With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
Sara Jones is an assistant professor of psychological health and learning sciences at the University of Houston. Her research focuses on improving student outcomes, engagement and learning.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: Tell me about the University of Houston’s mentoring program.
Sara Jones: We’re currently doing a mentoring program here at the University of Houston, working with with Cullen Middle School, which is located in a nearby low-income neighborhood. I’m training my undergraduates — many of them are going to be teachers and social workers — but we’re also teaching students from across the university in conversational techniques that we borrow from counseling.
The goal is to help them implement a mentoring program for middle school students. This year, we’re focusing on adolescents who are struggling behaviorally in class. The school is helping us identify which students would benefit the most.
The undergraduates are paired one-on-one with a middle school student whom they mentor for one hour a week for eight weeks. They work through a scripted lesson, where they address student motivation, behavior and self-reflection. They don’t maintain contact during the week, but they end each session with a goal to work on which they address in the following session.
Trib+Edu: Why target middle school students for this intervention?
Jones: What we know is, dropouts are often common during transition times — when students move from middle school to high school or from high school to college. We’re hoping to catch students in this period and get them on the right track.
Our mentoring program focuses on teaching them skills for regulating their own behavior and emotions, setting goals for themselves, tracking their own progress and making changes as needed. It can also be a difficult time for middle school students, because it’s hard to deal with hormones and changes and growing up.
Trib+Edu: How is the the mentoring program more effective than just another afterschool activity?
Jones: It’s intuitive that having positive role models can be influential on someone’s life. Research shows mentoring programs can improve grades and behaviors and decrease absences and even lead to better life satisfaction.
This program focuses on using a technique we borrow from counseling called motivational interviewing. It’s about building a relationship where the student is guiding the change process. It’s about having conversations around setting goals: where do you want to be in life and what are your motivations for getting there? We’re tapping into the middle schoolers' motivation for what they want to do, both in the short-term and in the long-term, and hope to leverage that as we teach them skills for improving time management or study habits.
Trib+Edu: Tell me more about motivational interviewing. How does it work?
Jones: Motivational interviewing is used in counseling and is proven to be as effective or more effective than a 12-step program with patients who have addictive behaviors. I think the reason for that is that you’re tapping into the clients’ own motivation. When you’re using this technique, it’s a conversational approach.
You talk about what’s going right and what’s going wrong. The idea is that the mentor is helping the students reflect on which things are working for them and which things aren’t working rather than saying outright, which often happens: “Middle school student, I’m older, I know more. This is what’s not working.”
If you tell someone this isn’t working for you, they’re going to dig their heels in and say you don’t know my life. This is not just middle schoolers. This is everybody. With motivational interviewing, it’s about helping them see what’s working and what’s not from their perspective. Then you can teach them the skills so they are able to improve in the area they’ve chosen they want to make the change in.
Trib+Edu: What do students and mentors talk about during these sessions?
Jones: The students, with their mentor, pick specific skills or areas to focus on.
There are some students who are coming to work on their academic study skills. Others focus on their behavior inside and outside the classroom: good decision-making and being able to step back and think before you make an action because impulsivity is a big challenge.
Developmentally, middle school is a time when students are very impulsive. We also work on emotion regulation. Students learn how to deal with stress and improve skills related to relaxation and self-reflection. They also work on social skills and specific strategies to resolve conflicts. We talk about how they can interact with people online in a way that’s appropriate.
Trib+Edu: How do you document the outcomes of your research?
Jones: We want to look at the student in a holistic way. We look at grades and absences in school because we know higher rates of absenteeism lead to dropouts in future. Students who miss class are more likely to drop out later. We also give students surveys before and after the mentoring that look at their academic motivation and life satisfaction. The waitlist is our control group.
Trib+Edu: What’s working in the program?
Jones: Some things, like the relationship building component, are working. We see students who have a stronger and more open relationship with their mentor have better outcomes. If a student doesn’t want to engage, there are some strategies we try. But at the end of a day, if a student doesn’t want to engage, you can’t force them to engage.
Our mentors are learning from mentees, too. We have some skills to teach the mentees, but we don’t know their lives. Our first session opens with the middle school student giving a tour of school. We always focus on making sure there isn’t a power differential in that relationship.
Trib+Edu: What has not been working too well? How has the program changed over the years?
Jones: The program started in South Carolina around 2011. It’s changed since then and been in Houston since 2015. Originally, our program did focus mainly on academic skills. What we found is that, with many of our students, that’s not where they need to focus their attention right now.
We’ve added support in areas of emotional regulation, behavioral regulation and managing social relationships. Middle school is a prime time, when students are growing up and having to manage a lot more of those things on their own. As you’re becoming an adult, you’re figuring out how to have your own identity and issues come up.
Trib+Edu: What would you say to those who argue middle school students should be focusing mainly on academic skills?
Jones: Those hard skills are important. It’s important to find out where students have holes in that foundational knowledge. But if students aren’t motivated to learn, it doesn’t matter what you’re teaching them; they’re not going to learn.
Our program is trying to help students get in the right mindset so that they can learn. If a student is angry or upset, they’re not going to learn anything. Making sure that our students are prepared mentally, physically, and emotionally to be good learners, is key to having them learn those academic skills.
Trib+Edu: How is this different to an hour with the school counselor?
Jones: The college students aren’t in any kind of power or authority position. All the conversations can be non-judgmental and non-evaluative. Even if a school counselor isn’t giving a grade, they’re part of the school. They’re in a position to evaluate, to assign consequences, and whether that’s the intention of the adult or not, it’s hard to separate that.
Many of our undergraduate students are from this neighborhood or similar ones. They’re younger, closer in age, more relatable. The biggest thing, even if they weren’t younger, is that they are not part of the school. Students can say things and it’s confidential with their mentor. It’s not going to get back to a teacher. Their counselor isn’t friends with their teacher or principal.
Trib+Edu: Why does all of this matter?
Jones: It’s so important that our students are persisting. We know students are dropping out of middle schools and high schools at high rates. These students who are dropping out, some are ending up in prisons. They’re not having the life outcomes we want.
Many of these students, especially those we are serving, are in an environment that at no fault of their own, they may not have positive role models around them or they may have challenges that not all students have. We want to make sure we’re giving them the best possible outcomes and support that any child would deserve.