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Gifted Child Today Magazine
Fall, 2001

Mentoring: an educational alternative for gifted students.

Author/s: Amy Bisland

Traditionally, gifted students have been expected to complete set assignments not necessarily designed for their learning needs or pace. While this single option is still sometimes the case, many alternatives are now used to ensure that all students learn at their optimal level. One such alternative is mentoring. A mentorship is typically a one-to-one working relationship between an older expert and a younger talented individual. The two often share common interests or career goals (Clasen & Clasen, 1997). The mentoring relationship is one that can particularly benefit gifted children. It is a common misconception that gifted children need little or no assistance in developing their talents (Ambrose, Allen, & Huntley, 1994). Many think that gifted students will simply learn everything on their own because of their high level of intelligence. However, many students become bored in a regular classroom, due to the lack of a challenge. Mentoring is a good way to provide challenge and academic rigor for these students (Templin, 1999). Through these relationships, gifted students are able to mature, explore future careers and successes, apply classroom knowledge, and gain role models (Berger, 1990).

Mentoring does not necessarily have one subscribed program that is right for every child or school. There are many different options, each benefiting a different type of student. One of the most common and informal mentoring relationships is that of a teacher to students. A teacher models learning skills daily to students to encourage lifelong learning (Davalos & Haensly, 1997). Students often look to their teachers for advice, direction, and assistance in learning.

However, sometimes a student becomes interested in a field or topic that exceeds the teacher's realm of knowledge. In these cases, professional mentoring relationships might be sought. In a professional mentoring relationship, a student is paired with a professional community member who is working in the' student's area of interest or future career. Through this relationship, the student explores his or her interests more thoroughly through real-life application (Clasen & Clasen, 1997). Gifted students also benefit from professional mentoring because it gives them an opportunity to interact with successful adults. Because of their advanced intellectual ability, many high school students consider adults to be their peers (Grybek, 1997).

Another type of relationship is that of an older student mentoring a younger student. This might be undertaken in terms of a reading program, tutoring program, or other scheduled interaction. Student/student mentoring is especially helpful with gifted minorities or students who face great obstacles in achieving. Many times gifted minority students feel isolated. By pairing an elementary student with a high school student, the younger child has a role model for success. The student sees some one with the same background who has achieved, which can often inspire the younger child to do the same. The high school student shares knowledge and encourages the protege. It also helps the older student feel responsible for the younger student (Wright & Borland, 1992). College students can also pair with high school students to achieve these same benefits (Grybek, 1997).

Characteristics of Candidates

Although there are a variety of different programs to suit different needs, not all students are good candidates for a mentoring program. Participants are often found by looking at background information of the child, conducting interviews, and analyzing student interest surveys (Clasen & Clasen, 1997). Many gifted students who benefit from mentoring share common characteristics. One of these, particularly important for a professional mentorship, is a certain degree of developmental maturity. Most elementary students are not ready for the in-depth relationship and responsibility that a professional mentorship requires. However, teachers or older student mentors have been successful in working with young children (Clasen & Clasen, 1997; Schatz, 1999).

Another important characteristic is a desire to learn new things and apply that knowledge. Protege candidates often possess a great deal of curiosity through ideas, questions, or problems. Gifted students are not always able to satisfy their great interest by completing assignments in a classroom or reading books. They will also frequently wish to have an opportunity to create new ideas or products (Schatz, 1999). Most importantly, the student needs to make a commitment to the mentoring process, a great deal of time and effort is required on the part of both the mentor and the student (Berger, 1990). If one or the other is not fully committed to the project, it is likely that it will

not be a successful relationship. These are not the only qualities to look for in identifying students for programs, but they do commonly help in predicting whether a child will benefit from a mentorship (Schatz).

Similarly, not all adult professionals are good candidates to be mentors. A mentor should possess expertise in the student's field of interest, as well as a willingness to share that knowledge. The mentor must be open to working with students, and be sensitive to the special needs of the gifted (Schatz, 1999). Due to the amount of energy and curiosity a student often brings, patience is another important characteristic for both a professional or a student mentor. Mentors must be willing to take on multiple roles, such as teacher, expert, guide, advisor, friend, and role model (Clasen & Clasen, 1997). They need to offer both encouragement and support for the student throughout the mentorship. Most importantly, mentors must have a strong commitment to the mentoring process. They must be willing to commit their time and effort to helping a student develop, mature, and learn (Schatz). As with students, no one profile of a mentor exists. Schools must use various techniques such as interviewing and profiling to choose mentors who are right for their program (Dondero, 1997).

Implementing a Mentoring Program

Selection of mentors and proteges is only one step in implementing a professional mentoring program. The process should first begin with finding students for the program. These should be students who have exhausted the educational resources within the school and need to go to members of the community for further growth and development (Clasen & Clasen, 1997). It is important that the student desires a mentoring relationship for the purpose of expanding knowledge. The school must also determine exactly what the student needs, whether it be exposure to a certain career or exploration of an academic subject (Berger, 1990). Screening processes such as the ones previously mentioned will help in finding students who need mentors.

Next, mentors should be chosen. Finding an appropriate match for each student in the program is crucial. The success of a mentorship usually depends on the compatibility of the mentor and student (Schatz, 1999). Questionnaires, personal interviews, or both may help in identifying strong mentor candidates. They provide information such as professional background, personal interests, languages spoken, and ethnicity (Dondero, 1997). They can also explore whether the potential mentor has enough time and interest for a mentoring relationship, All of this information can be used in matching a mentor with a protege. Some programs might match individuals with similar career goals, while others may seek individuals with similar ethnic backgrounds (Berger, 1990). Students may be involved in the matching process as well. Some programs allow students to meet with many potential mentors at the same time. In this case, program coordinators can observe the interaction among participants to look for similar interests and compatible personalities. Students and potential mentors can use these meetings to find their best match for a mentoring relationship (Wright & Borland, 1992).

Once mentors and students have been selected, some form of training should be provided for all parties involved. Students need to know what will be expected of them in the partnership. They need to understand the purpose, their responsibilities, as well as the benefits that they can hope to receive (Berger, 1990). Similarly, adult mentors need to learn these same things. They may also need special training in working with students, as well as learning the backgrounds and needs of them (Wright & Borland, 1992). These areas may be addressed through workshops, orientation sessions, and continuous contact among the mentor, protege, and program coordinator.

After the students and mentors have been trained, the mentor relationship can begin. This relationship may take place in a variety of ways. Students may participate in shadowing, where they follow their mentor throughout the day and actively participate in each aspect of the job (Grybek, 1997). Other programs may involve students participating in research experiments or scientific collaborations (Templin, 1999). Individual contracts or schedules should be written outlining expectations, responsibilities, and work plans. In a student/student mentorship, the younger one might accompany the older student to class or vice versa. They may also take the child out of the classroom for special activities (Wright & Borland, 1992). Ongoing feedback should be provided to the mentor and the student throughout the experience. This should be done informally between the mentor and student, as well as from the school program coordinator. Most importantly, mentoring needs to be a flexible arrangement, so that emerging needs, interests, and issues can be explored (Clasen & Clasen, 1997). Students and mentors should be encouraged to keep journals documenting their experiences. This provides a powerful form of self-evaluation for both the teacher and student.

As the mentorship comes to a close, several activities are suggested. A final product of some sort is recommended. This might take the form of a report detailing the student's experiences, a project, or an exhibition of accomplishments. By requiring a final product, students are able to share what they have learned, as well as feeling a certain degree of closure on their experience. It is also important for both the mentor and the student to evaluate the experience. Parents and school contacts may also participate in the evaluation process. Case studies, questionnaires, surveys, and self-reports can be good ways to assess the success of a program (Clasen & Clasen, 1997). However, it is nearly impossible to immediately measure the long term effects of the mentorship. This is only possible through follow up studies as the students continue their education and enter the work force (Wright & Borland, 1992).

Through follow-up studies and evaluations, many positive benefits of mentoring have been discovered. One such benefit is that it meets the needs of gifted learners. While these students might become frustrated with the limitations of a traditional classroom, they are motivated, stimulated, and challenged through mentoring (Clasen & Clasen, 1997). Mentoring also allows for career exploration and advancement. This is extremely important for gifted learners, who often have trouble deciding which of their talents to pursue as a career (Schatz, 1999). Students participating in mentoring programs have also reported benefiting from having a role model, from whom they receive constant support and encouragement (Berger, 1990). They also gain valuable contacts in a career field that they may potentially enter in the future (Clark, 1995). Another benefit is increased self-esteem and maturity. These are developed through the self-reliance, personal responsibility, and self-directed learning required to complete a mentorship (Clasen & Clasen).

Benefits of a Mentorship Program

Not all rewards, however, are limited to the student in a mentorship. The mentor also has opportunities for personal satisfaction and development. Many mentors become rejuvenated in their careers when sharing it with someone else. They are also introduced to new ideas and perspectives (Schatz, 1999). Many report personal satisfaction in preparing a young person for the next level of education. They are also encouraged to stay up to date in their career field, so that they can share information with their protege (Clark, 1995). Many may also enjoy the long-term friendship that often develops through mentoring relationships (Clasen & Clasen, 1997).

As with any program, there are also negative aspects of mentoring programs. One of the major preventive factors of implementing a mentoring program is money. Although school administrators are aware of the benefits of mentorships for students, many consider the financial obligations of a mentoring program unfeasible. A program usually entails hiring a teacher to coordinate the program, as well as possibly providing transportation for students. This teacher will typically serve fewer students than a regular classroom teacher; therefore, many school districts feel that money should go toward hiring teachers who will interact with more children (Davalos & Haensly, 1997). Advanced placement courses and magnet schools that offer opportunities for gifted and other learners are easier to justify financially, so schools often overlook the possibilities associated with mentoring (Grybek, 1997).

Mentoring can also be negative when programs are not correctly implemented. Many times schools, students, or mentors lack commitment. Some programs do not pay enough attention to organization, time, or training. Another problem is finding time for mentoring to take place. Sometimes it is not possible for students to meet with their mentors during the school day or on a regular basis. This problem may be eliminated by implementing telementoring. Telementoring allows a student to communicate with his or her mentor via e-mail, satellite, web sites, or another form of technology. Students can be matched in the same manner as with a traditional mentoring relationship. However, with telementoring they might work together through e-mail messages, chat rooms, or joint web sites rather than actual meetings. The mentor might send the protege questions to research or simply answer questions the protege might have about a particular career field. This allows a student to receive the same professional advice and guidance, even if an appropriate mentor is not located in the same geographic area (Schatz, 1999). This type of mentoring can also be used to match college students with younger students who might be unsure of what educational path they wish to pursue.

A final problem that many programs face is a lack of appropriate mentors. This is often the case when looking for female or minority mentors. Although studies have shown that females and minorities benefit more when matched with someone of their gender or race, a mentor that fits this description may not be readily available. Sometimes this results in these students not attempting to achieve certain goals because they assume that it is not possible (Schwiebert, Deck, Bradshaw, Scott, & Harper, 1999). This, too, may not be a problem in the future due to telementoring. If a school is looking for a mentor for a female interested in biochemistry, they might be able to locate one in another city or state, then the student may communicate with the mentor via e-mail.

Despite the challenge of organization and cost, many school districts are beginning to implement mentoring in their curriculum. Project Synergy is one such program. This program, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Education under the provisions of the Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program, matched economically disadvantaged minority elementary school children in New York City with middle school students of the same background. While the middle school mentors used were identified as gifted, the elementary students were identified only as potentially gifted children. The goal of the program was for the middle school students to share with the younger children how to succeed in school. The older students sometimes accompanied the younger ones to class and worked with them on simple things such as work habits and raising one's hand before speaking. The program resulted in great success because it provided the elementary school students with role models for academic success. It also encouraged the older students to work harder, because they knew that the younger students were looking up to them (Wright & Borland, 1992).

North Hills School District in Pittsburgh, PA developed the Elementary Accelerated Reading Mentor Program, a mentoring program to meet the special needs of students reading far above grade level. In this case, the mentor relationship took place between a teacher and student. North Hills hired two itinerant teachers to provide reading enrichment for students who were reading at least one half year above grade level. These students were pulled out of class twice a week to participate in activities with a mentor, which broadened vocabulary, allowed for exposure to a variety of quality literature, enhanced comprehension and study skills, utilized thematic projects in response to literature, and helped students to develop self teaching strategies. Participants were also given an opportunity to interact with other students in the program from other schools in the district. This was accomplished through Saturday outings and sharing work from school to school. Although this program is still in its developing stage, the district has been pleased with the results thus far. However, they are still waiting to see the long term impact of the program (Richter, 1998).

Several schools have chosen to implement professional mentorships at the high school level. The Executive Internship Program in Hillsborough County, FL matches executives and administrators with high school students. Through this program, the students shadow their mentor four days a week. On the fifth day, the students meet with the program coordinator in seminars covering related topics, such as ethics, business attitudes, and professionalism. At the conclusion of the program, students are assigned grades, which represent five elective and required courses. Another similar program, the Laboratory Experience Program, also in place in Hillsborough County, FL, gives students the opportunity to participate in scientific research and testing. This program was developed in response to the local director of a laboratory complaining that his new employees could not apply their textbook knowledge well. The program operates similar to the Executive Internship Program (Grybek, 1997).

Some mentoring programs take place on weekends or during the summer. One such program is the Science Research Institute, hosted by the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. This six-week program allows students to participate in intensive research activity with a mentor in the field. Students have orientation meetings focusing on practical issues of university life and science research but spend the remainder of their time in their mentor's laboratory. Participating students report benefits, such as a chance to do real research, learning about themselves, and a more integrated understanding of science (Templin, 1999).

As gifted students continue to exhaust the educational programs at schools, mentoring may become a more common alternative. It allows students an opportunity to explore interest areas in depth, as well as feel more control over their own learning. Technology is beginning to aid the mentoring process, making it easier for students anywhere in the world to connect with a mentor. Despite the success of programs throughout the country, there is still little research specific to mentoring. Most studies have focused on outlining possible programs, rather than looking at results and benefits of programs (Schatz, 1999). There is a need for more analysis and follow-up studies of gifted children who have participated in mentoring versus those who have not. Legal issues must also be considered. Students required to travel to meet with their mentors, leave the school potentially responsible. Many also find themselves in contact with chemicals or other dangerous items as a result of their mentor's job. Regulations should be developed based on school policy to confront these and other legal issues. By developing more supportive research for mentoring, school districts may be more likely to implement these programs,


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