George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Wellness

Peer Support for Struggling Students

A school elective supports students who are on the autism spectrum or have a learning disability by pairing them with peer mentors.

April 19, 2018
Two high school students walking together on campus, smiling
©iStock/monkeybusinessimages

Peer pressure is a powerful force among teenagers, and we often hear of it as a negative factor. Rather than allowing it to have a negative connotation, we should embrace the power it has for our students. To that end, I’ve helped foster a peer support program at my school called Peer to Peer.

Peer Mentoring

In this program at my 400-student middle and high school, 15 mentors provide academic support to 12 underperforming mentees within and outside of the classroom. The mentees all either are on the autism spectrum or have a learning disability.

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Each mentor attends one class per day with their mentee—for example, a mentor might accompany their mentee to science every day if that is a typically difficult subject for the struggling student. The mentor helps with taking notes and listening to the teacher’s instructions to ensure that the mentee can perform the next set of tasks.

The mentor sits with their mentee, keeping them on task in labs, making sure they participate in groups, and guiding them to explain their answers. The mentor may help their mentee in the resource room and study hall, and may help with studying after school if the mentee wants and needs that extra support.

The mentor provides social support for their mentee as well, making sure they have someone to sit with at lunch and at school sporting events. They may invite their mentee to after-school activities and ensure that they have someone to be with at those activities. The mentor encourages their mentee to become more involved within the school community.

Implementing the Program

Our mentoring program is an elective course within the school’s master schedule, so students get credit for participating (it’s a credit/no credit course—no grades are given).

A program like this requires at least one time a week when the teacher overseeing the work can have all of the mentors together, in order to teach mentoring skills and other useful information. This gathering also gives students an opportunity to discuss struggles, similar to internship courses in college. 

Our school has a period called bonus at the end of every day—a little over 30 minutes for students to work on homework or study.The Peer to Peer teacher uses bonus on Fridays to meet with the mentors; that’s not ideal as it’s too short, but it would be difficult for students to give up two class periods for mentoring.   

All mentors also check in with the teacher daily at some point. Most check in at the beginning of the class period when they’re scheduled as a mentor since that’s easier for them.

After setting up your system, you need to recruit mentors. Our first year, we recruited our strongest students to help, ones who could afford to take an elective course. The mentors need to be strong academically and have good social skills.

A large number of our mentors have been students who were interested in going into teaching. The program allowed them to get a bit of hands-on experience and gave them practice working with underperforming students.

Our program began to grow authentically as the mentors recruited peers to join and other students saw the fun and joy the program brought to participants. Often, the teacher would run out of mentees before she would run out of mentors, and some mentees would have more than one mentor, each helping with different courses.

Benefits

As we know, peers can be a powerful motivator for other students. As a school counselor, I track students’ grade data to ensure that we provide them with proper support to be successful in school, and I’ve witnessed GPA growth among our students who participated in Peer to Peer.

I’ve also seen students’ attendance improve while participating in Peer to Peer. A student I worked with regularly used to attend school not even 10 percent of the time, but once she started participating in Peer to Peer, she began attending daily. Yes, some days were still difficult for her, and I would be on the phone in the morning talking her through waking up and getting ready for the day. But with Peer to Peer she felt needed and had a responsibility to others, which motivated her to come to school every day, even if it was just for that one class period.

Another student would often report self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and negative self-comments prior to being in Peer to Peer. After one grading period of participation in the program, she stopped seeing me for self-harm. She would instead come by just to chat. She gained self-confidence and started attending school events. Her mentor encouraged her to explore other friendships and attend after-school programs.

Witnessing the social growth among students like this one has been astounding to me.

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  • Student Wellness
  • Social and Emotional Learning