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Why does mentoring actually work?

When I first speak to someone about the work that I do, I will introduce mentoring as a vehicle for wellbeing. I will share how the opportunity to support enriches the life of the mentor, giving them confidence, a sense of self worth, purpose and a way of giving back. We will talk about the benefits of having a mentor, how the undivided attention of a respected peer answers your human need for connection, the way that a mentor can create space and supportive pressure for you to discover your own answers.

The mentoring programmes I run have seen some incredible results that I hadn’t predicted as well. When going through the application and selection process for mentors, there was a recurring anomaly I hadn’t anticipated. It was the number of ‘rough diamonds’ it attracted. The pupils that; as many teachers described; had ‘got it wrong’, they had bullied, been caught smoking, trolled their peers online, and suddenly they were at my door, lining up to mentor and be a role model. The other queue at my door was the teachers telling me we could absolutely not have these pupils as mentors, because of their past wrongs. Year after year, these pupils prove themselves. They were the most committed mentors. They supported their mentees and friends without judgement and helped them achieve great things.

I am not sharing this to brag. Yes, I am extraordinarily proud of the mentors I have worked with, but for a long time I had very little understanding of why a good mentoring programme was so effective. Being completely truthful, my background in coaching and as a Samaritan told me that the approaches I taught would be effective, but didn’t give me the why.

I am a bit of a neuroscience bookworm. Reading the book “Brainstorm” by Daniel Siegel rocked my world. It gave me so many ah ha moments about why mentoring worked. Siegel succinctly explains the four needs we have as humans to build secure attachments:

  • Safe

  • Seen

  • Soothed

  • Secure

Usually, these secure attachment discussions are reserved for the developing baby or toddler, but Siegel reflected on how vital these are at all stages of life. As the mum of a toddler, this brings a smile to my face. I can easily see how important it is for Evelyn, my two and a half year old, to feel safe with her parents, to know that we see and will listen to her, that we will soothe her when she is upset and make her feel secure in our unconditional love.

I can also see these requirements in myself. Using parenting as an example:

  • The self doubt I experience when I am out of my comfort zone (parenting a seemingly maniacal toddler)

  • My longing to feel heard when my husband gets home after being talked at for 9 hours

  • The calm that feels palpable to me as my children and I cuddle up to read bedtime stories

  • The relief that washes over me when my husband sits and listens, tells me I’m not crazy and resists the urge to give me advice

While these requirements sound like ‘nice to haves’ for adults, I would argue that they are as vital for teenagers and adults as they are for newborn babies. Take a moment to picture your life without safety, being socially isolated, without any comfort or security. That is a life I would not wish on anyone.

When I thought about these four needs, I realised that they form the cornerstones of great mentoring for both the mentor and the mentee as well.

Picturing one of those rough diamond mentors that I trained, I can see how their needs were met:

  • They felt safe and accepted back into the community, despite having made mistakes that some held against them.

  • Their input in training was valuable and listened to, and the opportunity to support a mentee fulfilled a need to be seen through that one to one interaction

  • The opportunity to receive mentoring themselves through the offload process included in the programme gave them comfort and connection

  • Being part of a wider collective, one of a team of mentors, ensured security

When these needs were met, they thrived. Their once unthinking behaviour became more conscious and deliberate and they were given space to succeed and prove the naysayers wrong.

For mentees the meeting of these needs through mentoring is easy to see:

  • A confidential space to share provides safety

  • The undivided attention of a 1-2-1 mentoring session with an effective mentor ensures you feel seen

  • Having the opportunity to share without judgement and have someone meet you with empathy is soothing

  • Knowing that your mentor’s support is always available provides incredible security

Just as babies with secure attachments have the best chances of thriving in life, so do the rest of us when these four needs are met.

Take a moment to picture your school community if these four needs were met for every individual. Think about the conversations that would be taking place, how different the conflicts would look, and how set up for success each person would be. Lofty goals indeed, but if school is not the place to strive for lofty goals, where is?

If you would like to read a truly uplifting book about what makes teenagers tick, I cannot recommend Brainstorm by Daniel J. Siegel enough. It is humorous, loving and empowering for adults and adolescents alike.

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