Theoretical framework

The theoretical framework underlying community peer-based programs for at risk youth is currently quite limited and has been identified by youth service providers as a significant limitation when submitting funding proposals for peer-based programs.  The term ‘peer-based program’ is used here to include a wide range of early intervention, health promotion programs for at risk youth such as drop-in spaces, online support services, camps or retreats, peer support groups, peer education, peer mentoring, outdoor-based, adventure and skills building programs. Therapeutic peer support programs are excluded.

The evidence base relating to community peer-based programs which promote healthy social and emotional development and mental wellbeing in at risk youth is relatively small1-4 when compared to the growing body of evidence for school-based and peer education programs focused on topics such as adolescent sexual health, bullying, smoking and drug prevention.5-11 Therapeutic peer support programs e.g. for chronically ill youth are also well documented.12-16

The great diversity of peer-based programs and target groups creates significant challenges for developing a universal theoretical framework. The theoretical framework presented here is based on the Evaluation Framework for Youth Peer Programs that was developed in collaboration with Western Australian youth service providers and research centres as part of the My-Peer project.

The evaluation framework was developed through a qualitative inductive process of analysing the transcripts of workshops and meetings held with youth service providers to identify the key features, impacts and outcomes associated with peer-based programs. The development process involved workshops and meetings with the collaborating youth service providers in which 28 program facilitators, staff and volunteers participated. In addition, two community forums involving 24 service providers and stakeholders were conducted to develop the evaluation framework further. The evaluation framework consolidated service provider perspectives about how peer-based programs may work with the existing evidence base for peer-based programs available through the published literature.

The development of the theoretical framework took place in parallel with the development of the evaluation framework and involved deconstructing elements of practice to identify possible theoretical explanations. This method reflects a process of using theory to explain practice with a view to using theory to guide and inform best practice in future. The evaluation framework was also modified to reflect underlying theory, e.g. use of consistent language, any missing elements.

In summary, the evaluation framework proposes that peer-based programs work through a complex interplay of environment, peer group and program factors (the Peer Program “Black Box”) to deliver short term impacts on the individual. A process of normative socialisation takes place where new members to the group learn the behavioural rules/norms of the group (the “code of conduct”) through observation of positive role models, experimentation, and feedback received from the group. The short term individual impacts contribute to long term outcomes as well as indirect impacts on others. A range of external and moderating factors (i.e. the “context” in which the program operates) influences the extent of impacts seen.

The 10 theories, frameworks and models selected to be most relevant for explaining how peer-based programs work are listed below. The 4 original theories most cited in relation to peer-based programs are shown in bold.

  1. Attachment theory17
  2. Diffusion of innovations18
  3. Social cognitive theory19
  4. Social identity theory20
  5. Hope theory21
  6. Resilience theory22,23
  7. Social integration theory24,25
  8. Alternative education26
  9. Positive youth development27
  10. Youth empowerment28,29

The number of theories, frameworks and models selected may at first seem large but it reflects the full spectrum and diversity of the program models, objectives and possible impacts/outcomes associated with different types of peer-based programs.


  1. Turner, G. (1999). “Peer support and young people’s health.” Journal of Adolescence 22(4): 567-572.
  2. Scott-Little, C., M. S. Hamann, et al. (2002). “Evaluations of After-School Programs: A Meta-Evaluation of Methodologies and Narrative Synthesis of Findings.” American Journal of Evaluation 23(4): 387-419.
  3. Sachmann, M. (2007). Peer group support weekends: evaluation report (14-18 year olds). Perth, University of Western Australia.
  4. Truman, J., D. Rankin, et al. (2007). “Drop-in services: Findings from an evaluation of the Healthy Living Centres programme in Scotland.” Health Education Journal 66(22).
  5. Milburn, K. (1995). “A critical review of peer education with young people with special reference to sexual health.” Health Education Research 10: 407-20.
  6. Shiner, M. (2000). Doing it for themselves: an evaluation of peer approaches to drug prevention. London, Home Office, UK Home Office Drugs Prevention Advisory Service.
  7. Webster, R. A., M. Hunter, et al. (2002). “Evaluating the effects of a peer support program on adolescents’ knowledge, attitudes and use of alcohol and tobacco.” Drug and Alcohol Review 21(7-16).
  8. McDonald, J., A. Roche, et al. (2003). Peer education: from evidence to practice: An alcohol and other drugs primer. Adelaide, National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA).
  9. International Planned Parenthood Federation, W. H. R. I. W. (2004). Peer to peer: creating successful peer education programs. New York, International Planned Parenthood Federation, Western Hemisphere Reghion (IPPF/WHR).
  10. Family Health International/YouthNet (2005). Youth Peer Education Toolkit. Arlington, VA, United Nations Population Fund and Youth Peer Education Network (Y-PEER).
  11. UNFPA (2005). Standards for Peer Education Programmes, Youth Peer Education Toolkit, United Nations Population Fund, Youth Peer Education Network (Y-Peer). Family Health International.
  12. Parsons, M. and S. Blake (2004). Peer support: An overview. National Children’s Bureau.
  13. Pitman, E. and S. Matthey (2004). “The SMILES Program: A Group Program for Children With Mentally Ill Parents or Siblings.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 74(3): 383-388.
  14. Hargreaves, J., M. O’Brien, et al. (2005). Paying Attention to Self (PATS): an evaluation of the PATS program for young people who have a parent with a mental illness. Melbourne, Centre for Adolescent Health.
  15. Olsson, C., M. Boyce, et al. (2005). “The Role of Peer Support in Facilitating Psychosocial Adjustment to Chronic Illness in Adolescence.” Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry 10(2): 78-87.
  16. Sidhu, J. (2006). The development and effectiveness of a therapeutic peer support camp for children of siblings with cancer. Occupational Health. Perth, Curtin University of Technology.
  17. Bowlby, J. (1969/1982). Attachment and loss. New York, Basic Books.
  18. Rogers, E. (1983). Diffusion of innovations. New York, NY, Free press.
  19. Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action:  A Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall.
  20. Tajfel, H. and J. Turner (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict, The social psychology of intergroup relations. WG Austin & S Worshel (eds), Montenery, CA, Brooks/Cole.
  21. Snyder, C. (1994). The psychology of hope: You can get there from here. . New York, Free Press.
  22. Rutter, M. (1985). “Resilience in the face of adversity. Protective factors and resistance to psychiatric disorder.” Br J Psychiatry 147: 598-611.
  23. Resnick, M. (2000). “Protective Factors, Resiliency, and Healthy Youth Development Philadelphia, Hanley & Belfus, Inc.” Adolescent Medicine: State of the Art Reviews Vol. II (No.1, February).
  24. Durkheim, E. (1897/1997). Suicide. Mankato, MN, The Free Press.
  25. Cohen, S. and S. L. Syme (1985). Social support and health. San Francisco, CA, Academic Press.
  26. Lange, C. and S. Sletten (2002). Alternative Education: A Brief History and Research Synthesis. Alexandria, VA, Project FORUM at National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE).
  27. Catalano, R. F., M. L. Berglund, et al. (2004). “Positive Youth Development in the United States: Research Findings on Evaluations of Positive Youth Development Programs.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 591(1): 98-124.
  28. Hart, R., A. (1992). Children’s participation – From Tokenism to Citizenship. Florence, United Nations Children’s Funds.
  29. Mueller, R., J. Wunrow, et al. (2000). “Providing youth services through youth-adult partnerships: A review of the literature. .” Reaching Today’s Youth 4: 37-48.