Peer Counseling: The Push to Fill a Sociological Vacuum

Times Staff Writer

For some teen-agers, home can be an emotional war zone.

That was evident in the domestic anguish described by a high school junior as two dozen of her classmates--grouped in a circle, some eating pretzels and drinking sodas--listened. In detail, her story might have been lifted from a soap opera or an updated version of "Oliver Twist."

Her older brother is buzzing around town in a new car, a gift from their parents, the student said. Meanwhile, she is limited to instant breakfast mixes for the one meal a day she is allowed at home. She is under orders to get out of the house if she doesn't start coming up with $200 in monthly rent.

How, she wondered aloud, would she ever escape the web of family conflict and animosity that had ensnared her?

Every day stories like this pour out in classrooms across the country, in affluent suburbs, depressed inner-cities and places in between. They are told in classes that are part therapy session and part instruction in how to listen to the woes of others. The classes--sometimes offered for credit, sometimes not--are taught under a variety of names: peer helpers, peer tutors, peer resources, peer facilitators or simply friendship, to name some. But the phrase most often used is peer counseling.

The concept and the practice of peer counseling--members of a particular group sharing their problems with other members of the group--have been around for a long time. Some advocates cite Bible verses as proof of its longevity and utility. But for a variety of reasons--often related to the changing nature of the American family and increased concern over suicidal teen-agers--peer counseling is suddenly an educational growth industry.

As a corrective to social ills, peer counseling is widely touted for its potential for preventing suicide, unveiling child neglect, abuse and molestation and for helping students cope with pregnancy and drug and alcohol addiction. At a San Franciso elementary school in a tough neighborhood near Candlestick Park, a peer-counseling program called Conflict Managers is credited with eliminating playground fights and lunch money extortion rings.

Those involved in the peer-counseling movement say the current surge is mainly a rush to fill a vacuum in the lives of many young people. Single-parenting, multiple marriages, drug and alcohol abuse and other strains on the traditional family have left many elementary and high schoolers without a support system to fight loneliness and other problems in and out of home, they say. Moreover, many young people--especially adolescents who are breaking away from home--distrust adults and are unwilling to unburden themselves to older people. To a lesser extent, the growth in peer counseling is a compensation for high student-adult counselor ratios. In many schools the ratio is said to be 500 to one or higher.

Expanding Network

The resultant trend has seen peer-counseling courses being added or piggybacked on to existing classes at elementary schools, junior highs and high schools across the country. Statewide and national organizations have been formed to support an expanding network of teachers, students and parents.

At least nine states now have peer-counseling associations with 300 or more members, according to Bob Bowman, editor of Peer Facilitator Quarterly and an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of South Carolina. Nationwide, Bowman estimated that there are about 10,000 peer-counseling programs in elementary schools and high schools, most started since 1981.

"Peer influence is so powerful and it's getting more powerful these days," Bowman said. "Peer counseling can turn peer pressure into a positive force by letting kids know that somebody their age cares about them. There are a lot of kids out there who just need one person to reach out and say I care."

In March, about 1,500 persons are expected to attend the third annual conference of the California Peer Counseling Assn. here, about triple the number at the first gathering. In the Los Angeles city school district, peer-counseling programs have been started in only a few high schools but by one estimate about a quarter of the state's 850 public high schools have peer-counseling programs. In June, the National Peer Helpers Assn. will hold its first conference in St. Louis with about 1,000 expected to attend that founders meeting.

Proof of Potential

At Crenshaw High, school psychologist Richard Mills said he's seen dramatic proof of the potential peer counseling offers. "I've gone to school assemblies where I've said, 'How many people would talk about sex, drugs or family problems with teachers?' and no one raised their hand. 'Well then, how many of you would talk to your school counselors or your school psychologists or any other adult you know?' A few hands would go up. 'Now how many of you would talk to your friends?' And everybody's hand would go up. That's where the action is."

Dave Rich, dean of students at Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, agreed. When he counseled students, "I talked myself blue in the face and I could not get through to them," he said. "They have to hear it from someone besides an adult."

In peer-counseling classes students are taught a few simple skills--how to listen, not to offer advice but to help a peer come to a decision on his or her own. Sometimes peer counseling is taught as a separate course with the class sessions used both for instruction and group counseling experience. Other schools teach the elements of peer counseling as part of sociology, psychology and other courses.

Either way, the content is the same. Crenshaw's Mills explained, "Basically, what I want them to do is just listen. That's about half of the course, just learning how to be quiet and listen and not even to give a lot of advice or make judgments."

Barbara Varenhorst, a Palo Alto psychologist frequently mentioned as a pioneer in the field, said that peer counseling is a refinement of a natural occurrence--kids talking to kids. In her initial research 17 years ago, Varenhorst said she found that "a lot of students said they frequently didn't go to counselors with big problems and that they turn to friends. But they also said that when someone came to them for help, they didn't know what to do. So I thought, 'Why not use the natural process and train students to be more helpful to one another in areas they are experts in?' "

'You Have to Listen'

Jennifer Byrum, a student at Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster where peer counseling began as a voluntary program last year, put it this way: "Lots of times kids try to give advice instead of listening to what the problem is. You listen to their problems and help them make decisions. You don't make a decision for them. Like somebody may be pregnant, OK? Say you're against abortion. You can't give them your opinion on what they should do. You have to listen and let them discover what they want to do themselves . . . It sounds awfully easy but it's a hard one to learn."

Carlisa Ivery, 16, a senior at Crenshaw said, "That's the biggest job, just to listen. You listen and you're able to interpret what they told you. That's a good way to let the person know you are listening."

For instance, the class of 16- and 17-year-olds listening to the tale of the brother's new car and packaged breakfasts offered little direct advice, although it clearly was an effort for some in the class not to offer pointers. One classmate volunteered that when she had been evicted from her family's house it had been "the worst three and a half weeks of my life" even though she had friends to stay with, plenty of clothes and money.

By the end of class, the student told the group she would try to make peace--or at least a truce--with her parents.

Antelope Valley senior Rachel Howard, 17, testified to the value of having a good listener. "When I was a freshman, there was another girl--peer counseling hadn't started then--who could listen really well and I opened up to her. I realized that people do need to talk when they have problems, especially when they're our age." That experience led Rachel to become a peer counselor because "I thought that maybe I could help somebody else," she said.

Reports on the effectiveness of peer-counseling programs differ but most programs seem to produce at least some positive results.

Crime Now 'Almost Nothing'

At Paul Revere Elementary School in a tough San Francisco neighborhood, teacher Judy Drummond said the Conflict Managers program has "reduced violent crime to almost nothing." When the program started five years ago playground incidents such as "big fights, people being slammed against walls" and the extortion of lunch money from students were common.

In Conflict Managers, three students are elected from each third through fifth grade classroom to serve as arbitrators in disputes, Drummond said. The counselors, who wear distinctive T-shirts, may be approached by students with problems and in some cases will arrange negotiating sessions between students with a conflict. During negotiating sessions students must follow basic rules--no interrupting, no name calling and no lying, Drummond said. Other students tend to trust conflict managers because "they're not cops, they're not firemen, they're not monitors," she said.

Moreover, she added, students with bad records may be elected as managers. "Some who have been the worst kids in the school have been selected," she said. Both Drummond and others emphasized that to be effective, counselors must be drawn from all segments of the student population, not just those with good grades and good behavior records.

Drummond said she has seen "kids turned around" by the program, recalling that one boy who "said hello by choking people" eventually learned a more suitable greeting--"Hello, my name is Kenny."

Drummond and others noted that many adults have a hard time believing that children and adolescents can be effective in what seem to be grown-up roles. When Conflict Managers was starting up, "a lot of people didn't want to give children that power," Drummond said, adding that there was much resistance to the fact that "teachers couldn't butt in."

Several experts said that peer-counseling programs often encounter hostility initially, largely because professional counselors fear that it will diminish their authority or eliminate their jobs. Over time, she added, the biggest difficulty in peer counseling may be maintaining a program despite turnover in students and faculty.

More Research Needed

While peer counseling apparently has broad support, there is also general agreement that more research about the effects of such programs is needed. For example, Ira Sachnoff, who is a peer-counseling consultant to San Francisco public schools and is the first president of the National Peer Helpers Assn., said that programs in that city are being examined by an outside evaluator to determine their impact.

South Carolina's Bowman also warned that peer-counseling programs should not be viewed as a "panacea" and that results can only match the effort to attain them.

At Antelope Valley, one student's assessment of the program praised it's usefulness but conceded that it has not yet attracted a majority of the 2,600 students there.

"It hasn't really stopped kids from drinking, from having sex, from doing drugs. We have a lot of support from parents and teachers, but it would be nice to have a lot more support from students," said Byrum.

Perhaps most important, students are taught how to recognize and deal with suicidal tendencies and signs of neglect and abuse. Suspected neglect and abuse cases must be passed on to legal authorities by school officials.

Byrum explained that morality, as well as legality, comes into play in such cases. "If it's a matter of their safety or their health, automatically you feel obligated to tell someone, a counselor, a teacher, maybe a parent," she said. "If you heard someone wanted to kill themselves or was being abused, you wouldn't want to keep that inside you. You learn to recognize certain signs, certain words. They're always depressed. They say, 'Is it really worth living? Do I want to go on with my life. It doesn't have to be the word suicide or (a statement such as) 'I want to kill myself.' "

Mary Parsons, another Antelope Valley student, commented, "They may talk about getting rid of all their valuable possessions or say, 'Things will get better really soon.' "

Trainees Cautioned

But except in cases of abuse or possible suicide, students are told that what they hear in class, or in private counseling sessions with students who have been assigned to them or have approached them privately is confidential. At Antelope Valley, a sign cautions peer-counseling trainees: "What you hear here, what you say here, when you leave here, stays here."

The way peer counseling is implemented varies widely. At some schools, students who have completed a semester's course work are assigned students who have indicated a need or a willingness to be counseled. Counselors also are used to ease the entry of new students into the school, especially those with troubled backgrounds, as tutors and as teams to combat problems such as truancy. Sometimes, peer counselors wear special sweatshirts, T-shirts, buttons or arm bands to identify them to other students.

Generally, counselors and teachers who head peer-counseling programs say they try to keep tight control because student counselors are not "junior psychiatrists or junior psychologists."

Crenshaw's Mills said his use of student-to-student counseling is strictly limited. "There are a few kids I'll give referrals to but I'm very careful about it," he said. "As an example, every kid that comes out of a (juvenile) camp--they're misfits, they don't have friends--so they're perfect for peer counseling. So I have every kid who's come out of camp have a peer counselor. Another way is when I find a kid who's isolated. I've got 20 referrals on my desk right now for counseling. Of those, I have six or seven for kids who are withdrawn, don't seem to come to school a lot, who seem distant. Those are very good for peer counselors, they need friends, they need to feel they belong in a positive way."

School counselors usually supervise peer counselors by meeting with them each week to review progress if they are counseling a student or to introduce them to a new student. The sessions also may be used to discuss a peer counselor's own problems. Varenhorst and others said it's crucial that students not be given too much leeway in their counseling activities because of worries over school liability and because students simply aren't experienced enough to deal with many problems.

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