Providing summertime contact in school-based mentoring programs

Abstract: 

One of the main challenges for school-based mentoring programs is keeping matches in touch over the summer break when extensive in-person meetings may not be possible. Research indicates that school-based mentoring relationships suffer when summer contact is absent (Herrera, Grossman, Kauh, Feldman, & McMaken, 2007). Luckily, there are several strategies available to school-based mentoring programs to keep matches engaged, minimize the negative impact of the summer break on relationship quality, and get matches ready to build on positive momentum when the school year starts back up.

Issue:

Mentoring relationships require longevity and consistency to achieve optimal results. The summer break presents a challenge for both of these criteria, leaving programs scrambling to find meaningful opportunities for matches to interact while often having limited staffing and access to facilities over the break. Researcher Jean Rhodes (2002) noted that suspending services during the summer months "is short-sighted, particularly since program effects tend to accrue with time, and many behavioral problems and difficulties arise during the summer months." If school-based mentoring programs are to be effective, they must find a way of keeping the momentum from the school year going over the break.

Action:

Although each school-based mentoring program has unique structures, staffing, resources, and facilities, there are several options for just about any program that wants to keep matches in contact over the summer months. To design appropriate summer contact activities, program coordinators should:

  • Take stock of the access they have to resources like meeting space, temporary staff, other school services (summer school, athletic facilities, etc.), community-based learning opportunities, and transportation.
  • Base decisions on the level of supervision the program can provide and the appropriateness of the summer activities. Activities should only take place if the program can ensure the safety of participants and if the activities match the goals of the program.

If conducting regular weekly meetings at the school site is not possible, the following strategies can still provide opportunities for matches to meet up:

  • Many schools have club and athletic activities during the summer (football, band, orchestra, etc.). Mentors may be able to visit (or even assist) during these times.
  • Boys & Girls Clubs and YMCAs have a variety of activities for youth during the summer months. Ask representatives of these organizations about using their facilities for mentoring time. They may be able to provide supervision, a safe environment, access to other group outings, or help with transportation.
  • Take a group field trip to local college campuses, art museums, nature areas, sporting events, or other community-enrichment places.
  • Schedule a group basketball or softball game among mentors and mentees (this can be a great parent-involvement piece as well, especially if combined with a picnic).
  • Arrange for matches to participate in service-learning activities (group or individual). See  www.servicelearning.org for ideas.
  • Have matches help out with fundraising activities for the program (car washes, bake sales, walk-a-thons, etc.). Be sure to follow any fundraising guidelines your program may be subject to.
  • As summer winds down, gather mentors, parents and guardians, and mentees in preparation for the start of the school year. Hold "get reacquainted" events to prepare everyone for the school year ahead.

If in-person events of any type are not an option for your program, there are still several strategies for keeping matches in contact over the summer. Some programs allow matches to call each other over the summer months. But for many school-based programs, telephone contact is prohibited, and even if allowed over the summer, there are concerns that this type of contact could create a number of problems. Program coordinators should discuss the benefits and risks of phone contact with the program's advisory committee, legal counsel, and other stakeholders before making a decision.

In lieu of phone contact, many school-based mentoring programs offer some form of written correspondence over the summer months. There are several free or low-cost options for conducting a summer correspondence campaign:

Postcards — Print and prepay postage on custom postcards that mentors and mentees can use throughout the summer months. Postcards are especially helpful for sending quick notes and updates while on vacation and are a great way for matches to share their summer adventures.

Pros: Low cost; limited amount of writing for youth; limited opportunities for boundary issues to arise or unauthorized meetings to occur.

Cons: Difficult for staff to monitor frequency or content of correspondence.

Traditional letters — A more robust form of correspondence involves matches taking the time to write letters to each other throughout the summer. Your program can provide stationary, envelopes, stamps, pens and pencils, and even ideas for writing topics (see sample topics below).

Pros: Low cost; limited opportunities for boundary issues to arise or unauthorized meetings to occur.

Cons: Youth may be intimidated by lengthier writing "assignments;" prescribed topics may feel like "homework" to youth; difficult for staff to monitor frequency or content of correspondence.

E-mail — Some programs are adopting an e-mentoring component over the summer months. For little or no cost, your program can set up e-mail accounts for your mentors and mentees (Gmail and Yahoo! Mail are popular choices), providing them with a unique username and password. This allows matches to have frequent, even daily, contact over the summer months. It also enables your staff, if they choose, to monitor the content of messages (make sure participants know that you may be checking in on their e-mails from time to time).

Pros: Low cost; easy for program staff to monitor correspondence for red flags; program can use e-mail accounts to notify participants about in-person group activities over the summer; accounts can also be used to supplement the relationship during the school year if both parties desire.

Cons: Participants (especially mentees) may not have home Internet access or much privacy when using a home computer; potential use of staff time to monitor correspondence.

Regardless of which approach you take to a summer correspondence campaign, the following tips can help make it successful:

Have ground rules in place — Make sure mentors, mentees, and parents of participating youth know the expectations and limitations of the summer correspondence campaign. You may want to create rules around frequency of contact, both in terms of a minimum amount (bi-weekly contact is a threshold for success in the Making a Difference in Schools study) and limitations on frequency ("Don't send your mentor 25 e-mails a day."). Reiterate policies that prohibit unauthorized off-site contact, and remind matches that all program guidelines about privacy, confidentiality, and mandatory reporting of potentially harmful situations apply equally to their written communications as they do face-to-face interactions throughout the school year.

Mentors and mentees should have compatible expectations about the nature of their summer correspondence. They should understand that the campaign is designed to supplement their in-school mentoring relationship, not replace it in terms of intensity or frequency. Encourage matches to talk about how open they are to sharing their feelings in writing and how quickly and in what level of detail they typically respond to e-mail messages. The last thing you want is for youth to feel slighted because their mentor took a few days to respond to an e-mail message or for mentors to be disappointed that their five-page letter only got a two-paragraph response from a student who is uncomfortable doing a lot of writing. Matches that are on the same page before writing each other are far less likely to be disappointed by the experience.

Make participation easy — Most programs gather all the supplies, instructions, and ground rules for their summer correspondence campaign into a summer packet that matches receive and go over during one of their last in-person meetings just before the break. These packets keep stationary and other materials organized and make it easy for participants to correspond while on vacations or other out-of-town excursions.

If you are doing a traditional letter writing campaign, make sure participants have supplied correct address information. If using e-mail, keep in mind that some mentees do not have home e-mail access. Provide instructions on how they can access their account from computers at the public library, and designate a staff person who can help troubleshoot technical problems.

In addition to providing supplies, you may want to provide guidance about what matches should "discuss" over the summer. Some programs provide general conversation starters while others provide a weekly writing assignment that matches are required to complete. Choose a set of activities and writing topics that feels like a good fit for your participants and program goals.

Monitor matches over the break — Even though matches will not be meeting in person, it is still important to check in with mentors, mentees, and parents to see if any issues have come up and to ensure that the match is writing to each other frequently. This can be done over the phone or by e-mail. If you are using e-mail for summer communications, program staff can access those accounts and look at messages, especially if there seem to be problems. Be sure to look out for:

  • Mentors or mentees neglecting to write frequently
  • Attempts by either party to engage in disallowed in-person meetings
  • Major changes in mentors' or mentees' lives that could impact their meeting again in the fall (such as moving or transferring schools)

Evaluate the effectiveness of your summer activities — Keep track of how often matches communicate and gather feedback on the correspondence campaign and any in-person group activities over the summer. A short survey just before school begins can gauge participants' feelings about the frequency, content, and usefulness of their summer contact. This information can help you improve the campaign the following year and might let you know which matches will need some extra support as the new school year begins.

Outcome:

Herrera, Grossman, Kauh, Feldman, and McMaken (2007) found the programs that encouraged or provided opportunities for some contact between matches over the summer months had much better outcomes in terms of continued relationship length and quality. Specifically, matches were more likely to continue into the next school year and the relationships were stronger in the second year, no matter what the quality was previously. The researchers concluded that "when the mentoring relationship continues without major interruption, positive impacts seen after the first school year may be sustained" (Herrera et al., 2007, p. 80).

Evidence:

The researchers noted, "Matches that communicated at least monthly during the summer were over one-third more likely (88 percent vs. 62 percent) to carry over into the following school year and lasted significantly longer after the end of the summer (13.3 weeks vs. 8.7 weeks) than those that did not communicate" (Herrera et al., 2007, p. 55). About two thirds of those mentors who communicated with their mentees over the summer reported that this contact improved their relationship, and over half (56 percent) felt that summer contact helped them decide to continue their match. Quantitative analyses further revealed that those matches who communicated at least biweekly over the summer had stronger relationships in the second year of the study, regardless of the quality of their match in the previous spring (Herrera et al., 2007, p. 70).

Given that relationship length and quality are critical factors in achieving and sustaining positive mentoring impacts (e.g., improved academic performance), the research shows that programs that encouraged summer contact were laying a better foundation for successful long-term relationships and program results.

For more information:

Website: 

National Mentoring Center at Education Northwest

Related Resources: 

The BBBS School-Based Mentoring Impact Study: Findings and Implications for Policy and Practice

Citations: 

Herrera, C., Grossman, J. B., Kauh, T. J., Feldman, A. F., & McMaken, J. (with Jucovy, L. Z.). (2007). Making a difference in schools: The Big Brothers Big Sisters school-based mentoring impact study. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures.

Mentoring Resource Center. (2005). Keeping mentoring relationships going through the summer months (No. 2) [Fact Sheet]. Folsom, CA: Author.

Mentoring Resource Center. (2008). Keeping matches in touch over the summer months (No. 20) [Fact Sheet]. Folsom, CA: Author. Retrieved from http://educationnorthwest.org/webfm_send/209

Rhodes, J. E. (2002). Stand by me: The risks and rewards of mentoring today's youth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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