Blog: Mentoring young people during the pandemic

Published: 28 Jan 2021

Author: Jim McCormick
Blog: Mentoring young people during the pandemic

How can we build and maintain mentoring support for children and young people when face-to-face contact has been restricted for almost a year? This wasn’t one of the questions I had in mind in 2018 when I visited the USA, Canada and New Zealand to explore how mentoring programmes in schools and communities were serving people facing barriers. But in light of the pandemic, it is one that all providers have been grappling with.

"The pandemic has disrupted education, youth work and mentoring, but also led to rapid adaptions and new insights." - Jim McCormick, Fellow

The central insight of my Churchill Fellowship report is that a good match between a child and a volunteer mentor, especially when sustained for at least a year, can have a positive impact on many areas of a child’s life. The foundation for beneficial outcomes is the trust that comes with knowing that an adult is showing up to listen, get to know you and offer support because they choose to, not because it is their job. The goals of mentoring programmes may vary, for example they may be to offer homework support or support with college preparation. But it is consistent relationship-building that forms the basis of all effective programmes. The door to high quality opportunities can be prised open when this is in place.

Closing schools and limiting interaction between households has led mentoring providers to adapt quickly. Many of the child and youth mentoring programmes I have engaged with both in Scotland and in the countries I visited for my Fellowship, have moved online. This has brought the underlying issue of digital exclusion into sharp focus, given that most mentoring programmes are in place to support disadvantaged children and young people, who do not always have access to technology. Driven by the need to support schooling from home during the first lockdown, government-coordinated initiatives like Connecting Scotland have gone some distance in distributing laptops and giving back-up support to families. But getting connected isn’t the only challenge facing youth mentoring.

The face-to-face nature of support, following disclosure checks for safety, training and matching of volunteers, is central to the mentoring experience. The programmes I visited in 2018 made very limited use of online interaction, driven partly by child safety concerns. Jillian Dowding, who heads up service delivery at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Calgary, told a virtual Town Hall event in Alberta: “We used to say ‘let’s put down our devices’ and work face-to-face. Now it’s ‘pick up our devices’ out of necessity.” Where mentoring matches were already in place, moving to online interaction has been achieved through outreach to children, young people and families. Providers have matched the digital platforms used by schools to ease this transition. In-school matches have moved into a more flexible phase at various times of the week by agreement. Some provision has continued during school holidays when they would have paused in normal times.

The speed and scale of adapting to online provision has been remarkable. The experience is clearly different from in-person support, and there isn’t enough evidence yet about who has been able to benefit and who has missed out. However, these are the common themes evident so far from programmes on both sides of the Atlantic:

  • There has been an increase in volunteer interest which is likely due to changes in working hours and disruption to evening and weekend interests. More people want to contribute, and mentoring programmes are among the potential beneficiaries.
  • Where there are waiting lists of children and young people to be matched, online provision could speed up the process. For example, volunteers do not have to find time in the working day to travel to a school or a programme office, which expands the pool of potential mentors. Mentor training can be done substantially online and there is much more flexibility around when mentors can keep in touch with the child they are matched with. This may bring particular benefits to remote and rural areas where there is limited in-person support available.
  • Looking ahead to a time of fewer restrictions, being able to meet online some of the time, and in-person at least a couple of times a month, could also help to attract more volunteers.
  • While existing matches have been well supported to adapt, programmes report greater difficulty in initiating new mentor matches through online channels. The subtle cues that often emerge from in-person engagement around motivation and commitment are harder to pick up. There is concern that fewer of the matches established since spring 2020 will stay the course.

But what about children and young people’s experiences of online mentor support? We should be wary of generalising from the limited insights we have to date. Programmes have guided mentors to meet younger children in small blocks of time, engaging in fun activities and mindful of the amount of screen time taken up for schooling. Some programme coordinators report that less confident children can adapt well to online interaction. Others say that engaging with teenagers has needed more of a ‘test and learn’ approach. Mike Kerracher, Association Manager with YMCA Edinburgh which runs the intandem and Plusone mentoring programmes, says that this is partly because adults are moving into online conversations that have been the territory of young people. A mix of one-to-one and group mentoring support has made the transition to online support, but Mike and others stress the importance of building into the mix safe, in-person support for young people where possible. Outdoor engagement is a challenge during the winter months, but this is a feasible goal when restrictions are eased.

The pandemic has disrupted education, youth work and mentoring, but also led to rapid adaptions and new insights. These need to be banked and built upon for the future, rather than viewed as temporary fixes. Those who run and evaluate mentoring programmes should put children’s experiences at the heart of their response. A lockdown survey in summer 2020 published by MCR Pathways – a Scottish in-school mentoring programme for teenagers - showed the pressures on young people unable to attend school and the sense of loss, anxiety and strains on family life. Having one extra adult in your life, as a volunteer mentor, cannot solve these bigger issues. But with flexibility and curiosity about how best to deliver that support, mentoring can provide a lifeline for many more children and young people.

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