Peer Group Cultivates Community and Leadership
Peer Group Cultivates Community and Leadership

The Peer Group Program is a signature program among a series of opportunities at Princeton Day School designed to cultivate student leadership. The PDS community stands out for its commitment to comprehensive and sought-after leadership development for students across all divisions designed to emphasize positive values, behaviors, decision-making and mentorship.The beauty of the program is that it allows for a variety of leadership styles. The school strives for diversity of thinking, leadership style and background in order to cultivate leaders from across the community.

In the Peer Group program, 12th Grade leaders are paired with groups of freshman students (covering the entire 9th Grade class) and participate in a full year of meetings and activities designed to create connections, impart leadership skills and foster positive community culture. Director of Health and Wellness Dr. Candy Shah notes, "The 18 seniors selected each year embody the diversity of experience, the depth of training and also the expectation that all of our student leaders need to work hard to be their best selves. Thinking about student leadership and its relationship to an individual's wellness has been a key focus for me. I can think of no better way to promote the feeling of belonging than being given the opportunity to lead."

The senior Peer Group leaders take a Leadership class as well as teach a class to their group of 9th graders. Seniors are trained with a curriculum they deliver to younger students but, importantly, they are empowered with the freedom to decide how to present it in ways they believe will best engage their groups. The leaders have recently lived these experiences and have a deep and knowledgeable connection to the material, as well as valuable insight into how it will best be received. They use a combination of tactics, such as role playing, skits, interactive activities and a lot of discussion to allow the younger students to open up and take ownership of the material being covered. "Peer Group was designed many years ago as a program to put into action what we have known to be successful in teaching our kids vital 'soft skills', such as social responsibility, making good decisions, talking, collaborating and communicating. The peer leaders tackle important adolescent concepts such as health and wellness, social behaviors, dating and vaping." says Dr. Shah.

The students dedicate a large amount of time outside of school as well. Leaders attend the summer orientations for the 9th Grade in order to connect with the incoming cohort. They all attend admission activities, meet as a student leadership group in the evening to debrief, and both the leaders and their groups attend an annual retreat in February.

Each year, the freshman parents gather in the McAneny Theater to see what Peer Group leadership is all about at Princeton Day School. Parents of freshmen -- and parents of seniors in the program, along with their children, attend the Peer Group Parents Night, during which leaders enact several role-play scenarios with humor and genuine insight into the high school environment's challenges and today's family dynamics. "The script is theirs, the planning is theirs and the outcome is also theirs. Parents are allowed in to their children's thoughts in a constructive way in order to help communication and understanding. For the seniors, it highlights their own leadership journey; for our freshman and their families, it marks another opportunity to build community, communication and that feeling of support and understanding" states Shah.

Peer Group Director Jill Thomas notes "One of the best things about this evening is the communication that both parents and kids experience. They share their thoughts and ideas with each other. The hope is that this will foster mutual respect and understanding surrounding adolescent issues." Thomas works alongside fellow Peer Group Advisors Tom Quigley, Edgar Mariano and Jamie McCollough. Shah concludes, "the Peer Group faculty and I could not be prouder of the students' ability to navigate thoughtful and sometimes eye opening discussions about life at PDS."

Images: Peer Group leaders practicing Parent Night skits.