Peer-to-Peer Pressures

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It’s easy to understand why peer mentoring is growing: Youth mentors are easier to recruit than adults, the pairs can easily meet during school hours, and the relationships seem to be mutually reinforcing. But a new study warns that because of how some of these programs are carried out, peer mentoring matches tend to be less effective than matches with adults.

The findings are a “wake-up call for programs that use high school volunteers” as mentors, said Carla Herrera, the lead author of a September study conducted by Public/Private Ventures (P/PV) for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA).

The report, High School Students as Mentors: Findings from the Big Brothers Big Sisters School-Based Mentoring Impact Study, is the latest research to raise flags about the growing trend to expand mentoring by creating relationships outside the traditional one-on-one, adult/child matches.

Peer-to-peer (or cross-age peer) mentoring is a burgeoning approach within the practice of school-based mentoring (SBM), which itself accounts for much of the growth of mentoring in recent years. The peer approach features high school students working with younger youths in classrooms, after school or at lunch for an hour or so each week during the school year. BBBSA began recruiting high schoolers for these programs in 2001, and today the organization has nearly 50,000 high school volunteers mentoring younger students.

But the new study says that, on the whole, “youth matched with high school volunteers in the first year of their [mentoring] program involvement benefited very little from their mentoring experience,” compared with youth matched with adults. The latter group “showed positive impacts,” including significant improvements in grades, classroom effort and quality of class work.

“The field moved so quickly” with high school mentoring, said Herrera, a senior policy researcher with P/PV. “I think it didn’t stop to think, ‘Wait a minute: Is it going to be different if we have high school volunteers?’ ”

Compared with Adults

This is the second P/PV report built on BBBSA data from 2004 and 2005, involving 1,139 youths. The first study found that overall, the selected SBM programs had little positive impact, and the benefits didn’t last long. (“School-Based Mentoring: Does it Make the Grade?” September 2007.) The new study focuses on how peer mentors compare with their adult counterparts.

Among the promising findings: High schoolers were more likely to involve their mentees in decision-making and to engage in non-academic activities.

But high school “bigs” missed more meetings than their adult counterparts, and the peer matches were less likely to carry on into a second year, which BBBSA considers an important factor for the success of the match. By most measures, in fact, the “littles” who were matched with high schoolers fared no better than their peers who were not mentored.

One tactic that might seem useful – giving community service credit for mentoring – often undercut the relationships. Many teens who might have “joined the program primarily to fulfill their community service requirements” also “ended their involvement as soon as these requirements were fulfilled,” the report said.

However, Michael J. Karcher, an associate professor of education and human development at the University of Texas-San Antonio and the author of research studies on cross-age mentoring, believes BBBSA focuses unduly on promoting multiple-year matches. Karcher said all matches wind down, most within the first year, and the goal should be to help mentors learn how to end relationships constructively.

Structure Needed

Karcher said the keys to successful high school mentoring programs are a clear set of activities, a pro-social “connectedness” curriculum that fosters relationship building, and practices to ensure parental support, staff supervision and ongoing mentor training.

The study did find clues that more structure helps. When mentors had more contact with BBBSA staff members, their littles did better in teacher-reported social acceptance, assertiveness, positive classroom affect, classroom effort and school preparedness.

“There are things you can definitely do to bump up what these high school volunteers are capable of,” Herrera said. “These volunteers need something different and something extra than what you would give adults.”

The study said BBBSA should increase staff contact with, and support for, mentors; ensure that youth mentors understand the importance of program consistency; and hold match meetings that are structured and supervised. The BBBSA hired Karcher to implement a recommendation to improve training of high school mentors.

BBBSA is testing an “enhanced model” SBM project at 22 sites that aims to extend high school matches through the summer, said Joe Radelet, vice present of mentoring at BBBSA.

While many schools are eager to increase participation in peer-to-peer programs, BBBSA wants to move slowly. “We’re definitely in the learning mode. We’re in the testing mode on this,” Radelet said.

Reports and Contacts: High School Students as Mentors, through the search box at; Cross-Age Peer Mentoring, by Michael J. Karcher, through the search box at; BBBSA (215) 567-7000,


  • Brooke Frost

    It should be noted that many BBBS affiliate organizations have experience that differs from this research study. Our own Program Outcome Evaluation aggregate scores in Central California differed significantly from the research for the last school year, as well as in previous years. Teachers rated the child’s outcomes, and 75% noted improved or maintenance of high academic performance and the same improved in self-confidence, more than 70% improved classroom behavior and classroom participation, and more than 65% improved their peer relationships and increased their respect for other cultures. However, our program has been in existence for five years, working on relationships with teachers and others, and this study was on programs begun in the first year, if I remember rightly. There are indeed issues around length of match given the school environment, which we are still struggling with. Structure and on-site supervision are indeed important. While I believe that the traditional adult/child community-based match has the greatest outcome over the long term, our local results show there is value to both the High School Big (not measured in the study) and to the mentee. The research provides excellent learning, but is not, in my view, definitive.