Maintaining positive group dynamics

Peer group factors1

The Evaluation Framework for Youth Peer Programs identifies a range of peer group factors considered important in achieving the intended impacts and outcomes of peer-based programs. These can be summarised as positive peer group rules/norms; peer support; positive group dynamics; and youth engagement.

Positive peer group rules/norms

Establishing positive rules and norms for the peer group has been identified by service providers as a critical ingredient (amongst others) for creating and maintaining a safe space and a way of influencing positive behaviours and attitudes within the peer group such as positive conflict resolution strategies, social skills and a focus on positives.

Group rules/norms may include having respect for one another; not being judgmental, being inclusive, no bullying, harassment or violence, no alcohol or drug use. Peer-based programs use positive peer and social influence to establish and maintain positive peer group rules/norms. Positive peer influences encourage imitation of positive behaviours which receive social validation by the peer group and are therefore more likely to be repeated. Young people’s need to be accepted by their peers can also help change risk behaviors where these are not acceptable to the peer group.

Since ‘peer pressure’ may be positive or negative, peer-based programs need to have measures in place to eliminate deviant or negative peer influences which may result in risk-taking and anti-social behaviours.

Peer support

Peer support is a type of social support provided by one’s peers. Peers are not the same as friends although some peers may also be friends. While a person’s ‘peer group’ is usually taken to mean other people of similar age or gender, individuals may also identify their peers according to shared interests, issues, life experiences or personal attributes.

Adolescents increasingly turn to their peers (if available) for social and emotional support during periods of conflict, confusion and help-seeking. Access to social support has been identified as a protective factor for mental wellbeing and is consistent with resilience theory discussed in Program Factors below.

Peer support groups have been created for diverse groups of at risk youth. These include teenage mothers, same sex attracted youth, young carers and youth who have parents with a mental illness (Refs). Many of these populations may not have access to supportive peers facing similar issues and concerns. At risk youth who lack a supportive peer group can feel socially isolated and are at higher risk of developing mental health problems including depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.

As Cotterell (1996) has stated:

“…There are two particular social provisions which peer groups are best fitted to supply: social integration into a network of young people of similar ages and reassurance of one’s worth through social validation by peers” (Cotterell 1996).

Young people who have access to adequate emotional or peer support appear to cope with adversity better than those who do not have adequate socio-emotional support.

Peer-based programs can increase social support for at risk youth by providing practical help, emotional help and/or information:

  • Practical help – includes respite, refuge/safety, and an approachable source of help and guidance to access specialist help/services; learning new skills
  • Emotional help – includes reduced isolation through knowing others face similar or worse issues; hope through exposure to peers who have overcome similar adversity; opportunities to feel loved, valued and important; opportunities to make friends and enjoy being with friends; opportunities to feel belonging and acceptance by a supportive peer group; an alternative support system where current support networks may be rejecting, unsupportive or dysfunctional e.g. family relationships;
  • Information – includes opportunities to identify needs and seek relevant help services; opportunities to learn about help services and coping strategies from others who have experienced similar issues.

Positive group dynamics

The group dynamics within a peer-based program are an important factor. Positive group dynamics are associated with good teamwork, inclusivity, few cliques or solitary individuals, positive conflict resolution, group resilience and peer support. Lack of group cohesion, silos, lack of youth involvement or engagement, frequent group conflict, absenteeism or withdrawals from the program may be signs of poor group dynamics.

Group dynamics may be influenced by a number of factors. Theories of group behaviour and group relations (Le Bon 1896; Freud 1922) may be relevant in explaining how an individual loses some of their individuality by belonging to a group and may therefore be more easily influenced in a group setting. Also, how the combined strengths of a group can compensate for individual limitations when individuals are faced with adversity (also known as “group resilience”).

Individual differences can also have a significant impact on group dynamics. Factors including individual needs, cultural diversity, age and gender differences, personality differences and mental and physical health status all need to be considered when enrolling program participants. This will help ensure that the peer group will be exposed to a range of perspectives and experiences and that the program is inclusive and likely to appeal to a wide range of young people.

Youth engagement

At risk youth include those who are disengaged from, or who have difficulties accessing, mainstream education and support services. They include delinquent youth, street present youth, those involved in risk taking behaviours, and some rural and remote youth.

Peer-based programs use alternative strategies to engage at risk youth and are often learner-centred, flexible programs based in community settings. Online outreach and support through discussion forums has also become increasingly popular. In Australia, these include ReachOut ( Live Wire ( and Beyond Blue (

These strategies are very much in keeping with alternative education models (Lange and Sletten 2002) and youth empowerment models (Hart 1992) which involve young people in meaningful roles within the program. These theoretical models will be discussed in detail in the Program Factors section which follows.


  1. Lobo, R., G. Brown, B. Maycock., A. McManus. 2010. Development of an evaluation framework and evaluation approaches for peer-based youth programs – Interim Report. Perth: Western Australian Centre for Health Promotion Research, Curtin Health Innovation Research Institute.