January is National Mentoring Month, which means it’s a great time to focus on creating an effective K–12 mentoring program. Or, if you already have a program, use this month to evaluate its effectiveness.
Mentoring is often underappreciated or considered intrusive to instructional minutes. Yet mentoring programs enrich the learning experience academically and socially. An effective mentoring program involves three distinct roles: mentor, mentee, and supportive role models or advisors.
Mentors serve as role models and advisors with mentees, in whose lives they can make a positive difference. But mentees are equally valuable because they also make a positive difference in the lives of their mentors. Mentors aren’t expected to change the mentee, but to serve as a sounding board, encourager, motivator, and alternate perspective. Mentees can do the same for mentors.
Effective mentoring programs are implemented in a purposeful way that offers opportunities for mentors and mentees to become a part of each other’s lives. This might mean regular meetings, consistent tutoring, or participation together in multiple single-day interactions such as service projects or one-day leadership retreats or events (like a challenge course).
Supportive role models or advisors (teachers, parents, program coordinators, counselors) provide training or preparation, supporting the mentoring program in ways other than being involved as a mentor or mentee. Kids, teens, and adults can all serve in this capacity.
Mentors and mentees who receive preparation from an advisor—on topics such as the positive potential of the relationship and what to do if things aren’t going well—get more from the experience than those who participate as if on a blind date.
Mentor or Mentee?
Kids and teens benefit from experiencing both roles. It’s natural to want to select mentors who are the “best” students—those with good grades or attendance, who are actively involved in class, or who are charismatic. But students who struggle (academically, socially, or both) make excellent mentors and see changes in their own lives by being a mentor.
It’s also easy to believe that younger kids can only be mentees, but they can also be mentors. Third graders can be book buddies with kindergartners, kindergartners can be buddies with special needs kids, and second graders can mentor sixth-grade tutors by helping them learn how to communicate better.
High school mentoring programs can serve as a springboard to practice workplace competencies. Teen mentors are expected to follow through with their mentee, use appropriate language and behavior, and understand different viewpoints, the same expectations they’d encounter in a job. And peer-to-peer mentoring (such as peer counseling or tutoring) gives firsthand exposure to what project-based groups in college could be like.
There’s no right way to put kids together. Sometimes homogenous partnerships are best, like tutoring pairs based on subject matter or pairs of kids who share similar interests but are choosing different behavioral paths. Other times you’ll want heterogeneous partnerships, like putting an extroverted high schooler with an introverted middle schooler so both gain insight into how the other handles different situations.
Some factors to consider when making matches include the kids’ attitude, confidence, academic and social abilities, ability and willingness to make the time commitment, willingness to give and receive feedback, family support, and gender.
Since it’s impossible to look at all factors here, let’s look at gender. In younger grades, gender plays little difference in the mentor-mentee relationship. But sometimes gender matters because it influences students’ interests and style of relating:
- Boys and girls learn and connect differently
- Boys typically benefit from moving when learning, while girls typically need time to communicate and listen to others when learning
- Boys like to talk while doing but often struggle to multitask well
Girls like to talk while doing and generally multitask well
- Most boys will connect on topics of sports and activities and storytelling (one-upping)
- Most girls will connect on social topics of relationships and image and interests
Here are some general guidelines:
- When pairing high school kids with middle school kids, stay single gender-based.
- When pairing middle school kids with elementary school kids, gender matters less.
- When pairing elementary school kids together, gender is inconsequential.
- When pairing kids for tutoring, the primary basis should be subject knowledge.
The ultimate goal is to maximize the potential for success for both mentor and mentee. Failing to do this will affect more than the two individuals involved; it can derail an entire program. Mentors who carry an attitude of superiority and mentees who exhibit resistance will both miss out from the experience.
It’s not necessary to create a complex mentoring program to affect lives. Start small: Encourage two teachers to partner their classes as buddies; train a group of mentors and identify a small group of kids to be mentees; or invite teens to create the program based on community needs. For example, a high school club can develop a Playground Partners program, helping elementary schools by serving as coaches and “social referees” during recess. As relationships are built, additional opportunities are revealed, because believing in oneself and believing in others never go out of style!
Are there any special relationships you’ve seen develop because of your mentoring program? What unique aspect of your mentoring program sets it apart from others? How do you select or encourage kids to participate as mentors and mentees?
Mariam G. MacGregor, M.S., founded and runs Youthleadership.com, an online clearinghouse and resource center for individuals working with youth leaders. Mariam worked with college student leaders at Syracuse University, Santa Clara University and Metropolitan State College of Denver. She left the college setting to use the “best-learned practices” from higher education to create more sophisticated and innovative approaches in leadership development with adolescent leaders. View Mariam’s free webinar: Preparing the Next Generation of K–12 Student Leaders
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