Sources of Strength

*Note: The National Mentoring Resource Center makes these “Insights for Mentoring Practitioners” available for each program or practice reviewed by the National Mentoring Resource Center Research Board. Their purpose is to give mentoring professionals additional information and understanding that can help them apply reviews to their own programs. You can read the full review on the Crime Solutions website.

In considering key takeaways from the research on this program that other mentoring programs can apply to their work, it’s useful to reflect on the features and practices that might have influenced its rating as “Promising” (that is, a program that shows encouraging, but not definitive evidence of effectiveness).

The power of key peer leaders.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Sources of Strength (SoS) model is the identification of key individuals in the student body as both recipients and creators/deliverers of the program itself. Educators have long lamented the presence of “cliques” and different social groups (often hierarchical) in schools, correctly noting that these groups are often the source of student bullying, marginalization, and disconnection. In many ways, cliques are often responsible for many students developing suicidal thoughts in the first place.

But SoS takes the existence of cliques at face value and tries to use them to their advantage in delivering messages about preventing suicide and seeking support around the issue. By nominating a key individual within specific cliques, the program attempts to essentially create an “in” that will allow the messages of the program to penetrate even the most disconnected and alienated groups on campus. This takes advantage of the fact that students often look up to other students and that cliques are often led by one or two charismatic individuals whose words and actions matter deeply to the other members of the group.

SoS takes this idea a step further by asking these peer leaders to also design the messages and activities of the program itself. This is really helpful in ensuring that the messages related to suicide will be “on point” and relevant to the intended audience. Rather than adults guessing at what students might find engaging, this program enlists the students themselves in designing and delivering the program for the year. This empowers the student leaders, providing leadership skill development that is inherently valuable to their future. It also allows the content of the program to be adapted to local needs and circumstances and creates a less hierarchical nature to the information being provided. It’s not some “lame” adult telling you what to think or do -- it’s respected peers, including some from our own social circles.

Using peer leaders in this way, and delivering the program to the whole student body, also may help sustain the program over time. Younger students see their near peers taking on this leadership effort and may consider doing so themselves if approached later. They also get to see and experience the content of the program and may have ideas that they can bring to future years of the program. Because youth are empowered in this program, it may be easier for this model to become a bit self-sustaining, as the recipients of yesterday become the peer leaders and deliverers of tomorrow.

There are other programs in the school-based mentoring space that use peer leaders to help design and deliver program services with similarly encouraging results (e.g., CAMP and Peer Group Connection, both of which have been reviewed by the NMRC). How can your program take advantage of the strong influence of idolized peers to help spread the scope and scale of the intervention? Hopefully more mentoring programs will provide youth with this opportunity to lead.

Lots of adult support too.

In spite of the heavy emphasis on peer leaders in the program, there is also a lot of adult scaffolding in the SoS model. In fact, the program emphasizes the role of adults in several critical areas. First is in the initial buy-in and planning for the program. Because it’s an intervention ultimately delivered to the entire student body, SoS really stresses getting buy-in and support from school administrators, teachers, and other leaders. The website for the program highlights many of the start-up activities that need to be implemented before the program can be rolled out. The program also requires up to six hours of training for the adult advisors and a one-hour training for all faculty on how the program works. The advisors then play a critical role in meeting with the peer leaders to develop messaging strategies and implement the year-long activities.

Once again, we find similar structures of adults providing just enough help to youth leaders in similar models in the field (you can read about how Peer Group Connection handles this here). So if your program does decide to empower peer leaders in this way, don’t forget to provide some guidance and adult support along the way.

The other obvious way that the program uses adults is that they serve as the “sources” that youth identify as being a potential support if they are ever struggling with suicidal thoughts or intentions. This is a really valuable activity for students to engage in. Many mentoring programs engage mentees in doing some sort of mapping exercise that allows them to identify caring adults to whom they have access. SoS is providing that opportunity to the entire student body. That simple act may wind up doing far more good than the program could even know. It can be challenging for youth to think actively about who they could turn to when they have issues and who they actually have that kind of connection to (teenagers are not the most self-reflective group and one of the hallmarks of suicidal thinking in particular is a failure to recognize other viable options for coping or problem-solving). So even if it’s totally unrelated to suicidal ideation, the fact that these youth are taking stock of their “caring adult” assets in this way is a good thing.

Strong replication and implementation information.

Unlike many of the programs that get reviewed for Crime Solutions, the SoS program provides ample information for practitioners about how to replicate the program in their school. The program website offers a wealth of information: FAQs, cost details, staffing needs, implementation materials, even a “readiness” questionnaire that can help school leaders determine if they are ready to take on the challenge of implementing the program. It’s refreshing to see a program be so open and honest about their model, what it can achieve, the resources needed to do it well, and how interested practitioners can work with the developers to bring this success (around such a critical topic) to their students. Others should take note of how well this program has tried to spread key information about what their model can achieve and how others can be part of their work.

For more information on research-informed program practices and tools for implementation, be sure to consult the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring™ and the "Resources for Mentoring Programs" section of the National Mentoring Resource Center site.

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