maturity matters. Some peer roles — particularly as counselors or advisors — may require a maturity and judgment that many adolescents do not yet possess. Likewise, other job demands — i.e., knowing when to refer someone who needs professional help or maintaining confidentiality — are difficult tasks for many adults and may be even more difficult for adolescents.
These challenges, while significant, do not necessarily outweigh the many benefits of peer education programs:
- Peer education is a rare opportunity for young people to develop and sustain leadership and facilitation skills that will serve them well in both the short-term and the long-term.
- Peer educators model positive youth behavior, affecting social norms, as well as model constructive relationships between adults and young people — qualities which are all too rare in our society.
- In some situations, such as discussing sex or the nuances of teen culture, peers can achieve a level of comfort and trust that is difficult for adults to match.
A ReCAPP forum on HIV prevention and sexuality education programs that work included a spirited discussion about the relative merits of peer vs. adult facilitators in sexuality education curricula. Both curriculum designers and those in the field who used these programs agreed that the best way to minimize challenges and play to the strengths of peer education was to match adults and peers in co-facilitated programs, bringing forth the best from each.