Peer Group Connection
*Note: The National Mentoring Resource Center makes these “Insights for Mentoring Practitioners” available for each program or practice reviewed by the National Mentoring Resource Center Research Board. Their purpose is to give mentoring professionals additional information and understanding that can help them apply reviews to their own programs. You can read the full review on the Crime Solutions website.
In considering the key takeaways from the research on this program that other mentoring programs can apply to their work, it’s useful to reflect on the features and practices that might have influenced its rating, as well as some of the more interesting aspects of the program’s design.
Great target age, but also a missed opportunity?
Peer Group Connection (PGC) is a wonderfully targeted program, in spite of the fact that it is designed to be used with an entire class (or at least a very wide swath of students). Many school-based mentoring programs target students at key transition pointsfor example, the previously reviewed School-Based Mentoring Program for At-Risk Middle School Youth works specifically with youth right after the transition to middle school, once issues around attendance or grades appear. Others, like PGC seek to head off troubles before they even begin, working with an entire incoming class of ninth graders to orient them to the high school and teach them skills that will help them thrive in the new environment. In fact, the “wide swath” approach is part of the design, with the near peer and group meeting design intended to facilitate connections both among diverse classmates and with upperclassmen. The varying levels of risk of dropping out among the participants very possibly serve as a strength, allowing riskier students to connect with other students who can be supportive and lift them up.
According to the designers of the program note, the path to dropping out begins for most students in 9th grade, as the transition to the new environment and the challenges of the curriculum lead to often widespread disengagement from the school and peers. PGC should be commended for trying to influence this particularly critical period of time.
But one also wonders if there is a bit of a missed opportunity, at least in how results were reported in the evaluations that served as the basis for the review of the program’s evidence base for CrimeSolutions.gov. In particular, the impact of program participation on the juniors and seniors who served as peer mentors/leaders was not reported much, if at all, in thse studies. These older students participated in a year-long leadership course, designed to teach them how to implement the program and what to teach the incoming freshmen. They also got a nice education in some academic and interpersonal skills, got to work closely with faculty advisors, and earned course credit. It would be nice to see more consideration of the impact of this experience on the peer leaders. One can imagine that this experience developed their interpersonal skills, built their confidence and competence in a number of areas, and prepared them for both postsecondary education and career experiences. This “dual benefit” of peer mentoring for older and younger students is one of the major draws of peer-led group mentoring like this. It is surprising that the impact on older students was not woven into the research design more. But given the quality of the PGC implementation, it seems likely that those older youth also benefitted from the program.
A nice example of a multi-layered program design
One of the aspects of PGC that becomes immediately clear is the careful thought that went into the program design. Not only is the program well-targeted, but it draws upon several areas of relevant research with a structure that allowed for strong implementation. The program builds on research that supports attention to Social Emotional Learning in school-based programs and provides a layered structure in doing so that allows for support at all levels. The peer leaders work as pairs with groups of up to 12 freshmendoing this as a pair means that they have some support from a peer in delivering the curriculum and leading the group sessions. The pair also has support from above in the form of a faculty advisor, each of whom goes through an 11-day training regimen to fill that role! They work closely with the peer leaders to plan and implement the program. This level of support for peer mentors nicely addresses one of the major concerns about peer mentoring: that the quality of the mentoring can suffer at peer mentors struggle to problem-solve, lead conversations, and deliver curriculum because they are, well, students themselves. These three levels of participants were then further supported by a stakeholder group of principals, other school administrators, and additional faculty, likely facilitating a deeper level of whole-school buy-in and access to resources and materials than is typical of that enjoyed by many mentoring programs operated within schools. Providing support and buy-in at every level seems likely to help explain why the program had strong implementation and advisors and peer leaders were both rated effective by the researchers (87% and 89% respectfully).
Activities are what turn theory into results
As noted above, the program was designed a series of meetings between freshmen and peer leaders that brought Social Emotional Learning (SEL) to life. The program developed a very nice curriculum and set of activities that addressed the academic, social, and emotional aspects of the student experience. A Family Night held mid-year also brought other caring adults and siblings into the program experience. But it was the activities that emphasized critical thinking, goal setting, decision-making, time management, teamwork, and other “soft skills” that really brought the SEL framework to life. The program should be commended for so intentionally selecting and delivering these activities, as the skills targeted have well-established connections to a broad array of positive school and life outcomes.
Outside help… helps.
Of course, in the case of PGC, it helps to have a team of talented researchers helping with program design, implementation, and even things like support of stakeholders and faculty advisors. And while most programs won’t have this kind of access to researcher or subject matter expertise, there are opportunities to get help of this nature, especially with initial program design. Programs may want to consider tapping into the technical assistance offered by the NMRC or other entities. Local colleges and universities can also be good places to look for talented help in designing services or shoring up program weaknesses. No program should go it alone when it comes to making or improving its theory of change and accompanying services.
While PGC had an overall rating of “no effects” in the Crime Solutions framework, it’s important to note that the program did have a statistically significant impact on the dropout rates of male students (a traditionally riskier group for dropping out). This may be an example of a whole population design being needed to reach a specific sub group of participants. It remains unclear if the program would have had this impact on male students if participants had only been male students.
We look forward to more research about this well-designed program and other peer mentoring efforts should keep an eye on this approach and what we can learn from the PGC program.
For more information on research-informed program practices and tools for implementation, be sure to consult the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring™ and the "Resources for Mentoring Programs" section of the National Mentoring Resource Center site.