The Power of Peer-to-Peer Relationships

Educators and out-of-school time youth-serving practitioners have much to learn from young people and the relationships they have with their peers. Peer relationships are widely recognized as critical developmental conditions for human development and thriving. And yet, the prevailing narrative of peer relationships in K-12 education and youth development, is one of risk rather than the opportunities that come from close connections with friends and communities of peers.

Youth are the experts of their own experiences, and they know better than anyone what works and what doesn’t when building a strong, positive peer relationship that fosters their growth. Adults can also play an important role in these relationships: not as the experts, but as mentors, guides, teachers, and facilitators in contexts like schools and afterschool programs where peer relationships form. Yet, previous work suggests that educators and youth-serving practitioners recognize the importance of peer relationships, but also find it challenging to be more intentional and inclusive in aiding youth in cultivating peer relationships. These challenges may be because educators and youth-serving practitioners do not want to interfere in peer relationships. Other reasons may be that they don’t feel it’s their role or responsibility to cultivate peer relationships, they may not understand the inner workings of peer relationships, or they may not have the tools to facilitate their growth.

With this context in mind, Search Institute set out to deepen our understanding of what happens in the day-to-day exchanges between peers that make these relationships transformative aspects of their lives and what adults in K-12 education and youth development can do to support and nurture these relationships. To do this, we worked with five youth researchers to learn about the empowering relationships they experience with their peers and how adults can appropriately support those relationships. In partnership with Youthprise, Search Institute collaborated with the youth researchers to develop The Emerging Framework for Fostering Peer Relationships.

To form the framework, Search Institute, YouthPrise, and the youth researchers took a participatory approach to data collection activities to ensure youth voice and expertise drove the findings and informed the framework. The youth researchers conducted three focus groups with youth aged 14-18. The focus group participants discussed what strong, healthy peer-to-peer relationships look like, as well as their experiences navigating them and how educators could support their development.

Analysis of the focus group data, personal experiences, and research on peer relationships informed the youth researchers in identifying ways that adults can intentionally nurture strong, positive peer-to-peer relationships. They identified four critical ways that adults can support and create spaces that promote strong peer-to-peer relationships: 

  • Cultivate and Prioritize Mental Health
  • Nurture Healthy Communication
  • Aid in Encounters with Conflict
  • Promote Authentic Interaction 

Two dimensions inform each element of the framework: what youth want adults to know and ways adults can help.  The elements also capture the relational practices like interpersonal communication and guidance an educator can leverage to support youth as they navigate peer relationships. And, they emphasize the importance of climate and structure in supporting peer relationships. The environment, resources, and infrastructure that an educator can set up in their learning context can support peer relationships.

We believe that adults can play a critical role in supporting peer relationships, an often untapped resource in young people’s lives. This framework is intended as an aid for adults seeking to be more intentional in providing more direct support for youth around peer relationships and creating spaces where peer relationships thrive. We hope that over time adults can utilize the framework as a tool for cultivating peer relationships.

Going forward, Search Institute will continue to partner with today’s young people—particularly those who have been historically overlooked or marginalized—and to learn more about how we can promote and create tools for cultivating peer relationships. Peer relationships are integral to the mission of K-12 education, youth-serving organizations, faith communities, and others who work with youth and families.