Positive peer relationships can be nurtured in various youth settings

Both school and out-of-school settings for youth programs offer opportunities for kids to build healthy peer relationships – including friendships.

Think back to the relationships you had with peers when you were growing up. You may have developed a friendship during elementary school that has continued to this day. You may have been part of a circle of friends during middle school that went different directions as you moved into the high school years. You may remember someone that you didn’t know well, but who stood up for you during a hard situation. Chances are that the qualities of our experiences within the peer relationships of our youth – those that were positive and healthy, negative and hurtful, or somewhere in between – can evoke powerful feelings and memories.

Whenever and wherever young people gather, there are opportunities for positive and meaningful peer relationships to develop. A recent study led by Kenneth Frank, professor in the Michigan State University College of Education showed that the school courses which teens enroll in can significantly affect the friendships they make. While teens who take the same sets of courses may often have common interests to begin with, the authors of the study point out that these young people also have more opportunities to get to know one another at a deeper level – especially when the courses involve small classrooms. The research also showed that these teens are less likely to focus on social status or to make judgments about visible characteristics such as race and gender.

Many out-of-school youth programs, such as 4-H, Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs and sport leagues also offer opportunities for young people to build relationships with one another (and with significant adults) over time and within small group settings. While these kinds of programs may also bring kids together initially around a common interest, many involve small groups of participants with ample opportunities for members to get to know one another. Kids may also have long term involvement with these programs, which offers even more opportunity for relationships to continue to develop, and deepen over time.

Regardless of the kind of setting that brings kids together – formal or informal, short term or long term, large group or small group – the adults involved have a responsibility to ensure that the environment is safe and welcoming for everyone. This includes having ongoing dialogue with kids about their roles in creating and contributing to healthy peer relationships. Doing so can help ensure that everyone feels a healthy sense of belonging – and may even generate opportunities for new friendships to develop.

Michigan State University Extension is leading an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments that includes resources for helping adults and youth work in partnership to create safe settings built on a foundation of healthy relationships. The initiative includes the Be SAFE: Safe Affirming and Fair Environments curriculum, which can be used in both out-of-school youth settings and in middle schools.

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