School-Based Mentoring Program for At-Risk Middle School Youth
*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 the key takeaways from the research on this program that other mentoring programs can apply to their work, it’s useful to reflect on features and practices might have influenced its rating as “Promising” (that is, a program that shows encouraging, but not definitive evidence of effectiveness).
Is it all in the timing?
A program, such as this one, targeting youth who are becoming disconnected from school (and the accompanying truancy and disciplinary issues) might be especially beneficial during the middle school years, when the first signs of eventually dropping out begin to appear.
Is short and sweet the answer?
This program achieved its outcomes (reduced disciplinary referrals; increased school connectedness) in an 18-week model, with the average match only meeting about 15 times in that span. The findings of this program’s evaluation thus suggest that it is possible for a school-based mentoring program to achieve significant outcomes when matches, by design, last less than a full school year (although other research suggests that full-year, or even multi-year school-based mentoring might be ideal). Thus, mentoring may be an intervention offered after students have shown signs of disengagement earlier in the school year.
Can school personnel be effective mentors?
Some practitioners feel that youth often respond better to a community mentor coming into the school environment, especially if the student feels low levels of trust and connectedness to teachers and school personnel. Mentors then may serve as “bridge-builders” to improve those school relationships and promote academic success. Yet, in this program, teachers and other school staff served as mentors with encouraging results. There are a number of potential advantages of this approach, as school personnel may:
- Already be familiar with the youth being mentored
- Have professional qualifications and prior experience that make them especially well-equipped to work with youth (especially in the school context)
- Have recurring opportunities to see and engage with the youth whom they are mentoring by virtue of being a member of the same school community—one benefit of which may simply be greater ease in scheduling mentoring sessions
It’s also important to note that teachers were not allowed to mentor students who were in their own classes. This is an important wrinkle as it attempts to sidestep some of the potential complications that might arise when pairing a teacher and a student who would bring a personal history—perhaps negative—to their newly formed mentoring relationship. Furthermore, the program still provided a lot of initial training (two and a half days) and ongoing match support. These features of the program remind us that teachers and other school staff should not be assumed to come “mentoring-ready”—they are assuming a new, and perhaps unfamiliar, role with students and should be trained and supported accordingly. It should be kept in mind, too, that there was no comparison in this study with community mentors. It may be that such mentors would have been equally or even more impactful, but that remains unknown.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that mentors were paid a stipend for taking on the role ($400 for mentoring one youth, $600 for two). It’s unclear whether this was to generate buy-in and ensure full program participation or was a requirement of a collective bargaining agreement around compensating staff for extra responsibilities. Regardless, practitioners may want to think about whether compensating teachers and other staff who serve as mentors will bolster program participation.
To screen or not to screen?
The school staff who did mentor all volunteered for the opportunity, with several self-selecting out after an orientation session explaining the nature and activities of the program. It’s reassuring that several staff members recognized that, although already working with youth in other capacities, they might not be the best fit for the program, perhaps due to their communication styles or simply scheduling availability. But it’s also possible that there were mentors in this program who might have been screened out if it was a program coordinator making the determination about who was a good fit. Practitioners should keep in mind that not all school personnel will be appropriate to serve in a mentoring capacity and that relying solely on a process of “self-screening” might not result in the best possible pool of mentors.
Does school-based mentoring need to be rigidly school-focused?
One of the most challenging questions that those mounting mentoring programs in schools face is how much (if any) of an overt focus there should be on academics. Two findings from this study are noteworthy in this regard. First, mentors who viewed their experience positively, when compared to those who questioned the impact of their mentoring relationship, reported more relaxed meetings, more laughter and easy conversation, and tended to do activities like playing games, craft projects, and sharing food. They also talked about school and academics slightly more than the “questioning” group, yet neither group spent much time focused on school-related conversations. Second, mentees of the “viewed positively” group met more often with their mentors and also had better outcomes in terms of disciplinary referrals. Taken together, these findings suggest that one of the keys to making school-based mentoring relationships work may be to spend time, perhaps especially early in the relationship, building rapport and having some fun, thereby emphasizing that this relationship will be different than the normal interactions students have with staff. Of course, there also may have been influential pre-existing differences in the two groups of youth or their mentors, a consideration which underscores that such findings should not be taken as the last word on what makes for a successful school-based mentoring relationship.
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" section of the National Mentoring Resource Center website.