Extending Learning through Mentorship

By The Duke Talent Identification Program

“Mom, you know how the meteorologist on TV talks about the different computer models that predict where a hurricane is going to hit? Well, I asked my teacher about it, but he said I should probably wait to learn more about them in college. How can I see those computer models now?”

“Dad, I think I want to be a surgeon, but how will I know if it’s right for me?”

“Mom, Dad, you know how I love writing stories and have won some contests? How can I get my stories published?”

Such questions indicate that gifted children need something more than most middle and high schools can offer. However, parents often do not know how to help their children find the answers they seek. Mentors can extend learning and satisfy the intellectual curiosity of gifted children. Mentorships for gifted children can provide

  • advanced skills, concepts, and information far beyond the classroom and home experience;
  • career planning assistance;
  • knowledge of current education and training requirements for specific careers;
  • realistic ideas about their talents and abilities;
  • enhanced self-esteem and self-confidence;
  • potential long-term friendships;
  • real-life experiences in a professional environment; and
  • a role model.
Planning for a Mentorship

Once you have determined that your child needs the kinds of information, resources, and support that a mentor can provide, planning an appropriate mentoring relationship is the next step. Help your child develop a proposal to give to a potential mentor. Your child should have specific questions and goals in mind. After all, he or she will most likely be approaching a busy person who already has full-time commitments.

Mentors can extend learning and satisfy the intellectual curiosity of gifted children.

A KWL chart will help your child focus. Used by educators, the KWL chart has three columns headed by what you already know about a topic, what you want to learn, and then what you actually learned about the topic. Ask your child to complete the first two columns, discussing realistic goals for what he or she expects to gain from a mentor. The mentorship can be short term (a day), long term (several months), or anything in between, depending on the child’s questions and goals and the time that the mentor can devote to the relationship.

Finding a Mentor

Most adults I have approached are only too happy to share their love of what they do with a bright young person interested in that field. So how do you find these people?

Look in your circle of friends and acquaintances. What kinds of jobs do they have? What are their hobbies? What about the people in your church group or the civic organizations you belong to? The professionals you see: your doctor, dentist, lawyer, may be willing to help. Sometimes a high school teacher can serve as a mentor for a middle school student. Call the high school’s guidance counselor and ask for a recommendation. University professors or graduate students may be able to serve as mentors. Contact a university nearby and speak to the department chair in the appropriate subject area. Call a TV station and ask to speak to the meteorologist, the sportscaster, or the news anchor.

“I really enjoy working with Nick; he gives good advice and is an all-round nice guy. Some of the mystery about what goes on behind publishing a book has been dispelled.”

All of these sources can help you and your child find a mentor.

Meeting a Potential Mentor

After you have found a prospective mentor, set up a face-to-face meeting. It is essential that you and your child go together to this meeting, for several reasons:

  • To discuss expectations, responsibilities, time requirements, scheduling, and ground rules. Your child should discuss specific questions and goals with the prospective mentor and share what he or she already knows and has experienced relative to the topic. Be on time for the appointment; this busy professional is volunteering his or her time.
  • To make certain that a good rapport is established between your child and the mentor. A mentor should be knowledgeable, enthusiastic, able to communicate with students, and willing to share his or her methodology and inquiry skills. If the prospective mentor seems uncommunicative, uncomfortable, reluctant, or impatient, keep searching.
  • To assure your child’s safety.

A clear understanding should be established between the mentor, your child, and you of expected behavior, limitations of access to resources that may be hazardous at the workplace or mentorship site, and areas that may be
off-limits to your child. Additionally, mentors and children must know which activities are inappropriate, even though they may seem innocent.

“My mentor, Elizabeth, is someone I can look up to, and I want to be like her. Watching her work will one day aid me in my job.”

Elementary school children should not be left alone with a mentor. Middle and high school students may be left alone with the mentor if the parent and child feel comfortable with that arrangement. Children should be instructed to tell you immediately if any adult’s actions or words make them uncomfortable. Caution your child not to leave the site unless arrangements have been made previously with the mentor and approved by you.

Assessing the Mentorship

After each session with the mentor, encourage your child to discuss it with you. In most cases, you will not have to ask your child to talk; you may have to ask him or her to stop talking!

At the conclusion of the mentorship, plan a final face-to-face meeting with your child and the mentor. Complete the last column of the KWL chart, assessing what your child has learned. Ask your child to reflect on what worked well and what might be done differently in the future. While your child is enthusiastically sharing all that he or she has gained from this experience, remind your child to write a thank-you note, telling the mentor specifically how the time spent was beneficial.
Expanding learning through mentorship can be a richly rewarding experience for your child, the mentor, and you.

Cheryl P. Milam, PhD

Cheryl P. Milam, now a middle school principal, has taught gifted children at the middle and high school levels for 16 years and has coordinated the gifted and talented program in her school district.

Further Reading
  • “Extending Learning through Mentorships,” by Cheryl P. Milam, in Methods and Materials for Teaching the Gifted, edited by Frances A. Karnes and Suzanne M. Bean, Prufrock, 2001
  • The Mentor Kit, by Diane Nash with Donald J. Treffinger, Prufrock, 1993
  • Mentorship: The Essential Guide for Schools and Business, by Jill M. Reilly, Ohio Psychology Press, 1992