Peer Mentors + Social Support = Better Health for Children


Although mentoring’s positive influence on educational achievement is perhaps most widely studied, increasing evidence also shows demonstrative impacts on safety and social and emotional development.  Teen or peer mentoring has also shown to be equally effective as adult mentors in school connectedness and academic achievement.  Author Kiyah Duffey reports on the latest research on the effectiveness of teen mentoring and improving health outcomes.  Read more... 

Topics Covered:

  • Mentoring
  • Staff Development
  • Informal Mentoring
  • Engagement

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Mentoring – the act of teaching or giving help or advice to someone less experienced and often younger – has been around for centuries, but it’s become increasingly common in the US since the late 1970s1. With such a long history, there is ample evidence to suggest that mentoring has measurable benefits for young people. Although mentoring’s positive influence on educational achievement is perhaps most widely studied2, increasing evidence also shows demonstrative impacts on safety and social and emotional development 3,4.

Teen or peer mentors have been shown to be equally effective as adult mentors in promoting school connectedness5 and academic achievement6 in young children and in improving attitudes toward (reducing) risky behaviors7. Part of this success is maybe due to the connections that form between mentors and mentees that provide children with social, emotional, and informational support that help create a sense of psychological safety. This perceived social and emotional support from the mentor results in the mentee being able to exercise increased control over his or her own behavior change, for example not engaging in underage drinking. Although school-based and peer mentoring are gaining in popularity to try and improve health outcomes, the extent to which such programs can positively impact complex health outcomes, such as weight and eating habits, has been understudied

With the goal of expanding understanding and use of peer mentoring, researchers at Ohio State set out to test the effectiveness of a health education curriculum for third and fourth grade children called Just for Kids! 8,9 Delivered by trained teen mentors, the impact of the curriculum was compared to the same content delivered in a classroom setting by an adult teacher10. Researchers hypothesized that children in the teen-mentored group would show greater improvement in health outcomes, demonstrate more positive attitudes toward health such as wishing to eat well and participate in more physical activity, and report higher perceived social support and self-efficacy.

The researchers were right. After the eight-week intervention, only the teen-mentored group showed improvements in health outcomes, including increases in physical activity and improvements in positive eating behavior as well as decreased diastolic blood pressure and BMI. This is impressive given the short timeframe. After accounting for the potential impact of numerous other factors, the researchers also found that the peer-mentored group had greater positive change in intention to engage in healthy behaviors and in perceived support compared to the adult-mentored group. Taken together, these results are encouraging and suggest that teen mentors can serve as effective role models in delivering important health messages and encouraging healthy behaviors for younger children.

Even without an extensive eight-week intervention to address weight and healthy eating, there are many things that you can do right now in your school to promote positive peer mentoring:

  • Encourage strong relationships – Research shows that the stronger relationships are between mentor and mentee the better the outcomes2. Help your mentors build and maintain these strong relationships by ensuring that they have frequent contact, that mentors have access to resources and support, and that on-going training is provided to mentors. The National Mentoring Resource Center has tools that can help. Visit: http://www.nationalmentoringresourcecenter.org/index.php/what-works-in-mentoring/resources-for-mentoring-programs.html. The handbook of youth mentoring (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/handbook-of-youth-mentoring/book234516) and the Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring (http://chronicle.umbmentoring.org) also have excellent free resources.
  • Ground it in theory –Using well-established theories of behavior change will provide the necessary framework on which to build a successful mentoring program. Boston University has an excellent resource for understanding and using these theories: http://sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/otlt/MPH-Modules/SB/SB721-Models/
  • Mix ages – Especially when working in schools, you don’t need look too far to find potential mentors for younger children. Smith & Holloman10 used 11th and 12th grade students to serve as mentors for 4th and 5th graders. Look for students who are passionate and willing to engage younger students and ensure that they have proper support, including opportunities to debrief, and the resources they need (several are listed above). 
  • Move beyond the school year – Evidence suggests that gains made during the academic calendar are all but lost after a few summer months spent away from a school-based mentoring program3. Finding ways to extend contact between mentors and mentees throughout the calendar year may help ensure that the benefits experienced during the school year are not lost. 

Resources & Notes:

  1. Parsloe, E. & Wray, MJ. (2000). Coaching and mentoring: practical methods to improve learning. Kogan Page. ISBN 978-0-7494-3118-1.
  2. DuBois, DL, Holloway, BE. Valentine, JC. & Cooper, H. (2002). Effectiveness of Mentoring Programs for Youth: A Meta-Analytic Review. American Journal of Community Psychology, April 2002: 30(2): 157-197. Retrieved Jan. 18, 2016.
  3. DuBois, D, Portillo, N, Rhodes, J, Silverthorn N & Valentine, J (2011). “How Effective are Mentoring Programs for Youth? A Systematic Assessment of the Evidence,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 12(2) 57-91. Sage. Retrieved Jan. 24, 2015 at http://www.rhodeslab.org/files/DuBoisetalMeta.pdf.
  4. Karcher, KJ. (2008). The study of mentoring in the learning environment (SMILE): A randomized evaluation of the effectiveness of school-based mentoring. Prevention Science, 9, 99–113.
  5. Karcher, M, Davis, C, & Powell, B. (2002). Developmental mentoring in schools: Testing connectedness as a mediating variable in the promotion of academic achievement. The School Community Journal, 12, 36–52.
  6. Sheehan, K, DiCara, J, et al. (1999). Adapting the gang model: Peer mentoring for violence prevention. Pediatrics, 104, 50–54.
  7. Westerman, JJ. (2002). Mentoring and cross-age mentoring: Improving academic achievement through a unique partnership (Unpublished dissertation), University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky.
  8. James, KS, & Connelly, CD. (2007). Just for kids! A school based intervention to improve fitness and nutrition knowledge. Communicating Nursing Research, 40, 256.
  9. Johnson, S, & Mellin, L. (2003). Just for kids! San Anselmo, CA: Balboa Publishing.
  10. Smith, LH & Holloman, C. (2013) Comparing the effects of teen mentors to adult teachers on lifestyle behaviors and health outcomes in Appalachia. The Journal of School Nursing, 29(5): 386-96

Writer: Kiyah J. Duffey, PhD, adjunct faculty in Human Nutrition at Virginia Tech and the founder of Kizingo, whose mission is to design products that promote health among families. She is a frequent contributor to Smart Eating for Kids and Mind Positive Parenting, translating the latest nutrition science to promote healthy feeding and eating habits in kids. Kiyah is also a regular contributor to this Practice Brief series.

This brief is one in a series describing new knowledge and innovative research emerging from the field of youth development. The briefs are intended to inform parents, professionals, and volunteers in education, youth development, and related fields; and to contribute to a heightened national awareness of youth development practice.



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