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When Walking the Walk Facilitates Talking the Talk

By: Robert Chapman, PhD

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graduated high school

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Caron Treatment Centers accepts patients aged 13 years or older. For more information on services available to those 12 and under, please learn more about Caron's Student Assistance Program.

As the class of 2019 begins classes this year, it is timely for those responsible for addressing student life “outside the classroom” to redouble their efforts to address issues related to student drinking.

It seems as if alcohol use has always been a part of the campus experience. We can trace this connection back to colonial colleges and universities where “butteries,”[1] a concept imported from England, were part of many early institutions of higher education. These purveyors of alcohol to colonial collegians document alcohol’s role in higher education from the 17th century and suggest a “tradition” that is not likely to change anytime soon. Yet as pervasive as drinking may be in higher education, there are differences in the way students drink. The challenge for 21st Century college and university is to focus more on the drinking “some students do”[2] than to approach “all collegiate drinking” as a problem.

Those who consume large amounts of alcohol in shorter periods and with greater frequency—those described in the literature as “frequent binge drinkers”—represent slightly more than 20% of collegiate drinkers, yet these students account for approximately 80% of the problems reported as due to alcohol consumption. In economics, this “80 – 20 split” is known as the Pareto Principle[3]. Although historically student personnel professionals have done what business professionals recommend, that is to focus on the approximate 20% of students creating the majority of an institution’s alcohol-related issues, there is the important “other part” of this principle that has not been fully explored as a potential resource when considering this challenge: the 80% of students who do not regularly engage in high-risk drinking. What do these students know and do that results in their not contributing to the problems associated with collegiate drinking?

Peer coaching is an approach to student wellness that is only now finding its way into the mainstream of thinking for student personnel professionals in higher education. Campuses like Ohio State University, the University of San Diego, Arizona State University, and the University of Medicine & Dentistry of N. J. are utilizing peer coaches to address various wellness related issues faced by its students. This approach grows out of the “Certified Peer Specialist”[4] movement in the mental health field. Such approaches recognize the benefit of involving individuals in the business of helping students who can “talk the talk because they have walked the walk.”

Peer coaching is not peer education, which is not new to higher education as a prevention strategy. What is different about peer coaching? The peer coach does not present lectures or participate in psychodramas meant to convey risks associated with certain student behaviors and thereby stimulate change. Instead, these peers, who are current students themselves, are trained in motivational enhancement techniques and interact with other students in order facilitate two simple objectives: (1) Inviting students already engaging in high-risk behaviors—what prevention specialists call a selected population—to consider if the rewards received by engaging in that behavior are worth the price that must be paid to complete it and, (2) if interested in moderating a behavior, exploring ways to do so.

Peer coaches are neither “counselors” nor “hall monitors.” While they may function as adjuncts to Resident Assistants, who are in essence, “hall monitors,” peer coaches are more focused on students than on policy. Peer coaches function as, well, “coaches.” They proffer suggestions, deliver feedback, and engage other students in self-reflection in a way that a professional or recognized authority figures cannot. They replace no one in the current system of delivering student support services, they only augment that delivery system by adding a means of interacting with high-risk students in a way that only someone “in the same situation” can. They are, in a word, helpers.

To engage the low-risk student population at a college or university in approaching the higher-risk population seems like a logical next step in the effort to help all students realize the two basic objectives of a college education: (1) to get an education that prepares for a professional career and, (2) to have a good—and safe—time while doing so.

To read more about “peer coaching,” visit any or all of the following:

• At Ohio State University –

• At the University of San Diego -

• At Arizona State University -

• At Sewanee University: The University of the South -

• Evaluating the impact of a peer coaching intervention on well-being amongst psychology undergraduate students -

[1] Alcohol and Drugs in North America: A Historical Encyclopedia, (2013) edited by Fahey & Miller - (see

[2] Is collegiate drinking the problem we think it is? (2008) Robert J. Chapman, PhD (see

[3] To learn more about the Pareto Principle – see

[4] To learn more about Certified Peer Specialists visit