Learning mentors come from all walks of life. They offer the chance for a positive role model and individual attention to many young people, who otherwise would not have that opportunity. Kathy Salter and Rhonda Twidle, drawing on their own experience as mentors, describe how the role has developed in recent years, and how it can complement the support provided by SEN specialists.

Learning mentors first appeared in our schools in 1999 as a part of a new government initiative called Excellence in Cities, aimed to improve inclusion in inner city schools. After a pilot period, the scheme was rolled out to a wider percentage of the country. Mentors were given a remit to remove barriers to learning. How they were to do this was not explored in any depth, leading to massive differences in their use within cities, let alone across the country. The role was so new that schools were unsure how to deploy these new professionals. Where did they fit into the school organisation?

Many mentors have been used almost indistinguishably from classroom assistants, merely providing another pair of hands, wasting the skills they bring, and, in any case, not sufficiently addressing the stated purpose of reducing barriers to learning. If this is to be achieved, much more imagination is needed. Recently the situation has been improving, with national conferences enabling the sharing of good practice much more freely.

Learning mentors are often, although not exclusively, line managed by SENCOs, and there is much scope for interworking, where good communication and mutual understanding is imperative for a smooth, effective working relationship. Many of the clientele will be drawn from the special educational needs (SEN) list, as, among these, number many pupils with behavioural difficulties and other barriers to learning.

The scope for using mentors in and around schools is huge, and does not need to be limited to pupils with recognised SEN. They can run breakfast, lunchtime and after-school clubs. They can see referred young people one-to-one, giving more individual attention to specific issues, which range widely in both nature and solution, to be explored in more detail later.

Through the careful operation of confidentiality, they can gain the trust of marginalised pupils, and enable better communication. They can see a wider range of pupils at drop-in sessions, allowing the school to offer support in a much broader context. Within their work, they will inevitably be required to liaise with other agencies, teachers, and pupils’ families. They may have more flexibility to develop relationships with parents, who often feel distanced from their children’s education, especially at secondary level.

Learning mentors are required to have knowledge of a remarkably wide variety of issues, for example the many and varied specific learning difficulties presented in school. They need to know how to refer on to other agencies, requiring in-depth and up-to-date knowledge of local services in both statutory and voluntary sectors. This can include Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), social services, drugs agencies, counselling provision, youth clubs, clinics, and family support groups.

Mentors must demonstrate unconditional acceptance of their clientele, whatever the situation presented to them, remain calm in a crisis, and have the ability to engage young people of a very diverse nature. This natural skills base should be enhanced by the availability of good quality training, to give them the proper tools for the job and the confidence to use them.

What is the nature of the issues faced by learning mentors in schools? They are complex, and often interrelated, stemming from deeper causes including family problems or traumatic experiences.

  • Behaviour can be improved using solution-focused brief therapy (Berg and Steiner, 2002), which concentrates on the pupil’s strengths, solutions rather than problems, and facilitates setting targets and goals.
  • Anger management can be dealt with using art therapy or creative tasks (Sunderland and Engleheart, 1997). Time-out cards are also useful.
  • Self-esteem can be explored using activities and worksheets to identify vulnerable areas, generate self-awareness and raise self-esteem (Salter and Twidle, 2005).
  • Self-harm can be approached using journaling and creative work, and worksheets can help identify meanings and triggers to explore alternative coping strategies.
  • Emotional intelligence difficulties are often linked to other concerns, such as anger management or self-harm. Effective activities include: using emotion cards to help pupils to identify emotions; games exploring expression; and creative methods such as collages or sculpting (using objects such as stones or animals to express a certain feeling).
  • Bereavement can be eased using the above ideas, which encourage the communication of feelings. Websites such as Winston’s Wish provide interactive activities
  • Friendship difficulties, often caused by aggressive or passive behaviour, may be supported by recognising what friendship is and what behaviour it entails. Mentors can also be effective in mediation between two parties.
  • Bullying behaviour can be changed from aggressive to more assertive behaviour, coupled with supporting the victim by strengthening that person against any future incidents. Communication with the other school pastoral staff and the pupil’s family is vital.
  • School refusal requires good liaison with the school’s education welfare officer. If dealing with anxiety, a GP referral may be appropriate, although this is not necessarily indicative of some form of mental health problem. A controlled desensitisation programme (see case study B, in box, right) can be formulated.
  • Transition is best tackled with a transition team, liaising with primary schools prior to the new year. Vulnerable students can then be identified. Pupils coming individually benefit from attending a joint ‘transition session’ to meet others in the same position, familiarise themselves with the school and alleviate fears. A ‘buddy’ network can be trained and established to offer support for the new intake.
  • Personal organisation can be improved by familiarising pupils with timetables, using ‘to do’ lists, identifying equipment needed for school on a daily basis, revision and study techniques.
  • Drug awareness can include naming drugs, identifying effects, and costs and benefits exercises. Local drugs agencies could be invited to work with all pupils, or those thought ‘at risk’. It is essential to have current knowledge of drug issues, to be clear about the confidentiality policy and, more significantly, the law.
  • Teenage pregnancy may require referrals to specialist agencies, but additional support can be offered for schooling during pregnancy and reintegration afterwards. Mentors need to be aware of the school’s confidentiality policy about disclosures of pregnancy.

Many of the methods discussed can be adapted to suit individual pupils or circumstances, and are applicable to a variety of issues. Physical activities such as gardening or walking are good ways of eliciting communication without pupils feeling ‘under the microscope’. Group activities such as circle time, story telling and use of different media, eg DVDs, are also useful.

Although learning mentors are not necessarily qualified counsellors, some knowledge of counselling skills is essential. Socratic questioning can be used, which is an open and guided questioning technique facilitating pupils in reaching their own conclusion, avoiding the impression of instructing. The Cycle of Change model, designed to focus on realistic steps for change, is useful in recognising the process an individual will encounter in changing behaviour. It is used within motivational interviewing – a method intended to resolve ambivalence and encourage action towards change (Miller and Rollnick, 1991).

For successful mentors, the problems and methods discussed must be firmly rooted in the right relationship. Young people respond to, and respect, a friendly, open approach. Young people come with sensitive problems and will make mistakes; they do not want to be judged, and need belief in their ability to change and survive. The learning mentor ethos encapsulates flexibility, creativity, openness to new ideas, a willingness to learn and team spirit.

So, learning mentors can have a very significant impact on the life of a school, if they are used efficiently and with sufficient backing in terms of support and training. The wide-ranging issues demonstrated above clearly require a vast array of knowledge. Referrals to, and liaison with, specialist agencies is central to successful mentoring. Mentors must act within the school’s policies so it is important to be clear about their content. Knowledge of the various methods discussed, here and elsewhere, is ongoing, and continually practised when supporting young people. Finally, and most significantly, mentors should understand youth culture within the context of the social problems faced by disaffected young people.

Kathy Salter (M Ed) and Rhonda Twidle

Case study A

Pupil A was referred for poor behaviour to which I applied a solution-focused approach. Targets were agreed weekly, success logged, and stickers awarded, with overall success rewarded with a certificate and small prize. A was praised at each step and liaison was maintained with his head of year and the SENCO. Despite relapses, A made significant improvement, with virtually no negative feedback. I entered him into a competition with other similarly mentored pupils, with A winning by miles! In our sessions A discussed his home life, where there were possible issues of emotional neglect. Confidentiality was discussed, yet he disclosed that his step-father had grabbed and held him against a cupboard, banging his head. I explained I must pass this information to our child protection officer. Together, we talked with A, who claimed he had exaggerated, actually bumping his head during football. Social services were contacted anyway, but advised us that without physical evidence, they could not investigate a retracted statement. Instead we monitored the situation closely, including asking his PE teacher to watch for bruising during games. No further incidents were indicated.

A responded to praise and recognition, soon realising he got more attention from behaving positively. This was possibly reflected in his behaviour at home, which appeared more settled, and he became a happier young person.

Case study B

Pupil B was referred after a very quick descent into anxiety, which resulted in school refusal. She had already been referred to a local CAMHS team, which was working with her on her anxiety issues. When I got to meet her, she was in Year 8, and had not really attended for the previous half term. After chatting to her on several occasions, it appeared that there were no specific problems in school to be solved, except that she now had a crippling fear of setting foot in the building. After a joint meeting with the CAMHS worker, we devised a programme of very small steps to help B return to school. The first step was to meet me at the school gate, and then go home again. This was built up each day, with the aim of B eventually staying in the learning support unit (LSU) to complete her work. Much patience was needed on all sides, as each step progressed. Sometimes we would have to go back a step or two, but we eventually got to the point where B was happy to work in the LSU. The next hurdle was to go back to lessons, first achieved by taking her to specifically selected lessons and staying with her. Throughout this time, I also saw B weekly, on an individual basis, to ensure she was coping with each step.

Eventually enough lessons were attended that she was able to sit and pass seven GCSEs, after which she elected to return to school to study for her A-levels!


Berg, IK, and Steiner, T (2002) Children’s Solutions Work, New York: Norton and Co Ltd.

Miller, WR and Rollnick, S (1991) Motivational Interviewing: Preparing People to Change Addictive Behaviour, New York: The Guilford Press.

Salter, K and Twidle, R (2005) The Learning Mentor’s Source and Resource Book, London: Lucky Duck – Paul Chapman Publishing.

Sunderland, M and Engleheart, P (1997) Draw on your Emotions, Bicester: Speechmark Publishing.

Website: www.winstonswish.org.uk.