High school aged mentors: Challenges and recommendations

Editor’s note: In a comprehensive report on high school aged mentors, Carla Herrera and colleagues draw on data from their national study of Big Brothers Big Sisters SchoolBased Mentoring to explore the practice of enlisting high-school students to serve as volunteer mentors. They provide very useful insights and recommendations that are still quite relevant today.  In this study, ten BBBS local agencies were selected based on geographical diversity, track-record (e.g., being in operation for at least four years, having strong leadership in place, and serving at least 150 youth), and inclusion of different types of volunteer populations (e.g., high-school students and employees from local businesses). Participating youth were recruited to School-Based Mentoring programs through the usual BBBS procedures, with most referred by school staff. Baseline surveys were administered at the beginning of the academic year, as youth applied to the program, to a total of 1,139 youth and 1,009 teachers in 67 schools. Nearly 50% of the high-school Bigs were in 11th grade with 26% in 12th grade. They often participated in relatively large groups as part of their service requirements, with almost half receiving academic credit.

The following findings and recommendations were extracted from the report:

The study suggests that high-school volunteers have several valuable strengths. To their matches they bring extensive exposure to, and experience with, children. About half reported having had “a lot” of contact with youth ages 9 to 14 in the year before they volunteered, 47 percent reported having mentored informally in the past, and 18 percent had previous experience mentoring in a formal program like BBBS.

The high-school Bigs illustrated behavior that could be linked to match success. For example, the high-school volunteers involved their Littles in decision-making more often than adult mentors did – which is an important indicator of match success (Morrow and Styles 1995).  And they engaged in academic activities with their Littles less often than adult mentors typically did—a type of activity that has been linked with lower levels of mentee satisfaction and weaker youth benefits (Karcher 2004; Karcher 2007).

Overall, Littles’ relationships with high-school Bigs were similar in length and quality to relationships with adult mentors.  Littles matched with high-school volunteers, like those matched with adult volunteers, reported fairly high-quality relationships. Both groups reported similar levels of relationship quality.

There were, however, challenges associated with using teens as mentors.    For example, relative to adults, high-school Bigs were less consistent in attending match meetings, and less likely to “carry over” their matches into the subsequent school year. High-school Bigs missed significantly more match meetings over the course of the school year than did adult mentors.

Littles matched with high-school Bigs experienced improvements relative to their non-mentored peers in only one measure: teacher-reported social acceptance.  By contrast, youth matched with adult Bigs performed better than their non-mentored peers in areas, including academic performance, school behavior, and attendance.

Additionally, when directly comparing the size of these impacts, youth matched with adult Bigs benefited significantly more than those matched with high-school Bigs in six social and school-related outcomes: college expectations, youth-reported grades, parent-youth relationship quality, classroom effort, positive social behavior, and classroom misbehavior.  Youth matched with high-school Bigs benefited more than those matched with adults in only two social outcomes: social acceptance and assertiveness. Thus, on average, those youth matched with high-school mentors in the first year of their program involvement benefited very little from their mentoring experience, at least in those outcomes we tested (most of which focused on school-related areas). This was not true across all high-school Bigs programs, however.

Practices varied among the high-school mentoring programs and particular practices were linked with match success. Those high-school Bigs who met in the presence of other matches in one large space, such as the school gym, reported several benefits to this meeting structure, and their matches lasted longer than those meeting independently. However, their Littles reported lower levels of youth-centeredness, possibly resulting from teen Bigs having difficulty focusing on their Littles’ needs while in the presence of their own peers.

High-school Bigs who received at least two hours of training reported experiencing better quality and closer relationships with their Littles than those who received less training. Their Littles also reported higher-quality relationships. Additionally, by the second follow-up, their matches had lasted longer than those with Bigs who had received less training.

Those high-school Bigs who reported receiving training were more likely to carry over their match into a second school year and had longer matches by the second follow-up.  High-school Bigs with higher training quality reported higher-quality relationships at the first follow-up.  Bigs’ reports of higher-quality support from BBBS staff yielded similar associations.

Frequent communication with BBBS staff was associated with positive outcomes for Littles matched with high-school Bigs.  Relative to Littles in programs where the high-school Bigs had infrequent communication with BBBS staff, Littles in programs with more frequent communication experienced larger benefits in five social and academic outcomes.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Although there are obvious challenges in using high-school volunteers as youth mentors, there are also many indications that high-school mentoring programs can benefit youth. For example, Karcher (2005) found that teen volunteers benefited their mentees in academics and parent connectedness.  However, the focus for his evaluation was a structured program that involved extensive orientation and training. This program provided extensive support to its high-school mentors and relied on structured activities and a curriculum focused on parental involvement.

The high-school Bigs programs in this study were not drastically different from those involving adult Bigs. Yet high-school students come to the program with their own set of needs, including facing a major developmental transition (graduation for seniors) and a desire for peer interaction that, in some cases, appeared to have been met at the expense of focusing on their Littles. Although a few of the programs involved in this study were structured to accommodate some of the differences between adult and high school volunteers, the programs do not have a standardized set of practices that reflect the distinct needs of these younger volunteers. Our analyses suggest that young volunteers may need specific types of support, training, and structure to be successful in their matches.

  1. Consider how to use high-school Bigs’ natural strengths.

Although the Littles matched with high-school Bigs improved relative to their non-mentored peers in only one area (social acceptance), their impact in one additional peer-related area (assertiveness) was significantly bigger than those experienced by Littles matched with adults. These benefits correspond with mentor reports of what they focused on in their match meetings: Adult mentors reported focusing on academics more than high chool Bigs did. The high-school volunteers focused more on improving the Littles’ relationships with others. High-school Bigs’ understanding of how to help their mentees improve in peer-related areas—or helping them improve in these areas simply by virtue of their age and status—may be an important strength on which programs should try to capitalize.

  1. Ensure that young volunteers understand the importance of consistency.

High-school Bigs were more likely than their adult counterparts to miss meetings, and a majority of BBBS staff working with high-school Bigs reported that consistent attendance was a challenge for them.  Inconsistent mentoring, in many cases, could be worse for a child’s self-esteem than no mentoring at all (Karcher2005). Thus, training for high-school volunteers should make this a central focus, and, if the students receive school credit for volunteering, this credit should be made contingent on consistent attendance.

  1. Provide matches with opportunities to interact with other youth; however, use a group setting for match meetings only with significant supports in place.

Although the teen Bigs reported many benefits to meeting in the presence of other matches, their Littles reported lower levels of youth centeredness than those who met outside of this context. This type of meeting structure may require significant supervision to ensure that the high-school volunteers focus attention on their Littles as opposed to their own peers.

  1. Provide significant communication with, and support for, high-school Bigs.

Both adults and high-school Bigs appeared to benefit from strong training and support.  However, support seemed to be particularly beneficial to matches with high-school Bigs.  For example, stronger support by program staff was associated with match length only in the high-school sample. In addition, Littles matched with high-school Bigs in programs with relatively frequent communication with BBBS staff benefited more than their non-mentored peers in several outcomes, and many of these benefits were significantly bigger than those received by Littles in programs with less staff communication.

  1. Provide a minimum of two hours of training (pre-match and ongoing) to high-school mentors.

Those high-school Bigs who had received at least two hours of training by the first follow-up had longer lasting matches by the second follow-up and had higher-quality and closer relationships with their Littles.  Training content should be carefully considered to ensure that teen volunteers not only feel prepared to mentor a child, but also have the necessary skills, attitudes and knowledge base.

  1. Try to involve high-school mentors before their senior year.

Not surprisingly, seniors were less likely than younger high-school students to carry over their match into a subsequent school year.   Programs that want to keep their volunteers past one school year should make this goal explicit to seniors to ensure that this is possible for them.

  1. If providing high-school Bigs with class credit, consider providing credit only after two semesters of service or after they carry their match over into a subsequent school year.

In this study, those high-school Bigs who received class credit were less likely to carry over their match than those who did not. It is likely that students volunteered until the end of the commitment required for receiving credit, but no longer.  Thus, making credit contingent on a full year (or more) of service may be important in keeping young volunteers on board.

  1. Consider blending adult and teen programs.

High-school Bigs in programs that also used adult Bigs stayed with the program longer than those with only other high-school volunteers.  Perhaps this difference reflects differences in mentors’ original motivation for volunteering (e.g., high-school volunteers may have participated in large part for the group experience).  However, the high-school volunteers could have also been positively influenced by the presence of adults, who tended to be more consistent mentors. In mixed programs, adults could also be trained to serve as role models to the high-school Bigs.

These types of changes in the BBBS high-school Bigs model will require significant effort and may increase the cost of the high-school Bigs program. However, there are several reasons to invest such efforts in the program. First, and most importantly, high-school volunteers have the potential to make a substantial difference in their Littles’ lives, as evidenced both in evaluations of more structured programs and in those programs in the current study with very strong staff support.  Second, high-school volunteers represent an efficient way to reach many children through school-based programs. While teens require more and different kinds of support than adults, they also have unique strengths.  Finally, high-school volunteers may also benefit from the experience themselves and are more likely to volunteer in the future than their peers without volunteering experience (Toppe et al.2002).

Although findings from this study suggest several strategies for improving School-Based Mentoring programs, they should be considered preliminary until further studies can confirm that their implementation significantly improves outcomes for youth mentored by high-school age volunteers. School-Based Mentoring programs that do not yet recruit high-school mentors should wait to start such programs until clear guidelines are put in place. Similarly, those that are currently using teen volunteers should wait to expand until the field can provide guidance on how to design these programs and shape their expansion.

BBBS is already initiating several of the changes suggested in this study in its high-school Bigs program. The organization has convened a group of six of its strongest BBBS agencies to review these and other findings and share their own experiences and strategies to improve their current model.  Our findings suggest that these changes will be well worth the effort.