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Barnardo's help protect vulnerable children and young people across the UK. The children’s services team build up relationships of trust with children and young people.

This Guide looks at how to help young people plan and deliver peer-to-peer sessions online. Learning could be useful for any journey where people go from participant to volunteer to staff member.

Steps to supporting young people to lead online sessions

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you think about the kind of role you are trying to create:

  • What power will the person in the role have? Will they be designing sessions they lead? Will their voice be at the centre of the process?

  • What responsibility will the person in the role have? Will it be just during sessions or administrative as well? Will support be present to them during the session or just between sessions?

  • Is this role a new idea or is it formalising something some group members already do?

  • Are there any particular challenges - such as needing to run sessions online?

At their Plymouth Design Lab, Barnardo's have “youth colleagues”. These are care experienced children and young people. They work closely with the Lab's Care Journeys project to create and deliver activities and programmes. They are responsible for their peers during these programmes.

Barnardo's had been delivering programmes with the team pre-pandemic. When services moved online, staff worked with youth colleagues to increase the support they offered them

You should work out if you can find a budget to pay people for their role. Often, there is an expectation that people move from being a participant to being a volunteer before they apply for paid roles. However being a peer leader requires time and energy. Not everyone is able to offer this unpaid.

When people have lived experience of being marginalised that can mean that they have lower income, and less free time. To offer genuine equality of opportunity, you need to offer paid roles.

Barnardo's pay their youth colleagues according to an established pay scale.

One way to empower peer leaders is to make sure they are fully involved in session planning.

Match them with staff experienced at participation and engagement work. Make sure those staff know how to make space for ideas. Coach people through handling planning challenges.

Then create space and time for them to test their ideas, before asking them to run sessions with their peers. Make particular time for everyone to try out any new software you are using.

At the Lab the team of youth colleagues and staff meet for 1-1.5 hours on a Tuesday morning. They plan the session they will hold for others at the end of the week.

In these meetings they check-in to see how each other is feeling and also decide what the session should be about. They also consider if any resources are needed.

The team then has some time to prepare the session and meet together again in the afternoon to go through the session plan.

They test the activities within the team before running the session.

One goal of peer support sessions is to make space for people to engage directly with each other without staff influence.

But you need to find balance between stepping back and making that space, so that peer leaders feel empowered and not overwhelmed.

It's usually good to provide extra support when any new style of activities are introduced to a session.

The ideal support is present, but in the background unless needed.

At the Lab there a staff member is always present at online sessions. But they are usually in the background. The youth colleagues open and lead the sessions. They set the ground rules and remind people if needed.

Barnardo's staff do 3 things:

  • provide reassurance to youth colleagues that they are not on their own

  • witness the sessions, to aid debriefs afterwards

  • have their cameras on - they take part in session activities as a participant. Engaging this way helps youth colleagues feel confident.

They will step in if any tension or disruption becomes too challenging. 

Decide together how often you want to hold debriefs and how soon after the sessions they should occur.

Leave people enough time to take a video call break and do their own reflection on how a session went. Sometimes the next day is the best time.

You may also want to offer an immediate 1-1 debrief for any peer leader who has found a session difficult.

At the Lab, they debrief after each session. Times vary but are no later than a day after the session.

Debriefs focus on how people felt, what went well and what could be improved.

Depending on the type of project you are running, you might need to make different support available.

This could include support for practical  and emotional needs.

The Lab discovered they needed to:

  1. Set group engagement boundaries - times people could expect a response from peer leaders on Facebook Messenger.

  2. Provide clear support routes for young people in crisis - outside usual engagement times.

  3. Double check the accessibility of any digital tools being used in sessions. This included making space for 1-1 support where people need help to learn how to use a tool

  4. Make sure responsibility for running sessions is always shared. That way sessions can continue if one person is struggling. 

  5. Add play and silliness to debrief sessions. This creates a break from the emotional demands of running group activities

  6. Look for more opportunities to add play throughout the programme - focusing on helping people release tension and stress

  7. Make sure the peer leaders have enough personal support

  8. Add extra time for everything - things take longer online.

  9. Make sure you're not asking young people to spend too much time on video calls.

Further information

Other guides from Barnardos:

Working with young people? Refresh your understanding of safeguarding online with Digisafe.

To talk to someone about this Guide, contact any of: