Peer mentors provide vital support for vulnerable children and young people and the process offers rewards for all involved
Mentoring is not a new concept. In fact, most adults could probably bring to mind someone – a friend, relative, teacher, co-worker or acquaintance perhaps – who has had a positive, lasting effect on their life.
While literature often attributes the word “mentor” to the ancient Greeks, African scholars suggest that it was commonplace on their continent long before Greek civilisation. Some, conversely, attribute it to the work of the eighteen century French writer and educator Fenelon. Today the Collins Dictionary defines a mentor as “a wise or trusted advisor or guide”.
Similarly, peer support is not new, having originally been used by the Hindus and ancient Greeks in education. It “uses the knowledge, skills and experience of children and young people in a planned way to support and help develop the skills and confidence of other children and young people” (Hartley-Brewer 2003). Within our own education system, peer support is usually traced back to the nineteenth century with the Monitorial System of Bell and Lancaster, who strove to make education available to everyone by using older students to instruct younger ones. However, the System was not without criticism, as some suggested it was hierarchical and could be used inappropriately (McGowan 2002). Nevertheless, as many of the issues which cause distress originate in the peer group, it is not surprising that there is a failure to accept that the answer could lie within the peer group itself (Cowie & Wallace, 2000).
The twentieth century saw the popularity of both mentoring and peer support increase with schemes being run for both adults and young people as far apart as the USA, Australia, China, Spain, Canada, Bulgaria and the UK. The concept is widely used for social, educational and workplace integration and development, the promotion of positive relationships and independence, and supporting individuals at key points in their life, such as during a time of transition.
Approaches to mentoring
Hartley-Brewer (2003) identifies a number of different forms of peer support:
- peer listening – anything from a one-off occasion listening to someone talk about what is on his/her mind to spending extended time with a person as they work through a difficult problem, by showing empathy, giving support and identifying choices for possible action
- befriending/buddying – typically between young people of the same age, this approach can help reduce isolation, develop social skills and encourage friendships. It may range from informal chats with someone who is on their own to offering direct support to peers in distress
- mentoring. This usually involves a supportive one to one relationship where the mentor provides friendship, guidance and support, and may act as a role model. It can be set up to support those in minority positions or those who need help with their work
- mediation – used when young people are trained to diffuse interpersonal disagreements between peers, such as name calling and bullying
- tutoring – used to promote academic/vocational learning where the peer supporter or mentor works alongside the learner, helps, gives encouragement and praise, and helps improve social and emotional competencies
- advocacy – when young people or mentors represent the views of other young people. This could be, for example, within an organisation delivering services to the young people, at school councils or youth forums.
Many young people have the potential to become peer mentors. Success is dependant on commitment, personal and interpersonal skills, training, being supported and feeling valued. The ability to build and maintain relationships is key and it is important to be non-judgemental and trustworthy, to have good communication skills and to understand empathy and inclusion. Increasingly, young people who have received peer mentor support, including young people with SEN, are now supporting others themselves.
Benefits for all
Evaluations of peer-tutoring, cooperative learning and peer-initiation programs consistently identify significant improvements in social interaction, acceptance, and liking between heterogeneous peers, especially amongst those youngsters who have physical and or mental disabilities, or are socially withdrawn, and those without disabilities (Johnson and Johnson, 1986, cited in Black et al., 2003).
Although not without criticism, peer mentor support programmes can benefit all of those involved. The benefits to young people with SEN are numerous, particularly in relation to the development of personal, social, and work skills. Programmes can help bring about improved motivation, self-confidence, communication and social interaction with peers, and increases in skill levels. Peer mentoring can also help an individual to deal with personal problems and emotions, integrate in school, training, and leisure settings, and develop new goals and aspirations for the future.
Many young people with SEN are socially excluded because of how society perceives them, as well as by their own feelings of uncertainty and fear. Indeed, many young people with SEN often do not access new activities unless supported by a carer, support worker or family member. Support by a peer mentor is a natural, inclusive and often less obtrusive way of enabling young people with SEN to participate in a wide range of experiences, such as attending a local youth centre or sports club. A peer who acts as a role model can help young people with SEN to form better relationships with others and may also help their mentee develop their social behaviours. By helping them achieve their goals and reach their potential, mentors can help young people to feel inspired to achieve more.
It is a young person’s right to be treated equally, regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion, politics, disability or other factors. Peer mentoring can help to address barriers to ensure that all young people are treated fairly and given the respect and opportunities they deserve.
Peer mentors can also benefit greatly from their involvement in mentoring. As well as the satisfaction and sense of achievement that comes from knowing that they have helped to enhance the skills and opportunities of someone else, they can gain a fresh perspective themselves through interaction with their mentee. They can also develop their own leadership, cooperation and general interpersonal skills.
A peer mentor can learn a lot about themselves whilst supporting another person. They may identify for the first time the skills they already have and how they can improve. They can also become more reflective individuals – Do I need to be more patient? Am I truly non-judgemental? – which can encourage greater self awareness.
Of course, the inclusion of peer mentoring experience in an application or curriculum vitae can also be very useful when applying for further or higher education, or employment. It demonstrates that the applicant is a committed, well-rounded individual who has good values, is an active citizen and is keen to develop. At a time when young people are often in the news for all the wrong reasons – be it knife crime, anti-social behaviour or alcohol and drug misuse – young people volunteering to support one another can seek to redress these perceptions.
Volunteering as a peer mentor can also count towards accolades such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Indeed, many young people choose to use mentoring as part of the volunteering section of The Award. Even though the majority of young people gain a great sense of enjoyment from mentoring, it is important that their efforts are recognised and rewarded as they are making a positive difference to people’s lives.
Parents and carers can also gain from such a programme. Understandably, parents are often anxious that their son or daughter may not be fully accepted, included or treated with respect. The inclusion of their child with SEN into the local community can be a big step for parents. The support of a peer mentor for their child can help parents to overcome any anxieties they may have and feel better about their child stepping out into the big wide world.
Organisations such as schools, colleges and youth groups can also benefit from facilitating peer mentor support programmes. Programmes can serve to ensure that the setting is a fully inclusive, supportive and positive environment. Accredited peer mentor training courses can be built into subject areas, such as health and social care, and in Wales, the Welsh Baccalaureate. Moreover, peer mentor support within these settings can increase the staff’s capacity to carry out their duties. If staff can see that a young person with SEN is being successfully supported by a peer, they are then able to concentrate on other tasks or activities without apprehension.
The support of a peer mentor can help young people with SEN to become integrated into the work place, whether during a work experience placement or as part of full- or part-time paid employment. Mentors can provide and interpret instructions for the young person, ensuring that they understand their role and can carry out tasks efficiently. Mentors can help with the social inclusion of the young person with work colleagues, in particular during break and lunch times. Such support in the workplace can really contribute to a successful employment experience for the young person with SEN and help reduce their reliance on welfare benefits.
As we have seen, peer mentoring can provide numerous benefits for all, from the young people being supported and those doing the mentoring, to schools, colleges, and youth projects, and parents and carers. Even businesses and the economy as a whole can reap the rewards of having a more diverse and better motivated workforce. Crucially, though, for young people with SEN, peer mentor support can play a vital role in bringing about greater social, educational and economic inclusion.
Angela Kenvyn and Caroline Millington are from the Regional SEN Transition to Employment Initiative – Real Opportunities, a project which works across nine local authorities in Wales supported by the European Social Fund through the Welsh Government. The project works with young people to raise aspirations and increase participation in social, learning, volunteering and employment opportunities.