Who can young people count on to really listen to them--to look them straight in the eye, given them their full attention and try their best to hear their feelings and words without judging or criticizing? At Central High School in Champaign, Illinois, they can approach Peer Ears, students who have been trained to offer listening, support and alternatives to other students.
The program began in 1980, after Barbara Voss--the dean of students --and I became concerned over the large number of students who sought individual attention from a small number of supportive school staff members. We knew that teenagers enjoyed talking with one another, and in a few instances, the dean had successfully enlisted the assistance of older students to influence younger ones. Couldn't more teenagers, we wondered, learn counseling techniques and offer constructive support to their peers?
After gaining the principal's approval --"I don't think it will work, but you can try it,' he said--the program was launched.
A basic format has developed over the years. Guidance counselors, deans, teachers and students are asked to recommend as potential Peer Ears young people who are friendly, respectful and generally positive about life and school. After interviewing the students to explain peer counseling to them and to ascertain their interest in participating, 30 students are selected --boys and girls from all four grade levels representing different races and various socioeconomic backgrounds, achievement levels and areas of residence.
At the beginning of the school year, they participate in a 10-hour training session, which focuses on enhancing their listening skills and understanding of others. Through discussions, exercises and role play, training covers the importance of confidentiality, the nature of helping relationships, and techniques for modeling behavior and handling negative criticism and relationship problems. Students also learn about resources in the community to recommend to their clients.