by Margo Ross, Senior Director of Development, Center for Supportive Schools
School-based, cross-age peer mentoring programs tap into the power of older students to create nurturing, supportive environments for younger students and can be a highly effective tool to address Principle 4, creating a caring community.
“Students are not able to focus in the classroom if they don’t feel emotionally secure,” says Doris Lee, Principal at Village Academy Middle School in Queens, New York City. “What [peer mentoring] has helped me do with my school community is create kind of a positive peer pressure where the leaders are working with younger students and using their relationships to help them do the right thing.”
Village Academy is one of approximately 250 schools across the country that implements Peer Group Connection (PGC), an evidence-based, school-based peer mentoring program that immerses younger students in safe and supportive groups led by older peer mentors. Introduced in 1979 by the Center for Supportive Schools (CSS), PGC trains carefully selected older students (11th and 12th graders in high schools; 8th graders in middle schools) as part of their regular school schedule in a daily, 45-minute leadership development class to become peer mentors and serve as positive role models and discussion leaders for younger students (9th graders or 6th graders). Peer mentors work in pairs to co-lead groups of 10 to 14 younger students in weekly sessions in which the younger students participate in engaging, hands-on activities in supportive environments.
George Morales, PGC Advisor at Union City High School in New Jersey shares, “We have a large bilingual population, and those kids sometimes feel like they're not a part of the school. Having them in peer mentoring groups gives them an extra voice to get involved. The kids that were in PGC, now they want to be peer leaders and start mentoring other kids that just came to this country.”
Cross-age peer mentoring can be a powerful tool for schools, but it is not without its risks. Because they are teens themselves, peer mentors lack the life experience and wisdom of adult mentors. There is a danger that they will model negative behaviors and attitudes for mentees. Peer mentors may also struggle with the commitments necessary for consistent, high-quality mentoring relationships. It can be hurtful to mentees if peer mentors fail to show up for meetings or appear uninterested or unconcerned about them.
To help mitigate these risks, schools are encouraged to consider the steps to establishing an effective peer mentoring program:
- Determine goals and objectives. Establish goals, measurable objectives, and expected outcomes before launching your program.
- Develop a stakeholder team. Assemble and meet regularly with a group of invested individuals who bring different skills and resources to support program implementation and sustainability.
- Choose skilled faculty advisors. Faculty advisors should be authentically committed to program success and able to model strong facilitation and leadership skills for peer mentors.
- Implement a thorough peer mentor selection process. Peer mentors should be a well-rounded and diverse group, representative of the student population. Consider recruiting students with existing leadership skills as well as students who would benefit from the opportunity to develop and practice leadership skills. Create an application process for peer mentors, which may include a student application, group and/or individual interview, and faculty recommendations.
- Provide robust training. Training for peer mentors should create a strong support network amongst the peer mentors, provide ongoing opportunities for peer mentors to learn and practice facilitation skills and mentoring activities, and provide regular opportunities for peer mentors to reflect on their practice.
- Utilize an interactive, structured, and engaging curriculum. Quality and consistency of peer mentoring is strengthened by a structured curriculum that provides engaging, hands-on activities. The curriculum should include interactive and relevant activities and incorporate reflective practice to support students’ learning critical skills aligned to the goals and objectives of the program.
- Integrate program into the school day and educational plan. Student commitment and consistency will be significantly enhanced by integrating the peer mentoring program into the school day, within the daily school schedule of each participating student.
- Involve parents. Communicate regularly with parents of peer mentors and mentees about their child’s participation in your program. Consider leveraging peer mentors to facilitate family events that include engaging activities that help foster communication between parents and their children.
- Evaluate. Meet regularly throughout the year with your stakeholder team to assess your progress. Student surveys and school records can be used to evaluate program outcomes.
“This program has really made a significant impact on me,” shares Alvert Hernandez, former peer leader from Union City High School. “I’m currently serving my second term as student body president at New Jersey City University so a lot of the things I learned about communicating and building relationships have really transformed my life. As a junior, even as a senior, I wasn’t really thinking about applying to college and [my PGC advisor] Mr. Morales gave me the extra step and motivation. Being a peer leader made me feel like if I don’t go to college now, I’m not going to be as good of an example. It kind of put me into a higher standard and made me be aware of the other people watching me.”
There is compelling evidence that PGC can significantly lower high school dropout rates. A 4-year longitudinal, randomized-control study conducted by Rutgers University that PGC improves the graduation rates of its student participants by nine percentage points and cuts by half the number of male students who would otherwise dropout. Student participants also report that as a result of PGC, they are more connected to school, more motivated to complete high school and post-secondary education, and better equipped to make decisions, set goals, and communicate with peers and adults.
According to MENTOR, The National Mentoring Partnership, “mentoring helps because it guarantees a young person that there is someone who cares about them.” Effective peer mentoring accomplishes this while simultaneously activating students to be lifelong leaders who make schools safer, more supportive, engaging, and inspiring for themselves and their peers.
Building Effective Peer Mentoring Programs in Schools: http://educationnorthwest.org/sites/default/files/building-effective-peer-mentoring-programs-intro-guide.pdf
Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring™, 4th Edition: http://www.mentoring.org/new-site/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Final_Elements_Publication_Fourth.pdf
Handbook of Youth Mentoring, 2nd Edition: http://www.sagepub.com/books/Book234516
Increases in Academic Connectedness and Self-esteem Among High School Students Who Serve as Cross-age Peer Mentors (and other resources by Michael Karcher, et. al): http://www.michaelkarcher.com/CAMP_site.html