How mentors can help students navigate another complicated school year

By Jean Rhodes

As schools across the country close for the beginning of the new year, youth mentoring programs have a vital role to play in mitigating student struggles. Learning slides are already expected to be steepest for low-income, Black and Hispanic students, who typically live in more crowded homes and have less access to parental support and academic supervision. On top of that, school closures have restricted access to mental health resources for these students, many of whom are bearing the heaviest burdens of family bereavement, economic loss, housing instability, racial injustice, and trauma. A recent ACLU report highlighted the vital role of teachers, counselors, nurses, social workers, and other school staff in the lives of low-income, Black and Hispanic students. In fact, nearly all marginalized students who ever obtain mental health services do so through their schools. Social distancing has further isolated these students from face-to-face contact with the coaches, extended family members, after school staff, and other caring adults who could help them reckon with the pandemic and racially charged news and events.

To this end, many mentoring groups are launching new initiatives designed to provide ongoing support and improve students’ engagement in technology-delivered educational and mental health tools that can help them. Even before the pandemic, mentoring programs were exploring new ways to leverage effective interventions such as Khan Academy and Headspace as a low-cost, scalable means of providing targeted, evidence-based care. When used consistently, these tools offer user-friendly resources that can boost achievement and reduce depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other struggles. And, although high-speed internet is unequally distributed, the vast majority of young people have access to smartphones and are in the habit of checking them many times a day. In fact, students from underserved and marginalized groups tend to rely on their smartphones even more heavily than do their more privileged counterparts. By making tutoring and therapy more accessible via smartphones, these tools are helping to close service gaps and shifting tasks from professionals to paraprofessionals and volunteers.

Unfortunately, this potential has been limited by low use and high rates of non-completion of even the best technology-delivered tools. Engaging marginalized youth and their families in educational and mental health services has always been a challenge and self-administered interventions are no exception, even when teachers and mental health care providers recommend them. In the absence of coaching and support, as many as three quarters of youth disengage from educational and mental health apps after their initial installation. When blended with coaching, however, these tools can produce effects that are more than double those without coaching. The founder of Khan Academy recently called on teachers to “do cold calling to ensure students are on their toes and to pull them out of their screens…Through personalized practice, each student can work on the skills that are most appropriate for them with a focus on the gaps that they may need to fill. Ideally, parents should also have access to the data to ensure their students are on track.” Volunteer mentors, perhaps more readily than overwhelmed teachers and parents, are well-positioned to offer this individualized supportive accountability. They can promote engagement and provide tailored support and practice opportunities, helping to shoulder some of the burden for this effective strategy.

As, we head into what promises to be another difficult school year, volunteers can lend a hand, and to provide students with the support and accountability they need to benefit from effective, technology-delivered tools.