By Mariam G. MacGregor, M.S., author of the Everyday Leadership series
Many schools and youth organizations use peer mentoring. It is an amazing way to empower students on both sides—the person getting help and the person helping. No matter one’s age, educational path, or career, having mentors can be part of a lifelong development strategy for achieving personal and professional success. Informal mentoring relationships are pretty common—younger kids look up to older ones, certain coaches and teachers naturally become mentors to kids on their teams or in their classrooms, and kids in all subjects might serve as tutors to peers.
Peer mentors aren’t meant to replace these relationships—or those with teachers or other adults in the school—and they’re not meant to be disciplinarians or decision-makers. In a structured peer mentoring program, student mentors offer guidance, support, and encouragement to other students for a variety of reasons. Often, peer mentoring is designed around specific goals like academic achievement, handling social situations or peer pressure, and behaving well.
When thinking about peer mentoring in your setting, it’s helpful to look at different examples:
- Many schools offer “Partners in PE” or “Partners in Art” peer mentoring for kids with special needs. Programs like these train typically developing students to support and be champions for their peers with special needs, particularly those students whose special needs may not be immediately obvious to others. Because of their leadership role, students trained as partners can reinforce your culture of leadership by modeling how to act with greater patience and understanding.
- Student assistants or teacher aides (middle or high school). In many middle and high schools, students can earn elective credits by serving as teacher aides or student assistants. And in many cases, they’re underutilized! For teacher aides, it’s important to be intentional about putting students in classes that capitalize on their strengths (for example, a strong writer serving as a teacher aide in a journalism or writing class), so they can take an active role in helping peers or serving as a tutor during the class they’re assigned to. Student assistants, say in the counseling office, can help co-lead friendship groups or be trained to assist and guide other students who come with questions, rather than simply delivering passes or sitting around.
- Middle-to-high-school transition teams and ninth-grade ambassadors. Partner upper-class students with small groups of incoming ninth graders to ease the transition to high school. Ambassadors can meet with the transitioning students in the spring of these students’ eighth-grade year, host a walk-around tour and Q and A session at the high school during the summer, and then be scheduled to greet their small groups on the first day of school. Ambassadors can also be positioned around the cafeteria during the first several weeks of each semester to pay attention to new students who are eating alone or having a hard time navigating new routines.
- Girls or boys leadership mentors or mixed-gender social-skills mentoring groups. Mentoring groups can be very effective at discussing common issues. Select and train students (peers and older) to help run these groups and serve as one-to-one partners with students who may be struggling with making friends, socializing, or navigating school. Be sure to have your school counselor or AVID professional involved as well in case things get too personal.
- Peer tutors. Select and train students with strong academic skills in any subject. Have them hold regular tutoring hours in the sponsoring teacher’s room after school or during lunch or advisory periods in the school day.
- Peer helpers/mediators. Train students to help with conflict mediation or with strengthening appropriate responses to conflict and stress, because fellow students can be exceptionally successful at de-escalating situations without adults getting involved. A quick internet search for “peer mediation K–12” can provide a variety of models on which to base your program.
Setting up peer mentors for success requires training them for the job they’re doing—such as tutoring or partnering in a class—and for responsible behavior around younger students. Remind peer mentors that they are role models for the younger kids—and don’t assume they all share the same standards! You may need to be explicit about what being a role model means to you and how you expect peer mentors to display this. Consider training them for the soft skills they’ll need (patience, empathy, mutual respect, saying no and setting boundaries, maintaining academic integrity, limits of confidentiality, finding other school resources, getting help from adults, and so on).
Adult advisors also need the right tools to train peer mentors so they can ensure consistency in your school’s approach. The best adult advisors check in regularly with peer mentors, perhaps through a bi-weekly meeting with their group of peer mentors, to build teamwork and troubleshoot problems.
Peer mentors often find themselves helping most when fellow students are struggling with a problem. It’s important to prepare them for what they can and should do and when and how to get help from an adult. Here are a few final tips to communicate with peer mentors:
- Be there for fellow students and let them know you want to help.
- Be a friend, not a “know-it-all.” Don’t just try to fix your peer’s problem. Ask questions and help the other person come up with his or her own answers. Sometimes you can model how to problem-solve by describing how you overcame a similar problem in your life.
- Invite the peers you’re working with to come up with ideas and solutions. Once they do, don’t try to come up with a better one! Supportively help your peers explore the possibilities.
- Remember to check in with the students you’re mentoring to see how things work out!
How are students involved as peer mentors at your school? If you don’t have a program, who are the allies at your school who can help you start one? Share your comments below.
Mariam G. MacGregor, M.S., is director of employee engagement and organizational strategy at TCU and a nationally recognized leadership consultant who works with schools (K through 12 and higher education), nonprofit agencies, faith groups, and communities interested in developing meaningful, sustainable leadership efforts for kids, teens, and young adults. Mariam lived in Colorado for many years, where she served as the school counselor and coordinator of leadership programs at an alternative high school and received honorable mention for Counselor of the Year. She currently lives in Texas with her husband and three kind kids. Learn more about Mariam at mariammacgregor.com.
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