It seems that every week there is a new article about research on what needs to be done to give kids the best chance at being happy and healthy and successful in school. While some people complain about “kids these days,” others wonder what they can do to help kids to grow up to be contributing members of society. How do we support children so they can be successful in school and life? In truth, we already know the answer. In 1990, Search Institute collected data on four million children from a variety of backgrounds. Based on the results, they released a framework of 40 developmental assets: things that increase the chances for positive outcomes to be realized.

Of course, many of these contributions come from parents, teachers, coaches and community leaders. There are ways, however, that regular community members who have no other connection with students can have a huge impact. Specifically, the following assets:

Young person receives support from three or more nonparent adults

Parents(s) and other adults model positive, responsible behavior

Local school and community groups recognize that there is a shared responsibility for giving children the best chance to succeed. One tried-and-true program is mentorship, in which a community member is paired with a student in order to promote a positive experience for both. Austin ISD has seen many educational benefits for mentored youth: better attendance, improved attitudes in school and a greater incidence of students pursuing higher education. In addition to these academic benefits, the students have been less likely to start alcohol or drug use while being mentored.

How It Works

At the beginning of the school year, all parents receive a form on which they can request a mentor for their child. Usually there are more kids than mentors, which is all the more reason to consider volunteering to serve. Teachers, school personnel or the student can request mentors, but parents must consent. It is important that the family be on board in order for the program to be effective. Students who are assigned mentors come from all different backgrounds and ages. They may need academic support or help being motivated to come to school regularly. Children may need help developing the skills of decision-making and problem-solving. They may need practice building relationships with adults and peers. For their part, mentors can indicate a preference for the school to which they are assigned.

Mentors generally meet with students during the school day. They may play games, eat lunch or shoot hoops in the gym, but they are also helping the student build self-confidence and working on social and communication skills. Mentors can also check in with the student about progress on academic and personal goals.

Mentor, Not Savior

According to Search Institute, a mentor is a friend, role model, confidant and nurturer of possibilities. Even with the age gap, friendships can flourish. Mentors and students support each other both when things are going well and when there are problems. But a mentor is not a social worker, counselor or doctor.

If a student shares a health or safety concern, the mentor must turn to the school staff for help. A mentor might do research to provide specific support, but it is not up to her to become a professional. A mentor should not take the position thinking she is going to swoop in and fix all of the student’s problems. And a mentor limits her energies to befriending and supporting the child, not the child’s entire family.The most important traits of a mentor are to be a dependable presence and to show a genuine interest in the student as a person.

 Next Steps

If you are interested in becoming a mentor, contact your local school district. Austin ISD’s extensive mentor program is organized through its Partners in Education program. Potential mentors must fill out a volunteer application, including a background check. School districts offer training specific to mentors and provide on-going support if needed.

Some employers have programs that encourage their employees to participate in mentoring programs. Many mentors come to school during their lunch break and eat in the cafeteria with their mentee. Some employers allow an extended time for lunch; the City of Austin gives its employees up to two hours of administrative leave for mentoring during the workday. Why would an organization support a mentoring program? Because it works. Having healthy, happy and productive kids and adults who are invested in their future is good for everyone.

Jennifer VanBuren is a Georgetown educator and mother of three school-aged boys.

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