For the longest time, policymakers, school districts, and educators have been trying to figure out how to use the power of mentoring to support students academically. Early on, this led to mentoring programs that were “mentoring” in name, but heavy on tutoring or other direct academic support in terms of the actual activities volunteers and youth engaged in. With the publication of some of the early BBBS research, the mentoring field started to move away from more “prescriptive” approaches to meeting student’s academic needs, focusing more on a relational approach to supporting youth with some room for more “instrumental” support so long as it didn’t negatively impact the development of the relationship.
But that drumbeat to use mentoring in service of grades and test scores never really went away. Recent research has highlighted that both relational and instrumental approaches to supporting students are both beneficial in terms of improving academic performance and attitudes. But that leaves mentoring programs, and mentors themselves, without much guidance as to how to best support mentees academically. Should mentors occasionally provide tutoring, homework help, and test prep? Should they be teaching students good study habits or stressing the importance of studying for tests? Should they emphasize the non-cognitive skills like “grit” and “self-motivation” that are all the rage these days? Or should mentors simply focus on the relationship and helping the child develop into a healthy, happy, complete person, with an expectation that better academic achievement will naturally follow?
We asked a selection of mentoring professionals where they think the emphasis should be placed and the strategies they would recommend to mentors. But we really want to hear from you as well! So please leave your thoughts on this topic in the comments below. How do you think mentors can best support mentees around academics?
A bond with a caring, committed adult scaffolds the development of a child providing both emotional support and concrete skill development. While there are many benefits to pro-social relationships some of the most promising new research in psychology and neuroscience points to the power of relationships and nurturing a growth mindset. With a growth mindset youth believe that their abilities can grow with their effort and persistence (Dweck 2012). This foundational belief is critical to psychological growth and a wide variety of skill development including self-regulation, communication, empathy, and academic identity. When students develop a growth mindset they begin to feel that 1) they belong in an academic learning community; 2) their ability and competence grow with their effort; 3) they can succeed at school; and 4) Learning has value for them. By developing a growth mindset students understand that their success is not predicated on innate talent or abilities but on how they think about their aspirations and goals. When youth are empowered to understand that the more they learn the more they grow, they’re naturally motivated to persist in the face of adversity, because challenges register as opportunities for growth not indications of incompetence.
To support students academically mentors can support the growth mindset of young people. To do this they’ll have to first develop an awareness of their own attitudes toward learning, and if they lean on a fixed mindset, as many of us do in a least one area of our lives, they need to be empowered with tools and strategies to start building their own growth mindset. Additionally they need initial and on-going support around how to communicate with youth and families in ways that promote youth competencies instead of undermining them. The supportive relationship –whether it begins with specific activity engagement (instrumental) or simply hanging out and getting to know one another (developmental) plus growth mindset modeling appears a promising strategy to strengthening academic outcomes for young people.
Mentors are not tutors—nor are they parents, teachers, therapists, friends, or guidance counselors—and the unique niche that mentors occupy needs to be cherished and protected. Decisions about mentors’ approach should be based on best practice, not constrained by “flavor of the month” curricula or the latest strategic mission of a foundation. Programs depend on ongoing funding, and when dollars are linked to the delivery of specific skills or mindsets, it can be difficult to resist. But the movement in our field toward asking volunteer mentors to pursue tightly stipulated goals and skills-training curricula, irrespective of the relationship or child’s developmental needs, is misguided. And, when the mentor relationship is seen merely as a “delivery system” for a particular curriculum or approach, the relationship can be stripped of the vital elements of fun, attunement, empathy, and spontaneity (Pryce, 2010; Spencer, 2013).
British parenting guru, Penelope Leach, once wrote that, “Rearing a child ‘by the book’—by any set of rules or predetermined ideas—can work well if the rules you choose to follow fit the [child] you happen to have. But even a minor misfit between the two can cause misery.” The same is true in mentoring. There is no “one size fits all” approach that will encompass the full range of mentees’ changing developmental needs and particular circumstances and we should remain true to the core mission of mentoring—building enduring, quality, growth enhancing relationships. Fortunately, there is an ample research base of to guide us in that realm. Across all relationships, close, effective mentoring relationships seem to be facilitated when adults possess certain skills and attributes. These include prior experience in helping roles or occupations, an ability to demonstrate appreciation of salient socioeconomic and cultural influences in the youth’s life, and a sense of efficacy for being able to mentor young people (which can be improved through pre- and ongoing training in relationships skills and ethics). Other researchers have noted the importance of shared experiences and interests, as well as the ability to advocate on behalf of the mentee and to model relevant behaviors. And, of course, fun and spontaneity need to be balanced with structure and goals.
Helping youth set and work toward goals that are important to their development appears to be beneficial, especially if the mentor and youth agree on the goals in accordance with the youth-centered approach described above. Frequent contact with experienced and knowledgeable caseworkers, and ongoing training that is grounded in research and best practices (e.g., Mentoring Central) can help mentors find the right balance between support and guidance while leaving ample room for intuitive wisdom and openness to the particular circumstances and style of one’s mentee.
At Blue Ribbon Mentor-Adovcate, we separate the roles of mentors from those of tutors. Our mentors work the way that typical community-based mentors do, spending time with students outside of school. We ask our mentors to focus primarily on building the strengths of their mentees, and not to make academics the most important thing that they do. That said, most of our mentors do support students academically. Sometimes that is homework help, but more often it means helping with a major project or other task that really needs adult involvement. We also encourage mentors to do activities that support literacy involvement, including simple things like asking your mentee to read the signs on museum exhibits. We remind mentors that one of the best things they can do to help their mentees is just to expose them to the larger world, because every bit of life experience helps a student with context for reading or other school activities.
We also use tutors, mostly undergraduate students, who meet with students during study halls, after school programming, or in an evening tutorial at a local community center. The tutors act more like homework helpers and study skill coaches. Where they overlap with mentoring is in our hope that they will develop consistent, positive relationships with the students they tutor. During our training, we introduce them to the concept that every child needs multiple consistent adults in her life, and that they can be one of those people if they stick around for a while.
One other thing that BRMA emphasizes to both mentors and tutors is that students of color need a positive racial identity as a precursor to academic success. We ask both mentors and tutors to address this directly with our students by providing them with affirming messages about their aspirations and by exposing them to same-race role models of success. We also encourage activities where they work together with other mentors and mentees so that the students are building positive peer relationships with other students of color striving for success in school. We call our tutors and mentors “vertical allies” and the students’ peers “horizontal allies”. We teach our students that they need both vertical and horizontal allies of their own race and other races on their path to success.
The results of our work show that we’ve made a tremendous impact on students’ graduation and post-secondary enrollment rates. We have also increased our students’ academic performance as measured by grade point average. But we haven’t made a significant impact on students’ test scores. Why? Our theory is that our academic support increases grades because our students are completing more homework, but we’re not impacting test scores because we don’t have a direct impact on students’ classroom learning. Unfortunately, doing more homework may not mean that you’re better prepared for tests because the two may not be exactly aligned.
When David DuBois published his meta-analysis in 2011 and talked about program impacts across a variety of mentoring styles to be “modest” at best, all I could think of was that the kids we serve deserve better. That analysis was just affirmation of something I had been suspecting for many years—we’re not capitalizing on the potential of the mentoring relationship nearly enough. If we are going to measure academic achievement—and most of us do—we should be training and coaching our mentors to be more deliberate in their support of mentees’ academic achievement. In the OJJDP Mentoring Enhancements Demonstration Program, our agency proposed a couple of strategies around encouraging mentors to be advocates and teachers. We hope those will prove to be effective in inspiring greater outcomes.
Our agency also has pursued and secured seed money for a STEM project that will invite mentors, parents, and children, including those on the waiting list, to participate in engaging activities focused on STEM learning. Though we will not be measuring the children’s grades in school, we will be pre- and post-testing their learning at each outing—something we tried out when we first received the OJJDP Strategic Enhancements grant.
In the first two outings, 87% of children and adults demonstrated they learned a new STEM fact. No, there’s no control group, but I think we’ve got the right idea. So, in terms of possibilities for encouraging mentors to support youth academic achievement, we can start with simple things. The agency can host outings that include STEM opportunities for learning. Ask local college or high school faculty member to host a demonstration of a fun and simple science experiment at your annual picnic. Remind your mentors when it’s report card time, so they can check on the progress of their mentee. Give simple rewards if families will bring their kids by with their report cards—even if the child did poorly. We need to show an interest so the families, mentors, and kids can start having meaningful conversations about school and supports a child may need to be successful.
Many programs state that as a result of mentoring relationships, mentees in the program will improve their academic performance and stay in school through high school graduation. Making sure that mentees achieve academically should be an essential part of all mentoring programs. Oddly, in my experience sometimes the mentors are the last to know the stated goals of the program in which they are volunteering let alone that they can assist to make these goals achievable!
Mentor training needs to include an awareness of what the program hopes to accomplish and give mentors the skills they need to help make that happen. I believe that building mentoring relationships based on trust and confidence is still paramount, nevertheless once a mentee trusts and admires the mentor and understands their role, helping to ensure that youth do well in school should be an integral part of the weekly sessions. Who could possibly argue with the importance of academic success that leads to high school completion?
But how can mentors encourage students to do well academically and still have fun together? The best way to do this is goal-setting. Mentees set short and long term goals and their mentors check every week to find out how they are succeeding. For example, a mentee establishes a goal to improve their grade in math from a C to a B. They write down why they need to do so, the benefits, resources available to make this possible, potential obstacles and challenges to reach the goal and a timeline for completion. Mentors in their role as advocate can search school and community resources such as a tutor to make the goal a reality. Everyone has to set goals to succeed in life and the good news is that goal setting can be a fun exercise. When the mentee achieves the goal, mentor and mentee celebrate!
When a mentor sets a goal for themselves at the same time as their mentee, it really becomes the most fun. I have witnessed mentor goals such as becoming more financially stable, returning to school to get that graduate degree, looking for a new job and eating better and getting in shape. The mentor and mentee check on each other every week to see who reaches their goal first. It seems to me that joint goal setting becomes a “win win” for both the mentor and the mentee.
Mentoring is distinct from tutoring, but there can be elements of each in the other. At Friends for Youth, we recommend that programs be clear about their focus so that they’re meeting the needs of their youth participants; also important is to make sure the mentors (and mentees and their parents or guardians) understand what the focus of the mentoring will be. For programs that emphasize building a social-emotional connection, we encourage those mentors to take a “learning to see learning everywhere” approach. This means that mentors can bring in learning activities in their usual fun activities. For example, if the mentor and mentee decide to bake cookies, the mentor would encourage the mentee to practice reading and comprehension (read aloud the recipe and keep track of the progress), math (calculating ingredient proportions if the recipe is doubled or halved), and science (thinking about how the cookie cooks best). Of course, the mentee is probably most interested in eating the cookies, but the mentor will have hopefully snuck in some learning without making it seem like homework or tutoring.
Another way we approach learning and academics is in thinking about mentoring as a component of holistic development for young people. Educator, author, and coach Patricia Moore Harbour is a champion of this concept of Community Educators, which emphasizes practices—like mentoring, leadership, and character development— that encompass developing the whole child from communities across the U.S. Our Executive Director, Becky Cooper, has been involved in this initiative with the Kettering Foundation for several years and we are excited to announce a new series of no-cost webinars (starting this week!) to anyone who is interested in educating and developing all youth.
My experience with academic mentoring is that it is hard to find the balance between the mentoring relationship and the academics. In site based mentoring, mentors crave support and ideas to fill their mentoring sessions. They see specific needs in their mentees academically but do not have the expertise to address those needs. Because resources are tight, many programs fall back on photocopied “fun” worksheets, which are dull and kids hate them. The best academic mentoring I’ve seen is where mentors weave academics into something of interest to the child. This is easily done through reading together and asking questions of the text, which helps to build reading comprehension skills, or playing games that build critical reasoning and math skills. Building a love of reading for pleasure as well as the capacity to enjoy learning a new task is well suited to the mentoring relationship and helps to build skills that will ultimately benefit the child’s capacity for learning.
So what do you think? How do you think mentors can best support mentees around academics? Let us know in the comment section below!