“The 2016 election has been long and fraught with strong emotions. As a nation, we have much to do to heal the divisiveness that has resulted. As parents, caregivers, and educators, we have a critical responsibility to help children and youth feel safe and secure and learn how to engage with others of differing viewpoints in a peaceful, tolerant, and respectful manner.
As always, schools play a critical role in this process by creating a positive learning environment for all students. It is imperative that educators facilitate respectful discussions among students and safeguard the well-being of those who may feel at risk.”
-National Association of School Psychologists, November 9, 2016
One day after the 2016 presidential election, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) posted a document on its website entitled, Guidance for Reinforcing Safe, Supportive and Positive School Environments for All Students. Recommendations included reinforcing a sense of positive school community, reinforcing acceptance and appreciation for diversity as critical American values, and helping children see other perspectives and value respectful dialogue, among many others. These recommendations are highly consistent with the definition of character education offered by Character.org: Character education is the intentional effort to develop in young people core ethical and performance values that are widely affirmed across all cultures. For nearly 40 years, the Center for Supportive Schools (CSS) has helped schools tap into the power of peer mentoring as an enormously valuable tool in the character education toolkit to help achieve all of these objectives.
Peer mentoring can help create cultures of deep engagement by providing students with the safe and supportive environment they need to feel connected to school, grounded in caring relationships. This approach helps students form authentic connections and get to know one another as real people. It can also help students see cultural differences, understand differences, interact with other cultural groups in ways that recognize and value differences, and actively foster the development of intercultural understanding.
For example, in our flagship peer mentoring program known as Peer Group Connection (PGC), small groups of students are purposefully assembled to reflect the diversity of the school population with respect to race, class, ethnicity, gender, and other relevant factors. Activities are intentionally designed to break down barriers and help participants learn to build healthy, positive relationships. Participants practice the skills to communicate more effectively; work together more productively; and share values such as empathy, kindness, respect, responsibility, self-confidence, and an appreciation for cultural and personal differences.
George Morales, PGC Advisor at Union City High School in New Jersey shares, “We have a large bilingual population and those kids sometimes feel like they’re not a part of the school. Having them in peer mentoring groups gives them an extra voice to get involved. The kids that were in PGC, now they want to be peer leaders and start mentoring other kids that just came to this country.”
Students consistently share the ways in which PGC has impacted them and their school communities. One ninth grader shared, “PGC taught me how to treat others and to think about my actions before I do them.” A PGC peer leader offered, “I think serving as a PGC leader has changed me because I never knew I could have such a strong love and passion for kids that I never even met before.”
PGC program units include activities such as Creating a Caring Community, in which students examine the concept of empathy, explore the impact of caring and hurtful words and actions on others, and identify specific ways they will support making their school a friendly and welcoming place. In an activity known as Culture Cake, students identify and share cultural influences that comprise their identities and explore ways they can help create a school climate that values diversity. These are two examples among many others of peer mentoring activities that can help students develop an appreciation for cultural differences.
“Peer mentoring taps into students’ leadership potential and equips students to partner with faculty and staff to create and sustain caring, respectful learning communities,” says Daniel Oscar, President and CEO of CSS. “At CSS, we believe that students are a largely untapped yet monumentally powerful force who can make schools better for themselves, their peers, and younger students.”
Now more than ever, all schools in all of our nation’s communities would benefit greatly from peer mentoring approaches that help young people form connections, improve relationships, reduce prejudice, and understand and appreciate difference.
Margo Ross, Psy.D., is Senior Director at the Center for Supportive Schools, a nonprofit organization with a 37-year history of partnering with schools to train and mobilize students to be lifelong leaders who make schools better for themselves, their peers, and younger students. Dr. Ross is a certified school psychologist in New Jersey and has been a member of the staff at CSS for nearly 20 years. She holds both a doctorate and a master’s degree in school psychology from the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Rutgers University.
Do you have have a unique character education practice or initiative? Submit your idea by March 15 and you could be a 2017 Promising Practice recipient!