The (surprising) impact of student mentoring
Looking back on your own education, it’s easy to think that school is school, right?
But dig a little deeper and you’ll remember that the jump from elementary to middle school probably felt like a terrifying transition. The same was likely true when you moved from middle school to high school—it seemed like a whole new and unfamiliar world.
In an ideal situation, you’d settle in quickly. You’d find comfort with a group of friends, you’d get to know a few of your teachers, you’d join an extracurricular or two, and you’d quickly figure out the fastest way to get from your locker to the gym.
But today’s reality? The school experience looks quite a bit different for students—and it’s having some pretty dire effects on their academic performance and even their overall well-being.
Today’s students are struggling
Research shows that today’s students are grappling with a variety of different challenges—academic and otherwise.
Math and reading scores of fourth and eighth graders sharply declined between 2019 and 2022, with students posting the largest score declines ever recorded in math. Much of this nosedive could be attributed to the interruption in learning as a result of the pandemic, however data shows that scores have been slightly declining since 2012, long before the pandemic took hold.
And while grades are important, it’s not the only area where students are fighting to find their footing. Plenty of data shows they’re struggling mentally and emotionally too.
According to federal data, 75% of surveyed schools said teachers and staff have voiced concerns about student depression, anxiety, and trauma. In a survey conducted in 2021 by the CDC, 44% of high school students said they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.
It’s clear that the kids are not all alright. And it begs the question: What’s the problem here? And perhaps more importantly, what can we do about it?
What’s missing from the student experience?
As you’d probably guess, issues like student mental health and academic performance aren’t easy or straightforward problems to address. From the interruptions of the pandemic and socioeconomic barriers to family environment and staffing shortages, there are dozens of factors likely at play here.
Even so, research indicates that there’s one important element that plays a big role in the overall happiness and well-being of students—regardless of grade level: a sense of belonging.
What exactly does it mean to belong? To state it simply, students feel that they’re accepted and respected at school for exactly who they are. The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) says that students who feel they belong to their school community will agree with statements like:
Other students here like me the way I am
I feel like a real part of this school
I feel accepted at this school
I can really be myself at this school
And while belonging might feel far too intangible, mushy, or simply like a “feel good” metric when compared with something quantifiable like test scores, it’s crucial for success in all areas.
Why is a strong sense of belonging so important for students?
“A strong sense of belonging translates to students of all ages and developmental stages improving academically, being more engaged and motivated in school, and increasing their physical and emotional health,” explains the same NASSP research.
Research from Berkeley found that students who feel they belong achieve better grades. They also opt into and succeed in more demanding or challenging courses. Even data from the CDC backs up the importance of belonging, with better overall well-being among teens who report feeling connected to their school.
Mattering matters. And yet, it’s an area where a lot of educational institutions fall short, with only 49% of high school students in the U.S. agreeing that they feel like they’re a part of their school community.
How can you help students feel like they belong?
To truly support students on their paths to success, you need to emphasize belonging—and you need to do it as soon as possible.
As mentioned in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Reimagining the Student Experience report, “If you look at best practices in student success, the cornerstone is this intense understanding that if you don’t get the ‘belongingness’ right early on, the rest of it will be harder.”
But how do you get it right? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. How you support first graders will obviously be quite a bit different from how you support high school students.
Educators are experimenting with a variety of big and small changes—from starting school days with quick “mood check-ins” to connecting their class content to students’ outside interests. However, there’s one effort that’s proven to be particularly effective: mentoring.
Student mentoring is meaningful: here’s why
The traditional view of mentoring would involve matching students up with a teacher, guidance counselor, coach, or other adult to get the support and encouragement they need. But some schools are finding that there’s a better way to approach this: matching students up with each other. For example, eighth graders are matched up with sixth graders. Or juniors and seniors take incoming freshmen under their wings and help them get acclimated at their new school.
While these sort of student pairings might feel a little untraditional, they’re effective for a variety of reasons:
1. Students naturally admire older classmates
When you were a freshman, was there anyone cooler than a senior? There’s an inherent amount of adoration built into these relationships.
Younger students get the benefit of forging a bond with an upperclassman and older students enjoy feeling trusted and admired. Plus, building familiarity with other students inevitably fuels a sense of belonging better than getting to know teachers—we can all agree that it’s much “cooler” to wave to a senior in the hallway than it is to wave to your social studies teacher.
2. Students feel more comfortable with each other
Even the coolest teacher in the world is still a teacher. To students, that person is still in a position of power over them. For that reason, they might not feel entirely comfortable asking an adult about a certain school tradition or who sits where in the cafeteria.
Even if students are different ages, there’s a certain amount of camaraderie built into the student experience. After all, they’re all navigating the same hallways. Students will inevitably feel more relaxed about opening up to someone who’s at least somewhat close in age to them and better understands their challenges and references.
3. Students are more in touch with unspoken norms
A lot of the information that students need to truly feel comfortable won’t be found in your student handbook. It’s all of the intangible and unspoken stuff that truly makes up the student experience—and that’s the hardest stuff for new students to grasp.
That’s another major benefit of student mentors. They have the inside information about all of the tips, tricks, and random tidbits that can make students’ lives easier, more enjoyable, and a heck of a lot less intimidating.
From avoiding a certain food in the cafeteria to which staircase is the least busy at certain times, an older student serves as a trusted advisor equipped with all of the information that actually makes a meaningful difference in their schooldays.
Want better student outcomes? It’s all about belonging
We all want to feel like we’re connected to something bigger than ourselves—belonging is quite literally a human, evolutionary need. And students are no exception.
When students feel a strong sense of belonging with their peers, instructors, and their school overall, their academic performance and their mental and emotional well-being pretty dramatically improve.
But belonging doesn’t simply happen when you hand out matching t-shirts or mandate attendance at a school pep rally. In reality, the thing that fuels connection the most is giving students outlets and opportunities to forge relationships with each other. To get to know each other, learn from each other, and encourage each other.
School can be an intimidating experience (as evidenced by the fact that most of us still have dreams about not being able to find our lockers). When students know that they can turn to each other for advice and a little support, that’s when they feel the most connected to the entire school community—matching t-shirts or not.