So you want to be a mentor?

7th December 2012 at 00:00
Helping the 5 per cent of pupils with the biggest behaviour problems takes commitment and skill, argues Paul Dix

The critical issue for many schools is the behaviour not of the majority but of the 5 per cent. These children do not fit neatly into boxes. They do not respond to sticks or carrots. They grow up fast and, all too often, furious.

Anger management classes, casual mentoring and unfocused "inclusion units" do more harm than good. The 5 per cent need interventions of greater quality and longevity. They need people who are trained to deal with their complex needs, not behaviour management tricks.

With the 5 per cent, trust is everything. They have stopped trusting adults. They wrap themselves in layers of protection to hide their pain. They shut and bar the door to most grown-ups. For the vast majority of adults a quick "Cock off!" works brilliantly as a first line of defence. Peeling the layers away means that you are going to weather a few sweary storms.

Yet a relationship based on mutual trust is not enough. Anyone can befriend. "Call me Bob" mentoring feels lovely but goes nowhere. A direction is needed.

When you step into a mentoring role with one of the 5 per cent it must be a commitment for the long term. Sustained, planned and assertive mentoring is the strategy that has most impact.

Yet most pupils get a series of watered-down "programmes" involving a series of wannabe mentors and worksheets on "dealing with feelings". They get penal portable classrooms where the most vulnerable are often supervised by the least experienced. Many are given untrained mentors who dangerously improvise their way through complex issues. They have no idea how to modify behaviour and attitude. In some schools, mentoring relationships are amateur therapy sessions that do more harm than good.

Effective mentoring programmes are purposeful and challenging. They focus on closing the attitude gap as well as the attainment gap. At times they are uncomfortable and provocative. Mentors are trained to steer children, to modify behaviour and not simply to be a sounding board.

Mentoring programmes must drive achievement as well as support emotional needs. If you want to look at how to have a positive mentoring relationship while still focusing on achievement, visit an outstanding pupil referral unit or school for children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, such as the Bridge Academy in southwest London or Littlegreen School in West Sussex.

Real commitment to succeeding with the 5 per cent means working with parents and guardians, too. The success of the Pupil Parent Partnership in Ealing, West London is testament to this. It is a great example of how truly effective mentoring means creating a genuine connection with the family, not just the child. Staff there are attuned to the needs of the family and link intensive family work with outstanding mentoring for the child.

Another excellent project is Engage in Education, led by the social business Catch22 and funded by the Department for Education. It brings together multidisciplinary teams to work with the 5 per cent in schools before they get to the point of being excluded. This project uses expert teachers from the children's communication charity I Can ( alongside behaviour mentors and family support work. Problems with communication are, after all, among the biggest barriers to achievement. Last year there was an average decrease in fixed-term exclusions of 59 per cent among schools taking part in the project.

Multidisciplinary teams are effective but expensive. It makes more sense to train and recruit people to work across two or three disciplines; giving teachers qualifications in aspects of social work and training psychotherapists to teach. We need a more flexible approach to training and job-sharing across sectors. The 5 per cent need adults who are not just willing but trained and able.

Paul Dix is lead trainer at Pivotal Education and author of The Essential Guide To Taking Care of Behaviour.

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