Peer to Peer Relationships: Participatory Action Research
COVID‑19 has limited the daily interaction of children with their peers, friends, family, and community members outside their immediate households. It has also impacted their participation in and access to activities that can create spaces for them to share their views, concerns and needs with each other and create collective change in their communities. Research shows that relationships with peers are an essential aspect of school life (Gowing, 2019), and play an integral role in the social development and wellbeing of children (Shin et al., 2016). With the cyclical closure and reopening of schools and transition to online or hybrid classrooms in Canada, and in many cases, a return to a different kind of schooling, it is essential that children are heard and continue to be able to support each other while together and apart.
Listening to children and having them share their lived experiences is always essential, but it is even more essential during COVID‑19 as many children are feeling isolated. Social isolation and loneliness have had a negative toll “on the mental health of previously healthy children and adolescents” (Loades et al., 2020, p. 1218). Thus, addressing this isolation through healthy peer-to-peer support, and the active participation of children is essential. As per Articles 12 and 13 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which Canada has signed and ratified, children have the right to freely express their views, have their views listened to and be involved in matters that affect them. Therefore, in partnership with the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children (CCRC), the research team will be conducting a Participatory Action Research (PAR) pilot project with ten children in grades 7, 8 and 9 in two provinces — Ontario (5) and Quebec (5). Two research questions will be explored: 1) How could peer-to-peer relationships affect children’s ability/opportunity to exercise their agency? 2) What is the role of peer-to-peer relationships in individual and relational experiences of personal and social development during and after the pandemic?
These grades were selected because they are key transition periods for children as they move from elementary (in Ontario) and primary (in Quebec) to middle/secondary school. Due to the pandemic, some of the children have had to virtually transition from one level to the next without connecting in-person with their peers. It is integral to examine how this transition has impacted them personally, socially, and academically, and the role of peer-to-peer relationships during these challenging times. As this is a pilot project, the research team is focussing on two provinces (where the PI and co-applicant work, and the research assistants will be based) with the intention of expanding on the findings of the research. PAR will be used as the research methodology as it combines theory and practice with action and participation. The intention is that through discussions and focus groups, the needs of the children are assessed, and through workshops facilitated by the team (children, the PI, co-applicant, collaborator, and research assistants), the children will develop/strengthen knowledge and skills to become mentors to peers in their schools and communities. The project is integral to the work of the CCRC as it will centre their advocacy work on the lived experiences of children; allow further engagement with provincial Ministries of Education and school boards through the evidence gathered; and ensure that children and youth are a part of developing systems designed to support them and the policy making process. This partnership is part of a long-term research plan.