Peer Mentoring Basics

By Mariam G. MacGregor, M.S., author of the Everyday Leadership series

Peer Mentoring BasicsMany 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 Mentoring BasicsPeer 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 MacGregorMariam 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

Free Spirit books by Mariam MacGregor:

Leadership Is A Life-SkillBuilding Everyday Leadership in All Kids Building Everyday Leadership in All Teens Teambuilding with Teens

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Universal Design for Learning in the Early Childhood Classroom

By Molly Breen

Universal Design for Learning in the Early Childhood ClassroomDo you ever come across a classroom practice or schoolwide philosophy that resonates with you so completely that it’s as clear as a bell? And maybe you even think, Why isn’t everyone doing this?! While researching the post I wrote on inclusive practice in early childhood, I had this experience while digging into universal design for learning (UDL): Why aren’t ALL preschools and early learning centers using UDL?

You may already be familiar with the concept of universal design. It’s what 21st-century wayfinding and accessibility out in the world is all about. And it doesn’t just help those marginalized by disabilities or language barriers. Universal design makes things better and more accessible for everyone. (Think: curb cuts help out people with mobility issues, those pushing strollers, and those riding bikes). UDL takes a similar approach to universal design and provides a framework for educators that creates accessible, meaningful, and engaging learning based on neuroresearch and differentiates across a range of abilities, experiences, and home languages.

In early childhood settings, practitioners are constantly relying on an intrinsic “finesse” for differentiating for diverse learners that is not reliably scalable. But the UDL framework provides a unifying force for how early childhood practitioners approach teaching and learning, and it removes some of the guesswork inherent in meeting the diverse needs of all children.

UDL isn’t a new approach. Its inception can be traced back to the founding of CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology) in 1984. Although cofounders Anne Meyer and David Rose initially were seeking a way to build a bridge to accessible learning through computer-based technologies for those with learning disabilities, their organizational mission became (and remains) to remove everyday barriers to learning for all. Over time and through many iterations, they developed the UDL framework and categorized it into three domains:

  1. Engagement (the why of learning)
  2. Representation (the what of learning)
  3. Action and Expression (the how of learning)

CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from

And best of all, each domain is connected to neurological processes and specific areas of the brain! If you’re like me and you geek out on brain-based research for teaching and learning, you’ll love this article about UDL and the learning brain from CAST. For early childhood educators, this framework is totally flexible to adapt to the needs of young learners and truly empower them to know themselves as capable, confident, creative, and collaborative thinkers. Using the framework and these updated guidelines, teachers have a powerful tool for meaningful, relevant, differentiated teaching and learning.

UDL for Early Childhood
UDL for early childhood is weighted heavily toward environmental awareness (the what of learning) and really seeing our settings through the eyes of our young learners: Are our settings safe, responsive, accessible, and culturally relevant? What is played with the most and provides motivating opportunities for deep play (the how of learning)? What skills are our learners developing through using the school environment and available materials?

UDL for early childhood works best when partnered with a solid understanding of child development and developmentally appropriate practice (DAP). Knowledgeable early childhood practitioners using the UDL framework in concert with DAP will be equipped to proactively plan for differentiated learning rather than merely reacting (or relying on “finesse”).

UDL for early childhood must include differentiated ongoing assessments that rely on a strong family-school partnership. To plan for the needs of diverse students, observing students informally and formally is key. Through observation and assessment, as well as through relationships with parents of students, teachers gain insight to a child’s prior knowledge and can understand the child’s abilities from a strengths-based perspective.

While these guidelines provide a foundational perspective for implementing the UDL framework in early childhood, the beauty of the framework is its flexibility. As reflective practitioners, we know that frameworks are best when we can ease them into our existing practice rather than trying to force in something rigid and rule-based. We can start with baby steps and wobble (and iterate) our way toward new understanding and improved practice. Our 21st-century early learning centers should be a reflection of the world we live in today, with access to meaningful learning for all children.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed a broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social-emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, MN, with her husband and three kids.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2018 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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Happy Fourth of July

Happy Fourth of July!Tomorrow marks Independence Day, and the Free Spirit staff will leave the office in favor of picnics, wonderful weather (fingers crossed!), and good fun. We hope your Independence Day is filled with delicious food, good company, and fun parades.

If you’re on the road today or tomorrow, check out these riddles for long-distance laughs.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2018 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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What Can Students Learn from Graphic Novels?

By Allison Wedell Schumacher

What Can Students Learn from Graphic Novels?My grandma and grandpa’s house in Oberlin, Ohio, was the stuff of childhood dreams: a nearly endless backyard leading down to a creek, a screened-in porch with a hammock so the bugs couldn’t get to you while you read, huge trees to climb. But believe it or not, my favorite part of that house was a rickety Ping-Pong table in the dark, dank basement. I would’ve avoided that basement like the plague, except that Grandma had been a fifth-grade teacher, and that table was where her classroom library came to live after she retired. It was a bookworm’s paradise.

But there was something that table didn’t have—something that wasn’t even allowed in that house: comic books. Grandpa, a lifelong educator himself, didn’t think comics were “real” books, and described them as “junk.” My mother and her brother were never allowed to have them.

Grandpa’s housewide comic book ban was in the 1950s, and the attitude toward comic books (and their more robust younger siblings, graphic novels) has only recently started to change among parents and educators. Cassandra Pelham Fulton, senior editor at Graphix, observes: “When I started working in publishing 12 years ago, it seemed to be a constant refrain that graphic novels weren’t ‘real books’ and that some teachers and parents felt they weren’t to be taken seriously, or should only be regarded as a ‘treat’ following the completion of ‘real’ reading.” Sort of like dessert for your brain.

But attitudes toward graphic novels are changing in part because educators and parents are starting to realize that there are some things graphic novels can do that traditional books can’t. Fulton and her colleagues at Graphix have received many letters from delighted adults who say that their kids didn’t read books at all until they came across graphic novels, and “now they read many graphic novels over and over again, and are excited about reading!”

Graphic novels’ advantages go beyond encouraging reluctant readers, though. Fulton often hears about dyslexic readers who couldn’t gain confidence in their reading until they had pictures to go along with the words and provide context. Likewise with English language learners, says Fulton: “We also hear about students who are learning English and have seen rapid improvement after starting to read graphic novels.”

Amy Ray, a mom in Minnesota, corroborates this use of graphic novels: “With fewer words grouped together, they help with some of the dyslexia issues for one of my children, because in normal novels, a page full of words became overwhelming. Graphic novels made it easier for him to follow—his brain wouldn’t skip words as easily.” Ian Cox, a dad of three in Georgia, has a son with nystagmus (a condition in which the eyes make repetitive, uncontrolled movements). “His nystagmus made reading difficult, but the pictures kept his interest,” explains Cox. “He still prefers books with at least some illustration, but now he seeks them out on his own.”

Graphic novels are also incredibly useful for teaching social-emotional skills. In order to develop empathy skills, one first has to be able to recognize emotions in others. A good illustrator can draw subtleties in a human face that convey the emotion a character is feeling at the time so readers can garner clues about a character’s emotional state from the character’s words, face, and body language—and not even realize they’re doing it. “You’re really transported to the character’s experience in a way that’s harder to achieve when you’re just dealing with prose. When I sit in on comics presentations at schools, I often hear kids mention the facial expressions or body language of the characters,” says Fulton.

Graphic novels sometimes deal with different subject matter than traditional books do—subjects that fall more naturally within the realm of social-emotional learning. Cassidy Summer, a lifelong comic book devotee in Washington state, observes: “Since the 70s, comics have addressed issues like drugs and bullying (among others) in an easy-to-use format. If you teach kids without telling them they are learning, it can be enormously effective on so many levels.”

That teaching can be as explicit or implicit as you want. For example, Fulton details an exercise that graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier sometimes does with kids. Telgemeier, who is the author of the New York Times best-selling graphic novel Smile (which was Fulton’s first graphic novel editor credit), will ask kids for an emotion, then guide them in drawing the facial expression that corresponds with that emotion. “Once, a kid suggested ‘galvanized,’ which stumped everyone for a bit,” recalls Fulton. “But then Raina and the kids figured out what it might look like together. The kids loved it, and I’ll never forget seeing the delight on their faces.”

When I watch my 11-year-old daughter lose herself for hours at a time in graphic novels (something she does with far more frequency than with traditional literature), I often think of how much has changed in four generations in my family. I’m transported back to the Ping-Pong table in that damp, musty basement, my 11-year-old self pawing through stacks of paperbacks and trying to decide which to read next. I can’t help but wonder what Grandpa would think of his great-granddaughter’s choice of reading material. But seeing how much she and her peers gain from comics and graphic novels, I think he might just come around to my point of view.

Allison Wedell SchumacherAllison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at,, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Survive Summer Boredom by Being CREATIVE

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to LearnThis post was originally published June 30, 2014

Survive Summer Boredom by Being CREATIVEPart of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

It never fails that right about this time in the summer, kids (and some adults) start to say, “I’m bored!” They’ve done all the camps, played all the games, and are starting to take the out-of-school time for granted. Well, to help your child (and you) make it through the rest of the summer, I’ve got CREATIVE ways to fill the time. The options below are for kids and adults alike:

Take on an advanced level of math, music, sport, or other endeavor to push yourself beyond your comfort zone. This could include going online to find challenging math games, learning to play or just understand a new type of music (such as jazz or madrigal), or researching how cricket and squash are closely related to baseball and tennis, respectively.

Read a book outside your area of interest. My grandmother was a great lover of mystery books. When I would spend summers with my grandparents, I would read some of her old-style mysteries. I learned the common patterns of this genre and found obscure authors not many would know (such as Margery Allingham and Freeman Wills Crofts). Go to your local library and ask the librarian to suggest a good book that is not on the popular list.

Relax while you can. This is especially important for adults—particularly teachers. During the school year, we often run on an amount of sleep that is less than optimal. As much as you can, go to bed early and sleep late. Take naps—my favorite activity of summer! Or just lounge around doing a lot of nothing. Recharge your batteries!

Reflect on what you have accomplished. You can journal your thoughts, post them in a blog, or record them. Spend some time thinking through your successes and learning experiences of the last school year. Think about what you did well, what you could do better, or where you want to spend your energy next year. Set a plan for what you want to accomplish next year.

An important part of health is to get out and exercise. Our brains function most effectively when we are healthy and active. Go for a bike ride, walk, run, swim, do yoga, or lift weights. If you are already into any of the aforementioned, then try a new exercise routine such as CrossFit or Zumba. Consider using smartphone apps with exercise routines that can push your limits in short periods of time. Check out these apps: Hot5, Runkeeper, or the imaginative Zombies, Run!.

Survive Summer Boredom by Being CREATIVEA: ACT
Act on something—or learn to act. Acting on a passion such animal rights, environmental stewardship, elder care, community pride, or helping the less fortunate not only brings others joy, but also is very fulfilling. Taking an acting class can have great benefit for your self-esteem and poise. And besides, acting classes can be a lot of fun! If you’re really brave, after your acting class, put on a performance for your neighbors—have the audience pay an admission fee that you will donate to a local charity.

T: TRY Something New
Learn to ride a unicycle. Learn to play the harp. Learn how to double-Dutch jump rope or ride a skateboard. Learn to play cribbage or Schafkopf (in English: Sheepshead). Learn to juggle. Write a short story or craft a short film (either animated or real-life). Think outside the box for ideas, or think of something you’ve always wanted to do but didn’t have time for—this is the time to try it.

Investigate something about your community, culture, or history. You can really dig into some amazing information by heading to the local library, history center, or community center, or by looking online. Many local libraries or historical societies have a wealth of information about our past.

Beyond looking at famous or influential people, research the common, everyday person. Look at what average people did: what they wore, where they worked, what they ate, and what was normal or extraordinary about their lives. Investigate how they communicated with each other; how long they lived; what their political views were; what they did for entertainment; what kind of music, art, and theater they enjoyed; or what sports they played. Learning about our past can influence how we view our present and future.

Volunteer to learn about others and give back to your community. Many organizations and agencies are in need of volunteers. Choose one where your talents can be utilized or one where you will be challenged. Each summer during high school, I volunteered for an organization that assisted young adults with cognitive disabilities in a day camp. I helped with day trips, field trips, craft projects, and teaching day-to-day tasks such as ironing, washing clothes, and cooking. In the process I learned so much about empathy and how I could give back to others. Volunteerism is a great way to learn about your community and about yourself.

Explore your community. Now is the time to find out about those “off-the-beaten-path” gems in the area. Go on a scavenger hunt of unique places in your town. Make a game of it by challenging your friends to find the most obscure fact, interesting person, earliest historical site, or largest (or oldest) building. Create a map for others to follow or post coordinates for a GPS search. Make your exploration a chance for someone else to learn about your community.

Spend these remaining weeks of summer being CREATIVE. Check out your local municipal resources or library for more ideas when you can’t think of anything to do. Be sure to document your adventures on a blog or discussion group or via video. You will want to share your CREATIVE adventures with others!

How do you stay creative during the summer?

Richard CashRichard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition Differentiation for Gifted Learners

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2018 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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