Peer Influence and Strategies for Academic Success

To be successful in school, and in life, teenagers need to develop executive function strategies that allow them to plan, organize, prioritize, and self-manage. Their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs executive function, is still developing, so working to learn these strategies is a developmentally appropriate fact of life for a teenager.

Another inescapable part of teen development is that teens are extremely sensitive to peer influence. Peer relationships can have a powerful impact on teens’ lives, for better or for worst. In Ready, Willing and Able Mandy Savitz-Romer and Suzanne Bouffard describe methods for helping students develop strategies for success in college and beyond by leveraging the power of peers. Among other things, they recommend “interviewing youth about their friends’ aspirations and plans,” “peer-directed college planning,” and “community-building activities.”

If an educator is hoping to help students develop executive function strategies, it makes sense to use approaches that leverage the importance of peer relationships in teens’ lives. The earliest versions of SMARTS reflected this approach. We originally taught SMARTS as a peer mentoring program, where older students worked with younger students to learn executive function strategies that they could apply to academic and non-academic tasks.

The powerful effect of this approach on both older mentors and younger mentees was obvious. Here are a few quotes from SMARTS peer mentors:

“If I have a freshman I’m mentoring next year who’s skipping, I could show them that I’ve been through what they’ve been through — I used to skip, and look at me now…The kids we’re gonna tutor in SMARTS , they’re gonna come up, step up to the plate and be like us.”

SMARTS is helping me to be a leader because I feel like having to manage my mentee and be a role model is helping my leadership skills. I feel like I’m the one guiding and helping my mentee when for most of my life it’s been me being guided…so this is really strengthening me.”

Our findings showed that both mentors and mentees felt supported by their relationship and therefore were able to put more effort into using strategies for school. We loved teaching SMARTS as a peer mentoring program, and we think you will, too! For more on how to teach executive function strategies using a peer mentoring or peer coaching model, check out our chapter in The Power of Peers and keep you eyes peeled for our upcoming peer mentoring version of SMARTS.

No matter what you do, remember that promoting positive development in teenagers must always take into account the importance of peer relationships in their lives.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director