E-Mentoring Program for Secondary Students with Learning Disabilities
*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 this program's 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 the features and practices that might have influenced its rating as “Promising” (that is, a program that shows some evidence that it achieves justice-related goals when implemented with fidelity).
Combining e-mentoring with in-person activities can be an impactful combination.
One of the distinctions that may be crumbling in the youth mentoring world is between in-person and online mentoring. For years this has been presented as an “either/or” proposition: Either a program provides that direct, almost intimate kind of support, or they go the e-mentoring route and solely use technology. Fortunately, the advancements in social media and technology saturation is changing the way mentoring programs think about allowing or integrating online interactions. Successful program models like the E-Mentoring Program for Secondary Students with Learning Disabilities also represent strong reasons to consider this blended approach.
This program actually provided a big part of the services to the control group: two visits to a local higher education institution to see what campus life was like and to talk about how to succeed in a college atmosphere. What the “treatment” kids got was a 12-week e-mentoring relationship and the chance to meet with their mentor on that second visit. And based on that difference alone, the mentored students fared far better on terms of their competency around their post-secondary transition, their self-determination, and their connectedness to others. And these were not lengthy or “high dosage” relationships: just a couple of online interactions around a set activity each week. And yet the program produced statistically significant results for mentored youth compared to those who only got the campus tours. (The program evaluators did wonder, however, if a longer program duration than three months might have produced even stronger results.)
This illustrates that when it comes to a daunting life transition, such as planning for life after high school, it can really be helpful to have another person guiding you, teaching you appropriate skills, and growing your confidence in your ability to handle the change. Programs that are intended to help a youth through a difficult transition should think about whether online communication could strengthen their program design or outcomes.
How can mentors best help with post-secondary planning?
This program took a thoughtful approach in how it structured the online activities and mentoring conversations over the 12 weeks of the program. The activities were divided into three sequential topics: Discovering One’s Self, Exploring Possibilities, and Creating an Action Plan. The first activity helped mentees think about their interests, their talents, and their motivations, while the second translated that personal information in to possible paths for life after high school. This allowed mentees to see that their post-secondary life could be connected to things they already care about and build on strengths they already possessed. The third set of activities made those dreams more concrete, by setting short- and long-term action steps and developing a doable plan. Although the program provided a set curriculum that mentors had to use for the weekly lessons, mentors could choose specific activities that they felt best fit their mentee’s personality and goals.
Any program working with high school age youth may want to consider putting together a set of sequential activities that cover those three broad areas. In fact, there are other examples in the field of mentoring programs using mentors in this way: YouthBuild USA provides a module for mentors and youth to do together around post-secondary planning that very much follows these three core areas of personal reflection, future visioning, and concrete planning. Whether in-person or online, this can be a major form of support for any mentor of an older adolescent.
E-mentoring relationships, especially facilitated by schools, need lots of support.
One of the lazy assumptions about e-mentoring is that the relationships, and individuals in them, require less structure and support and that the communication platform itself will spur participation. This program emphasized just the opposite. The researchers behind the program noted how critical it was that they encouraged the college student mentors to write to their mentees, even when the mentee would be negligent in responding or communicating adequately. They also lamented that in some instances a lack of buy-in from the teachers at the school resulted in mentees not receiving enough encouragement to reply to their mentors and even caused some issues around accessing the computer labs to participate in the program as intended.
In fact, the evaluators note that not having a dedicated class or teacher liaison that could facilitate access to the computers may have negatively impacted the strength of the findings here. They conclude that schools should only enter into these kinds of programs if they have a partner organization (such as a university, in this case) that can handle the technology, mentor engagement, and other logistical considerations. They recommend a school liaison that can provide dedicated support to the participating mentees and ensure fuller participation and computer access.
A missed opportunity for understanding…
While this program offered an interesting design and produced some compelling results, it’s hard not to feel like there was a missed opportunity here in the evaluation. The study did not examine whether participating students actually followed through on their post-secondary plans. It would have been interesting to see if the impact of this program was only “on paper” in terms of self-reported competence and development of those transition plans. If those students never acted on or realized those plans, it would certainly put the findings of this study in a different light.
However, it is still impressive that this program was able to get these students with learning disabilities to contemplate and plan for their futures in a way that they might never have without these services. Given the nation’s ongoing struggles with “disconnected” youth, it would be wonderful to see more mentoring programs tasking their mentors with providing targeted and multi-faceted support like this to students who are facing the daunting task of figuring out where they are going in life.
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.