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Is Your School Doing "Real" Youth Mentoring?

Youth mentoring, which pairs students with positive adult role models, can have a powerful impact on young people. The fastest-growing mentoring model is school-based mentoring—where an adult from the community visits the child at school, most commonly one hour a week during or after school, in order to offer friendship and support.

Sounds easy enough. The problem is that mentoring program quality varies widely from school to school. If your school has a mentoring program, are you doing what it takes to achieve positive results for kids?

A landmark study on the Big Brothers Big Sisters school-based mentoring model revealed that in providing mentors for over 1,000 fourth- through ninth-graders, programs achieved some great results, including:

  • Improved overall academic performance, as well as better performance in science and language arts;
  • Better quality of class work and assignment completion;
  • Reduction in school infractions (including principal’s office visits, fighting and suspensions);
  • Increased feelings of academic competence; and
  • Fewer school absences.

Positive results depended, however, on program quality. Here are EducationWorld’s top five ways in which school-based mentoring problems often fall short of the mark. We’ve also included suggestions for how program coordinators can avoid these pitfalls.

  1. The program consists of tutoring or has a specific “agenda,” rather than offering true mentoring.
    Most mentor-mentee pairs do engage in some academic activities, although academic improvement is not, and should not be, the overriding goal of the relationship. It’s more important that the mentor be someone the child looks up to and talks to about personal problems, who cares about what happens to him/her and who influences the choices s/he makes. Effective mentors also provide positive adult attention and an incentive for kids to come to school. The beauty of true mentoring is that students’ academic achievement will improve, even if mentoring sessions do not specifically address academics. Programs with academic or career-prep goals are wonderful—just don’t call them mentoring! Mentoring is about building a relationship, not pursuing an agenda.
  2. The program does not provide adequate intensity and duration of contact between mentors and mentees.
    The length and closeness of a mentoring relationship are the biggest determinants of whether a child will benefit from the experience. It’s very telling that in the Big Brothers Big Sisters study, mentors in school-based programs tended to feel a little less close to their mentees, when compared to mentors in community-based programs. Why? Because in a school-based model, mentors’ time with kids is more limited. (One hour per week for a full school year is the recommended bare minimum.) For this reason, it’s important whenever possible to start a mentoring relationship as early as possible in a school year, maintain contact over the summer months and continue the relationship into a second school year. Short-term relationships, especially ones that end abruptly or before intended, can actually do more harm than good to mentored students, who may be vulnerable due to past disappointments in relationships.
  3. Not enough thought is put into making matches.
    Many programs struggle with limited budgets and skimp on background checks of prospective mentors. The dangers here are obvious. Whenever possible, programs should conduct a national, fingerprint-based criminal background check as well as a check of the state and national sex offender registries. Background checks in a single state or based only on social security number rely too heavily on the applicant’s truthfulness. In addition, a thorough application, screening and matching process includes consideration of the mentor’s race/ethnicity, gender, age, interests and socioeconomic status, since kids are more likely to connect with someone they perceive as similar. Programs should also carefully examine the applicant’s reasons for wanting to mentor. Mentors who have an expectation of “rescuing” a child, or who come across as “preachy,” don’t tend to do as well in mentoring relationships.
  4. Mentors receive inadequate training and support.
    Mentors should receive at least two hours of in-person training prior to being matched with a child. Following match, program coordinators should have frequent, regular contact with a mentor, in order to assess how the relationship is developing and whether there are issues that need to be addressed. Periodic post-match training is also highly recommended, as this allows the mentor to build skills while connecting with the program coordinator as well as other mentors who can serve as a sounding board for challenges in the relationship. Mentors who feel well prepared and supported are more likely to stick with the relationship, and that benefits everyone.
  5. The mentoring program is not thoroughly evaluated.
    Lack of evaluation will ultimately jeopardize a mentoring program’s longevity, as it becomes difficult to justify a program’s existence in the absence of data demonstrating effectiveness. Evaluation should go beyond asking whether mentors and mentees “like” the program. Did adequate bonding occur between mentor and mentee? Did the student’s grades, attendance or school behavior improve? Does the child perceived more options for his or her future? The Big Brothers Big Sisters study offers many examples of high-quality indicators of program effectiveness. A free survey tool called What’s Working: Tools for Evaluating Your Mentoring Program captures many of these indicators. Whenever possible, data should be collected from multiple informants. In addition, a program should keep close tabs on operational details such as duration of matches, reasons why matches end prematurely, and whether mentors feel adequately supported.

For more information, access the National Mentoring Partnership’s Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring, which describes in great detail everything your program needs in order to achieve success. Also, if you live in one of the 21 states that has a state mentoring partnership, this organization will be able to provide training and technical assistance to help you improve your program quality.


Article by Celine Provini, EducationWorld Editor
Education World
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