No youth issue is more present in the headlines today than peer relationships.
If you just disagreed with that bold assertion, here’s why: You probably didn’t hear it framed that way. Instead, the headlines you saw were likely about teen loneliness. Social isolation. How the pandemic kept students from interacting with their classmates. Racism and prejudice. Mass shootings by lone young men. The headlines talk about all those things, but just beneath the surface of all of those headlines are relationships, and more often than not, peer relationships.
These relationships with friends, classmates, romantic partners, teammates, and other peers can be a source of joy and growth at every stage of life. They also can be hard, messy, and complicated. Their absence can be destructive. And their presence can also be transformative.
From time to time, adults try to guide these relationships in positive directions through “peer programs,” such as bullying prevention or tobacco use prevention. Niche efforts are boosted by specific federal funding streams tied to flashpoint issues, such as peer programs to prevent pregnancy or gangs or substance use.
Across K-12 education and youth development settings, a robust research base demonstrates the significant role that peer selection and peer influence have in shaping developmental outcomes such as emotional regulation, academic achievement, and antisocial and prosocial behavior. Yet sustaining the capacity to intentionally nurture these relationships in order to reduce risks and to promote thriving remains an elusive goal. At least four factors may be undermining efforts to elevate the emphasis on building peer-to-peer relationships in K-12 education and youth development settings:
Adding Our Voice to the Conversation
Since at least the 1960s, leaders such as the late Dr. Barbara Varenhorst (a Search Institute benefactor) and others who founded what has become the National Association of Peer Program Professionals have pioneered multiple models that invite young people to intentionally nurture relational skills, from listening to conflict resolution to struggling in school to helping a friend who has suicidal thoughts. As we advance our work on developmental relationships, we recognize a clear need to work in the peer space by elevating and exploring the youth experience of peer relationships and identifying the actionable ways adults can support these relationships through their mindsets, relational practices, and the structures that shape how young people experience K-12 and out-of-school time spaces.
Positioning peers as critical actors in young people’s web of developmental relationships is core to our strategy moving forward. By 2025, Search Institute will have a suite of research-based resources that have been shown to significantly strengthen the developmental relationships young people create and sustain with their peers, parenting adults, and other adults, including those within and across lines of differences in race, ethnicity, family wealth, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
Working towards this goal, we have identified three critical priorities related to Search Institute’s work focused on peer relationships:
For the 60 years since our founding, Search Institute has recognized peer relationships as an untapped resource for identifying young people’s strengths and nurturing their growth with each other. From time to time, we have conducted studies or offered tools that highlighted peer relationships. We also know that there are many other scholars and practitioners who have dedicated their careers to advancing peer relationships, and they have much to teach all of us.
We have a lot to build on. But it’s time to draw a wider circle, do more, and to do it boldly. Around the nation and world, young people are raising their collective voices, demanding to be part of conversations and decisions that matter. Perhaps one of the most powerful ways to unite and catalyze their voices is to partner with today’s young people—particularly those who have been historically overlooked or marginalized—and cultivate developmental relationships with them that equip them to nurture well-rounded relationships with their peers and others. In doing so, we sow the seeds for their contributions and leadership in their families, communities, nation, and world, right now and into the future.
With that as our vision, we must now conceptually and practically reframe and reposition peer relationships as integral to the mission of K-12 education, youth-serving organizations, faith communities, and others who work with youth and families. Such a shift is not just a way to get more youth involved; it’s a critical strategy for cultivating a generation of young people rooted in their relationships, reaching for their potential, and making the contributions that benefit us all.