Peer mentoring helps fill mental health support gap
Amanda Novak, an assistant principal at Westgate Community School in Thornton, Colorado, shared with EdSurge the story of her K-12 school’s struggle with an insufficient number of counselors to meet students' needs. So, school leaders decided to start a peer mentoring program more than three years ago to help provide extra support and guidance to students who needed it in navigating the school environment.
The program started as a piece of an already existing service learning course that met once a week. Selected students were trained in basic counseling and mentoring skills, observed counseling activities in action, and were able to work and build supportive relationships with peers in an authentic, unscripted way, EdSurge notes.
This approach has freed up time for counselors and administrators to deal with more crisis situations and has prevented some low-level concerns about at-risk students. In addition to its growth over the years, the school has also expanded partnered with special education teachers to build peer mentoring into some student Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) as a social-emotional learning (SEL) component.
Students of all ages face various stressors throughout their academic careers — stress over homework, issues with peers, financial troubles, mental health issues and more. And without the proper guidance and support, these students' negative feelings can get worse and can significantly disrupt the way a child functions and the behaviors they exhibit. In the most extreme cases, this can lead to dropping out, substance addictions or suicidal thoughts. But a lack of funding for enough school counselors can leave many of these students stranded as mental health professionals struggle to deal with more urgent situations.
Peer mentoring and counseling programs can help address these less urgent needs by providing an additional layer of support in schools and by closing the mentoring gap. Many times, students simply need a safe space to share their thoughts and concerns and an understanding person to point them in the right direction. English-language learners, students with special needs, and others who may feel alienated at school also need extra support connecting with their peers. And cross-age peer counseling can offer younger students a guide to transitioning to higher grades.
Students who have demonstrated qualities of good judgment, empathy and compassion can sometimes achieve better results than adults in these situations, as kids oftentimes have an easier time relating to someone their own age. Peer mentoring can also be seen as a less frightening concept for students who may still see a stigma attached to mental health services.
These student-led initiatives also have a better chance of influencing school culture. Peer mentors can build on the success of SEL programs and create a ripple effect that promotes kindness and compassion — two life-long skills that will also pay off in future relationships.
However, one thing to be mindful of is the role of parent involvement in such programs. It's best if parents of both mentors and mentees approve of a mentoring relationship, but it is especially important that mentors have parental permission to be involved. Mentoring requires special training and can take an emotional toll on a mentor, and parents should ensure their students are taking care of themselves in the process.
Staff and administrative support is also crucial. School counselors and administrators need to make sure student mentors clearly understand their limits and comprehend when a situation with a mentee needs to be passed on to someone with more training and authority. Situations concerning sexual or parental abuse, suicidal thoughts and violent ideas need to be dealt with by a trained professional. There also needs to be someone assigned to make sure the program is properly supported and supervised. While peer counseling can be a positive experience for a school and those involved, the lines of responsibility and communication need to be clearly drawn.