Mental health is a dynamic state of balance between one’s emotional, psychological, and social well-being (Galderisi et al., 2015). Everyday stresses can affect this balance. Stress may result from, for example, poverty; marginalization; historical trauma; lack of safety at home, school, and/or in the community; or separation from loved ones. If stress is persistent or cumulative and is not addressed adequately, it can have detrimental effects on the social, emotional, and physical well-being of youth and long-term economic and health impacts on society (Tanyu et al., 2020).
The closure of schools in favor of virtual learning during the COVID pandemic created an “academic hole” and further exposed the inequities that exist in communities (Goldhaber, 2022). Students from several countries, including the United States, also experienced a ”social and emotional hole” as a result of reduced contact with peers and caring adults, social isolation, and family stress (Viner et al., 2022). These experiences affected students’ mental health and well-being.
Since schools have reopened from the COVID pandemic, educators are now tasked with closing the learning gap and addressing the many mental health challenges experienced by children, families, and communities.
Positive Relationships in Schools Help to Address the Diverse Needs of Students
Support staff in schools (e.g., counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses) have many responsibilities and may not be able to address the diverse needs of all students. Current estimates show that there is one school psychologist for every 1,381 students, one counselor for every 482 students, and only about one third of school districts require a full-time nurse in a school (cf. Adelman & Taylor, n.d.). These estimates suggest we have a “mental health service gap” in our schools that needs to be addressed quickly.
Fortunately, the majority of children and adolescents’ needs are grounded in sociocultural and economic stressors rather than in mental health disorders that require intensive resources (Adelman & Taylor, n.d.). Although services from mental health professionals in schools are important, school environments should also promote and build long-term resilience in individuals to help them bounce back from adverse experiences and trauma (Slade et al., 2014).
As the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory suggests, addressing mental health and well-being in our schools must be a collective response (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021). Caring adults and mentors can play an active role as part of the collective response.
Because youth spend a large part of their day in schools and other educational settings, promoting relationship-rich learning environments is crucial. A “relationship-rich” setting is a school community where students and adults feel seen and welcome and where adults meet students where they are and respond to what they need (Search Institute, 2022).
Many caring adults in the schools (e.g., coaches, teachers, safety patrol, after school staff) model positive interactions and provide affirmation and social capital (Reeves & Deng, 2022) that youth need outside their home environments. For example, a math teacher can reinforce a growth mindset in the classroom by affirming students’ motivations and efforts in learning content. A safety patrol officer who praises a student for avoiding a conflict with another student reinforces self-awareness and responsible decision making.
According to Amy Soos, the systems of support advisor at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Virginia, “Some teachers naturally know how to relate with their students but our goal is to help all teachers and staff develop their toolbox so they intentionally look for ways to connect with students.”
However, some students may have more intense social, emotional, and behavioral needs than can be filled by these unplanned interactions with adults in school. These adults may not be able to recognize easily the underlying needs of some students. For example, Soos’s school serves 4,200 students, and she recognizes the diverse social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students. While creating a relationship-rich school is her primary goal, her job also includes (a) working with other mental health and support personnel to identify students with social, emotional, and behavioral needs and (b) providing supports that respond to these needs. Soos’s school administers a brief assessment with 7th-, 9th-, and 11th-grade students to identify those who are at risk of self-harm. She explains, “Not all kids we assess have needs that may elevate to specialized services such as therapy. Sometimes they might need a bit more targeted attention from a caring adult in the school.”
Soos reaches out to classroom teachers who identify students with higher needs and then pairs these students with a trained community volunteer who serves as a mentor. The mentors meet one-on-one with their respective students each week at school and encourage each student to build on his or her strengths and interests. “Mentoring can be an effective approach to take on a less intensive but targeted approach to support youth well-being through trained volunteers,” Soos adds.
The Importance of Mentor Training
Training and supporting community volunteers to serve as mentors in schools may allow school staff to target their limited time and skills toward more specific and intensive services for students who need professional services. In a blog in the Chronicles for Evidence-based Mentoring, Jean Rhodes (2022) suggests that training volunteers to understand and address targeted youth needs (e.g., academic, social, emotional, behavioral) may be the first step in closing the mental health gap that exists among today’s youth.
Jennifer Kriebl, national director of the Reach & Rise® mentoring program says, “When mentors are trained to infuse trauma-informed, therapeutic approaches into their interactions with youth, they become more intentional in the ways they talk with youth about their everyday struggles, such as sibling conflict at home, getting bullied on the bus, and perceptions of self-worth. In our program, we see examples of how mentors can change the way youth become more aware of themselves and others and in the way they interact with others that are more adaptive and positive at home and at school.”
In the Reach & Rise program, community volunteers commit to completing an 18-hour training program on ways to help youth understand and change their thoughts, behaviors, and interactions with peers and adults. Volunteers also participate in monthly check-in meetings with the program’s staff.
Mentoring as a Strategy to Advance Equity
Formal mentoring serves thousands of students across the United States. Advocacy and research on youth mentoring in the last decade have supported this national movement.
For example, for MENTOR, a national organization committed to promoting equitable opportunities for young people through meaningful and supportive relationships, youth mentoring is a cross-sector movement that prioritizes relationships and fuels opportunities “for young people everywhere they are from schools to workplaces and beyond” (MENTOR, n.d.). Furthermore, a variety of school-based mentoring programs in our educational systems use different structures (in-person or online) and formats (e.g., one-on-one, group-based) to support students with different needs (e.g., academic engagement, peer conflict, college readiness) (National Mentoring Resource Center, n.d.).
MentorWorks—a districtwide, in-school mentoring program—pairs mentors with students in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. Launched in 1999, the program seeks to eliminate gaps in opportunity, access, and learning by connecting students, who are identified with social and emotional needs, with a school staff member or community volunteer who serves as a mentor.
Through a coordinated effort to partner with local institutions and organizations, MentorWorks expanded its pool of community volunteers and outreach to a larger number of students. “What began in a few schools with committed school staff serving as mentors is today a fast-growing program serving more than 5,000 students across our 200 district schools and centers,” says the Program Lead and Mentoring Specialist, Martha Macdonald.
However, school closures during the COVID pandemic suddenly disrupted the weekly in-person contact between the mentors and their paired mentees. Such closures also limited the availability of school staff who could monitor and support the matched pairs. This barrier highlighted the program’s need to provide more centralized, targeted, and accessible resources so mentors could maintain contact, even virtually, with their mentees. Consequently, the program restructured its tools and resources for mentors in 2022 and is preparing to launch a virtual platform to help maintain continuous contact between the mentoring pairs. Macdonald says, “The pandemic taught us to be much more targeted in our effort to support our students.”
- Schools should strive to be relationship-rich settings where every student can thrive through positive and supportive relationships with adults.
- School-based youth mentoring is a strengths-oriented approach that can help students connect with resourceful, supportive, and caring adults. Mentors can help students with identified needs (a) learn adaptive social, emotional, and behavioral strategies and (b) access information and opportunities they might otherwise not have.
- Engaging community volunteers as mentors in schools can alleviate the mental health service gap to support students’ social emotional needs as they strive to close the learning gap.
This blog was developed by Manolya Tanyu, with valuable input from Kellie Anderson.