Parents with children who have a strong interest in a subject may consider seeking a mentor for their child, either to augment school-based learning or to provide guidance for enrichment courses. Research suggests that a good mentor can be highly beneficial for a student’s intellectual development. A recent study reported that gifted students may be particularly responsive to high-quality mentorship because of their tendency to process information more quickly and easily─a good mentor can pace learning to match each student’s needs to keep them appropriately challenged. However, mentors can be more than just subject-matter experts; there may also be emotional and psychosocial benefits of mentorship. Mentors can also play an important role in the life of gifted student as a counselor, role model, and trusted friend. For these reasons, it is important to choose your child’s mentor carefully.
What Skills Do Mentors Need?
Narrowly defined, mentors are teachers who can help a student learn more about a particular subject. They can be found in a variety of settings—in the community, at school, at work, or via friends, co-workers, or neighbors. They are more than instructors; as people with a variety of life experiences, mentors may be viewed as guides who can help students explore career options, foster their intellectual vibrancy, and develop a strong sense of self-awareness. All of the following skills can help mentors better fulfill this role.
Academically talented students can benefit from mentors on a professional level. Take, for example, an aspiring doctor—having a mentor in the medical field could be a great networking opportunity to help connect a student to internships, programs, and other professionals in the field. Additionally, a mentor would ideally be able to aid a student in processing through ethical issues in their field, such as the moral complexities of end-of-life care. Having a mentor who is a professional in a student’s desired field can also help the student understand what it looks like to enter a particular profession while also balancing the demands of family, friendships, and community involvement.
Of course, a professional mentor should be well-versed in the technical aspects of the relevant subject matter. But a mentor should also be empathetic and have well-developed interpersonal skills. During times when an academically talented student is particularly stressed (e.g., before a competition or performance), a mentor who has been through similar experiences can serve as a reassuring source of counsel. A mentor who can positively model interpersonal skills can also teach an intellectually talented student a great deal about human relationships.
Choosing a Mentor
The process of selecting a mentor requires communication between students, parents, and prospective mentors. Although little research has been done on the mentor selection process, some guidelines have been developed by gifted education specialist, Sandra Berger*:
- Figure out what—not whom—your student needs. Is there a specific skill or subject area that your child is interested in?
- Have a conversation with your child to decide if he or she truly wants a mentor. In some cases, your child may only want a friend or career exposure, instead of long-term mentorship.
- You can find mentors from among personal contacts. Alternatively, consider conducting an internet search for established mentorship programs in your area, such as My Brother’s Keeper. Look for programs that have an extensive screening process for mentors.
- Contact and interview candidates to determine if they have the time, experience, and emotional energy to invest in your child constructively. Does their style of teaching match your child’s interests? Be sure that you are clear about your child’s abilities and needs.
- Consider the importance of cultural competency in choosing a mentor—multicultural mentoring has been shown to be useful in the lives of gifted minority students. Strong female mentors are also highly important in encouraging gifted females to pursue high career aspirations.
- Have a conversation with your child to prepare them for a mentorship. Your student should understand the reason for the mentorship, its limits and potential benefits, and the responsibilities associated with it.
- Monitor the mentorship by having periodic discussions with your child about his/her mentorship experience. Finding an adult to work with your child can be intimidating if you do not already know suitable candidates. The CDC provides a number of guidelines on recognizing and heading off potentially inappropriate behavior in mentor-mentee relationships. These guidelines were designed for organizations screening large numbers of applicants and they focus on preventing a worst case scenario─but you may find them useful when conducting a broader mentor search on behalf of your child.
- If, after an extended period of time, your child is not exhibiting growth in the areas identified, or if you find that the mentor does not “click” with your child, it might be worthwhile to reframe the relationship. If, after giving the mentorship a chance, your student still has trouble identifying with the mentor, you may consider seeking a new mentor.
*Guidelines adapted primarily from Sandra Berger’s “Mentor Relationships and Gifted Learners”
- Arnold, K.D. (1995). Lives of Promise. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Berger, S. L. (1990). “Mentor Relationships and Gifted Learners.” ERIC Digest# E486.
- Callahan, C & Dickson, R.K. (2014). “Mentors and Mentorships.” J. Plucker, & C. Callahan, C. (Eds.)Critical Issues and Practices in Gifted Education: what the research says (Second Edition). Waco, TX: Prufrock Press Inc. (p. 413-426).
- Freeman, J. (2001) “Mentoring gifted pupils.” Educating Able Children, 5, 6-12.
- Tomlinson, C.A. Callahan, C.M., & Lelli, K.M. (1997). Challenging expectations: Case studies of high-potential, culturally diverse young children. Gifted Child Quarterly, 41, 5-17.