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Cross-Age Tutoring: A Helping Hand Across the Grades

Like all educators, guidance counselors recognize that some students in their schools could flourish if given just a little bit of extra, one-on-one help. Rather than lamenting the fact that teachers often are spread too thin to give that individual attention, counselors Christi Bello and Susie Borgnini came up with a simple solution -- kids helping kids! Each founded a program that brings the wisdom of older students to the aid of younger ones -- with benefits for all students. Included: Examples of how mentoring benefits students across the grades.

Seven years ago, when guidance counselor Christi Bello was looking for a way to motivate upper and lower grade elementary students and to enhance their academic skills, she turned to the "Spice Girls."

"I established the SPICE (Students Promoting Individual Career Enhancement) Team to meet the needs of both age groups, and I borrowed the name from the musical group that was popular at the time," Bello told Education World. "The primary students who receive assistance through the program have the attention of a mentor who can help them concentrate on classroom activities. The older students who work with those children improve their organizational skills and genuinely care about the children they help."

Starting a Cross-Age Tutoring Program

Guidance counselor Christi Bello shared the following advice for educators who want to implement a program such as her SPICE Team:

Assess the needs of the school population.
Bello spoke to teachers at her school and heard a recurring theme: some students were just not attending to task.

Think outside the box.
What hasn't been tried in your school? Mediation had been introduced, but mentoring was a new technique for Northfield Elementary.

Find a way for kids to help.
Bello's elementary students wanted to serve their community, but they needed avenues to do so. Mentoring provides an outlet for students to strengthen their academic skills, build better organizational skills, and help others.
Bello's cross-age tutoring program at Northfield Elementary School in Ellicott City, Maryland, works in large part because of an elaborate application process, a sound foundation of training, and consistent monitoring -- none of which occurs by accident!

Recruitment of mentors begins with experienced fifth-grade mentors visiting fourth graders. The students perform a skit that describes what the SPICE team is, its role in the school, and how its members impact the academic and social lives of younger students in positive ways.

"In that instance, the kids are really teaching other kids," observed Bello. "Their skit echoes questions posed by John R. O'Rourke, superintendent of the Howard County Public School System. He asks parents in the district: What do we want for our children?, How might we provide it?, and How will we know that we've done it well?"


Joining the SPICE Team is a five-step process. First, students must express an interest in the "position." Next, they must write a persuasive letter (essay) to Bello.

"The persuasive essay is the step that weeds out those who are less committed to this activity," she reported. "There are other equally important groups at the school that students may choose to join, such as band and safety patrols, for example, and some of those conflict with mentoring activities. Students need to give serious consideration to whether they truly have the time to devote to the job and do it well."

Next, would-be tutors complete an application that requests a resume, details about prior experience, and a parent's signature. Applicants go for an interview, in which they must knock on the office door, shake hands, and answer Bello's thoughtfully posed questions. Once work begins, mentors must adhere to the fifth and ongoing step of the application process -- submitting periodic evaluations to show the progress the primary students they are tutoring have made.

"Of the 116 fifth graders at Northfield, about 35 are involved in the mentor program," said Bello. "Everyone who finishes the process is 'hired' as a mentor, but not all are needed immediately. Although not every mentor is a high-achiever academically, each must be organized, prepared, and ready for the school day before he or she fulfills the mentoring responsibilities."

Mentor training,-- which includes "workshops" about important topics -- teaches skills in role-playing, communication, peer mediation, reflective listening, building confidence, and more. Bello emphasizes the "career" aspects of the program, and reminds students of their responsibilities as helpers and role models. When they can't be present, mentors must notify the primary teacher. If they don't meet expectations, mentors might be "suspended" from participation in the program.

"Positions" open up as teachers identify students in need of the type of guidance a mentor can provide. Mentors follow a schedule; they work mornings, afternoons, during recess, and during lunch, but there are guidelines about how much time they can spend out of their own classrooms.

Academic subjects typically are the focus of the tutoring sessions, but social skills may be addressed as well. Mentors are usually found keeping students on task during class, working with small groups of students, role-playing, and showing students how to relate to one another and work together.


From the Ed World Archive

Have you seen these cross-age tutoring resources from the Education World archive?

Shaking Willy's Hand: A Collaborative Project Teaming Teens and 'Tweens
Students in grades 4 and 10 worked together to perform Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Included: Comments from the participants, tips for starting your own cross-grade project.

What a Pair! A Cross-Grade Writing Activity
Older students interview younger students. They use what they learn to write a short storybook that features the youngster as the main character. A special event brings the two groups back together to enjoy the results of their labor.

Cross-Age Tutoring
Helpful Internet links from the Education World database.

Another reason for the program's success is the profound commitment of its members. Students give up free time for tutoring sessions and group meetings. Mentors are "employed" by the program, and they take it seriously, right down to wearing their assigned 'uniforms.'

"T-shirts for mentors are provided by the PTA, which greatly supports the SPICE Team and its activities," Bello explained. "The mentors also wear lanyards and nametags they designed themselves. The uniform effectively stands out, but also fits in well with the apparel of other students."

At the beginning of the school year, mentors write an assessment about the weaknesses they find in the primary students and about where they are struggling; mentors continue to report on the progress of the primary students on a monthly basis. At the end of the year, mentors write a final evaluation noting the changes they have seen. The end of the year also brings fifth-grade graduation. and recognition -- including trophies -- for the mentors. Bello hosts a pizza party for mentors and their tutees, and many of the primary students bring small gifts for their older partners.


"Personalities matter," said Bello. "Most of the relationships work, but not all do. In their assessments, mentors often share the teachers' sentiments about the students' performance. One said of a primary student that he was not focused, refused to listen, and acted as if he [the mentor] wasn't even there. He added, 'I fear all is lost!' I switched the mentor with another, and the next report about this primary student was positive. He was on track and making progress."

The SPICE Team relies on cooperation from Northfield's teachers, and that has been received in abundance. Fifth-grade and fourth-grade teachers remain flexible as students come and go to their mentoring sessions; they've noted marked growth in the mentors' organizational skills as well. First-grade teachers evaluate the mentors who visit their classroom and keep Bello apprised of the progress being made through the partnerships.

"Teachers understand that they compete with television," Bello stated. "Students learn to expect 'entertainment' rather than education, and the real world doesn't work that way. Tutoring does work. It keeps students focused and entertained."


"When I set up the tutoring program, my goal was for every student who needed some extra one-on-one attention -- personally and academically -- to be partnered with a capable high school student," said Susie Borgnini, guidance counselor at Westfield Intermediate School in Westfield, Indiana, In Westfield, juniors from Westfield High School visit the intermediate school and work with younger students in the media center.

Borgnini contacted the National Honor Society sponsor at the high school to organize the project. She was aware that the high school students needed community service points and thought their need to contribute and her school's need for extra tutoring might be a perfect match. As the names of volunteers rolled in, Borgnini paired them with intermediate students.

"The high school students reported that it [tutoring] became a part of the day that they looked forward to," Borgnini recalled. "Many tutors had their 'tutees' tell them they were doing much better in school since the tutoring began. Both sets of students reported improved attendance; students didn't want to miss a day with the tutor/tutee. High school teachers reported that students often spoke of their responsibilities to the younger ones."

Borgnini has been surprised that most of the relationships that began with tutoring have continued even after the volunteering ended. One high school senior continued to stop by the intermediate school to visit her former partner, just to see how he was doing.

"Cross-age tutoring fills a need for both groups," explained Borgnini. "Sometimes, as children get into high school, they forget how hard it is to struggle with basics. This tutoring sets high school students in the role of modeling for the younger ones, and often prevents some poor decisions -- because the high school students know they will have to answer to the younger students."


  • Peer and Cross-Age Tutoring Learn more about the types of student-to-student tutoring and why it works in this ERIC Digest article by Joan Gaustad.
Tutoring and Academic Enrichment Guide

A free guide for families looking for tutoring for their children is available from Partnership for Learning. The Tutoring and Academic Enrichment Guide lists ten signs that can indicate to parents that their child needs a tutor, discusses the different kinds of tutoring available, and provides four steps for finding an excellent tutor. The guide also includes comparison charts, self-tests, cost estimates and hands-on advice for saving money, suggestions for identifying learning disabilities, tips on monitoring student progress, and a pull-out guide to finding a tutor. Schools can obtain copies of the guide to distribute to parents by visiting the Web site or calling 1-800-832-2464.