5 Reasons to Give Peer Mentoring a Try

5 Reasons to Give Peer Mentoring a Try
By Dan Miller, Chief Learning Officer, AEE

My 4 year-old recently starting taking a martial arts class. She really likes the class, but sometimes she chooses to sit in the corner instead of participate in group activities. The adults have been working with her, talking to her, getting down on her level, offering encouragement, but nothing seemed to help…until they had another child try talking to her. Within seconds, she was out of the corner and participating with the rest of the group.

Whether you are working with youth or adults, peer mentoring is an invaluable tactic for helping students overcome obstacles, build communication and leadership skills, and develop positive relationships. A definition borrowed from the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin calls Peer mentoring a process through which a more experienced individual encourages and assists a less experienced individual develop his or her potential within a shared area. Here are 5 reasons why you should use it.

1. It beats trying to do it all yourself
It would be nice if students’ needs presented themselves one at a time in a nice orderly fashion, but that is not the norm. I once had a 4 out of 8 students on a wilderness trip go ‘on strike’ and refuse to do any work during camp set-up. Instead of trying to hold one-on-one conversations with all 4 students, I had 2 of the compliant students do some peer counseling while the rest of us got started on cooking dinner. Before dinner was even ready all the students had rejoined the group and set up a beautiful camp.  When the teacher can't do it all, peer mentorship can help lessen the load.

2. It fosters teamwork and collaboration
Every new group has an opportunity to build a unique culture based on shared values and goals. One form of peer mentorship that can contribute to a healthy group culture is peer to peer feedback. Many experiential classrooms offer students real power to evaluate each other’s performance and offer feedback on how to improve. The result is a culture of trust and open communication. This can also reduce the ‘us vs them’ attitude that can arise in groups where feedback only comes from the top down in the form of evaluations or grades.  When introducing students to peer feedback, it is a good idea to ease them into it.  Perhaps the first week you have everybody offer 1 piece of positive feedback to the person on their left.  The next week you might add one piece of constructive feedback to the mix.  You can then progress to having one student in the 'hot seat' receiving feedback from all their peers and so on until you have group of students who feel comfortable with feedback and critique.

3. It can be more effective than teacher-led interventions
Social cognitive theory suggests that peers have the ability to strongly influence each other because people are more likely to imitate the behavior of those they see as similar to themselves. Studies have shown peer-led interventions to be effective at everything from preventing drug abuse to increasing high school graduation rates.

4. It helps to build social-emotional skills
Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) refers to is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions (CASEL.org, 2018). Perhaps the most important reason to use peer mentoring is that it helps build these important life skills through practical and relevant experience with peers.

5. It empowers students to solve their own problems
Do you want to teach your students to depend on you to solve all their problems? If not, then it is important to give them opportunities to succeed and fail without teacher intervention. I once had a group that was failing miserably to meet a time management goal we had set for them around lunch time. For several days in a row, they did not meet the goal and really didn’t seem to care all that much. Eventually, mostly out of frustration, I left the area during lunchtime to talk with my co-instructor about what was happening. When we returned to the group we were shocked to find that they had finished eating and cleaning up 10 minutes early. The students told us they expected us to make sure they met their time goal when we were there, but when they didn’t see us around then they figured that they had to do it themselves…and they did!

A caveat to all of this is that peer-mentoring is a broad topic and some forms require more thought and preparation than others. For example, in the peer counseling example above those 2 students were coached on how they would work the others. Also, if students don’t have access to appropriate resources then leaving them alone to solve their problems will probably not be helpful. However, with a little planning and a bit of believing in your students, peer mentorship can be an important and effective tool for your educator toolbox.

Do you have examples of peer mentorship in action? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.


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