It was autumn 2019 and our peer mentoring programme had got off to a wonderful start.
Mentors and mentees were dotted around our primary library, sitting on colourful cushions or perched on benches, playing games, chatting freely and supporting each other. The atmosphere was warm and uplifting, with students enjoying this break in routine and chance to connect.
Then the world changed. We were subject to a hiatus of home learning owing to a global pandemic, and the chaos and changes this created in our schools.
As time went on, Covid-19 remained and our return to school hung in the balance as the government took difficult decisions about our futures. Thankfully, following the summer break, our school was able to resume in-person teaching, with bubbles and social distancing in place.
The question of how to continue our extra provision then loomed. Numerous partnerships meeting across bubbles, across the primary/secondary divide, with teacher supervision…was this even possible? Should we try? It was a daunting prospect even to contemplate.
But contemplate we did. Fast-forward a couple of weeks and now every Wednesday, you will find partnerships of mentors and mentees sprinkled around, albeit in a Teams chat room and not in the library.
The support continues, with 17 pairings currently operating, and the number growing by the week. Each room has a teacher to supervise and mentors have been provided with in-house training and regular follow-up support overseen by the school counsellor.
Why introduce a peer mentoring programme?
Peer mentoring has been defined as “a structured and trusting relationship that brings young people together with caring individuals, who offer guidance, support and encouragement” (Australian Youth Mentoring Network). The benefits, supported by overwhelming positive academic research, are numerous and include:
- A system of support and belonging for students.
- Further development of social skills.
- Strengthened relationships with peers and school.
- Exposure to healthy coping mechanisms.
Key findings from research conducted by the Mentoring and Befriending Foundation, based in Manchester, UK, found that “participants of peer-mentoring programmes and school staff feel that the programmes benefit both the young people and the pupils that they mentor, and are perceived to have a wider benefit for the climate of the school”.
Peer mentoring has been shown to reduce the incidence of bullying and promotes self-confidence and self-esteem. It also adds an extra level to the pastoral support offered by a school; it helps to convey the message that this is a school that cares about its pupils.
8 steps to introducing a peer-mentoring programme
For those wanting to start a peer-mentoring programme, I can outline how we went about it at Hartland, and give some tips along the way:
1. Present the programme to students and ask for volunteers
It is important to outline the benefits in addition to the level of commitment and expectations required. We ask for a written application from the student, detailing their reasons for wanting to be involved and what they can offer to the role.
Since starting this programme, we have added the additional requirement of a reference from a form teacher or tutor. It is imperative that a mentor has a proven track record as a reliable and consistent role model who will prioritise this relationship.
2. Select mentors
As part of the selection process, ensure that the student is committed to timings, day and frequency of meetings. For example, this year, our students committed to meet every second Wednesday after lunch for 20 minutes.
3. Offer training
Training is conducted by the peer-mentoring coordinator, which, at Hartland, is the school counsellor. Our training includes the following:
- Responsibility and commitment.
- The qualities of a successful mentor with a special focus on listening skills and empathy.
- Suggested questions and topics of conversation.
- When to be concerned/safeguarding.
4. Select mentees
Primary teachers are asked to recommend students they feel would benefit. It could be a student who is struggling socially or for whom an older role model and extra support would be an advantage. The counsellor and heads of year are likely to have additional insights or recommendations.
5. Get parental consent
Consent is sought for mentees, with the benefits outlined and the reassurance of staff support given.
6. Match mentor with mentee
Discussions with staff who have close knowledge of both mentor and mentee will assist in the matching process. Considerations we have used include gender, similar interests and mother tongue, which for us, as a school with 57 per cent of students for whom English is not their first language, is a large consideration. An introvert and extrovert combination can work well, also.
7. Confirm logistical arrangements
This includes when and where to meet. It could be in a large area with cushions or beanbags dotted around, as in my initial illustration. Board games and paper and coloured pencils on tables could also be provided to help break the ice, and the opportunity to talk and develop a relationship over a shared interest.
I would suggest getting two staff members to supervise, depending on the number and the needs of the students. If meeting online is indicated, then there will need to be a trained staff member in every pairing.
8. Offer follow-up training and feedback
It is beneficial to have a forum to connect with mentors to ensure that the relationships are developing and helpful to the mentee, and not getting “stuck”. This training includes further communication skills and strategies for supporting students with social skills development.
It is important for mentors to feel supported in their endeavours, as retention is paramount. Feedback from students is also encouraged.
A positive outlook
This unforeseen pandemic may have brought much of the world to a grinding halt but it hasn’t stopped our endeavours to continue to provide our students with a positive, safe and inclusive school culture, and we see peer mentoring as an integral part of this.
Anna White is student support counsellor at Hartland International School, Dubai