Your gifted child may have special interests and a desire for knowledge beyond what school, teachers, and you can provide, and you may have decided that she or he is ready for a mentor in a specific area of interest. Although many talented people are willing and able to mentor gifted students, the right mentor for your child may not live in your community. Finding a suitable mentor may present a challenge, particularly if your child has unusual interests or if you live in a sparsely populated area. Even if you identify a local mentor, that person’s schedule or availability may not match your child’s.
If logistics prevent a beneficial mentoring relationship from developing, turn to telementoring, also called e-mentoring or virtual mentoring. Through the Internet, your child can connect with professionals and experts in “virtually” any field of interest and can receive many of the same benefits as face-to-face mentoring, along with the convenience of corresponding at any time of day or night without ever leaving home.
Like face-to-face mentoring, telementoring may be formal or informal. Check with your child’s school or community resources to see if a formal telementoring program is already in place. If not, look for such a program on the Internet. Formal telementoring is organized and overseen by an organization that often provides training for its mentors and that establishes guidelines for the relationship. These programs are often eager to establish relationships with schools and gifted programs (and quite a few are available only to students at affiliated schools or organizations). Consider working with your child’s school, with local homeschooling resources, or with a community group to create such a partnership.
Informal telementoring, on the other hand, is established directly between the mentee and mentor. It may be more difficult to find a mentor for an informal telementoring relationship than through a formal Internet-based program, but here again the Internet is a valuable resource. Search university Web pages for faculty in your child’s area of interest, explore the home pages of related professional associations (check the Encyclopedia of Associations, available at most libraries, to identify the major associations for your subject area), or look up organizations, large or small, that attract knowledgeable professionals in the field (such as Greenpeace, the Public Broadcasting Service, the Smithsonian Institution, the Grand Ole Opry, NASA, or the Royal Shakespeare Company). Scour their Web sites to identify individuals to contact as potential telementors.
Telementoring has its limitations, of course. Without face-to-face contact, a telementor can’t guide your child in hands-on projects such as photography, microscopy, or archaeological fieldwork. However, mentors and mentees can develop creative solutions, such as exchanging digital pictures or videos of their work. Another drawback is that the personal connection and friendship that often emerge from a mentoring relationship are less likely with telementoring. To help the mentoring pair develop a satisfying interpersonal connection, make sure that your child is fluent in netiquette and help interpret ambiguous comments that result from the lack of verbal inflection and facial expression in e-mail messages.
Naturally, parents will be concerned about their children meeting and corresponding with adults on the Internet. Whether you or your child makes first contact with a prospective mentor, you the parent can play a part in the mentoring relationship. E-mail or phone the mentor and ask about her or his credentials and affiliations. If you have sought out a particular professional or are working through a formal telementoring program, you should already have some of this information. Any adult who mentors young people will be aware of your concerns and should be happy to give you the information you need. You might ask your child and the mentor to copy you on all e-mail correspondence; certainly, discuss the parameters for phone contact and other ground rules openly as a group. Make it clear that you are interested and involved in this aspect of your child’s life.
Gifted students are often busy and multiply engaged, yet they may have the energy for in-depth learning in a special area of interest. Take advantage of the Internet’s ever-growing resources and consider involving your child in a telementoring relationship with a distant—or not-so-distant—expert who shares the same passion.
—Heather E. Macalister, PhD
Heather E. Macalister is a developmental psychologist on the faculty at Mary Baldwin College, home of the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted. She has served as a mentoring program consultant and has advised and mentored young people for 17 years. She is currently involved in her first telementoring relationship, with a student at the Information Technology High School in Long Island City, New York.