When a student is at risk for poor educational outcomes because of a significant disability, medical issue, or emotional or behavioral problem, a mentor may be able to provide a unique, invaluable form of support different from the support teachers, other professionals, or family members provide. This is what mentors in the Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resource System (FDLRS) provide to students in school and students transitioning to work or postsecondary education: www.fdlrs.org/.

The FDLRS is made up of six regional multidisciplinary centers (MDCs), each connected to a local university. When educational professionals identify students who may benefit from assessment and support, they can arrange for these services through the center closest to them.

Mentored students often have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) or are part of the Project TEN Early Warning system due to struggles with academics and other environmental factors. The centers provide screenings and assessments for children and youth who have or who are at risk of developing complex medical, educational, emotional, or behavioral problems. They also help assess children and youth who are at risk of having poor educational or academic outcomes. The centers provide consultation, technical assistance, and training for teachers and other school personnel, families, health care professionals, and service providers working with students, as well as the university community.

The mentoring services at MDCs offer opportunities for students to connect with people who care deeply about helping them succeed and achieve specific goals related to education and future planning for employment and community life after high school graduation. MDCs usually conduct the first assessment in person. A parent must sign a form to give permission before mentoring begins.

Mentors offer Support and Connection to Students Navigating Educational Challenges
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Mentors work in person or virtually with individual students or in small groups on a range of issues. A student working one-on-one with a mentor benefits from the closeness and individual attention, support, advice, and encouragement toward setting their own priorities and reaching personal goals. A mentor may support a student individually to overcome a challenge in mastering an academic subject, or to obtain employment in a career of interest. However, mentors also work with small groups of students working on a similar issue. Small-group mentoring can be ideal for youth transitioning from school to adulthood and help them learn about the differences in the expectations of educators and employers. Small-group mentoring can also be ideal when addressing uncomfortable issues, such as maintaining hygiene and learning soft skills for the workplace.

Damien Hunte, an experienced mentor who created the mentoring program at the Keiser University MDC, works individually in person or on Zoom with students. Damien shared:

Mentoring for youth with disabilities doesn’t need to focus completely on the student’s diagnosis. Mentors need to focus their attention on students’ strengths and abilities and advise and guide students without talking down to them. The important thing about a mentor is their ability to connect with the issue the mentee is dealing with. It is very important for adults to remember how they felt at the age of the mentees, in the same way that teachers and administrators might try to remember how they thought and felt as students. At the same time, they have to consider any generational differences between themselves and the mentees and understand that learning styles and levels of knowledge will be different.

The mentoring relationship is unique, with less of the hierarchy of a relationship between a parent and child or a teacher and student, but with boundaries that distinguish it from a friendship. To maintain these boundaries and have a successful mentoring relationship, the mentor and mentee need to agree to parameters such as meeting at certain times to work on specific goals. In this way, students get valuable support from people who are focusing their time and attention on doing their best to relate to them and coach them. The important thing is that mentors offer consistent support and motivation as mentees take steps in the right direction.

As Mr. Hunte sees it, the mentoring relationship has other unique aspects. Sometimes, mentors begin helping mentees with one issue, but there are bigger underlying issues that need attention. The mentoring relationship lasts as long as the mentor and mentee want to remain in it. Depending on the situation, a mentor and mentee might work through the issue successfully or the mentor might recommend the help of another expert. Mentors are there to teach, but they also learn from interacting with the mentees who sometimes show them new and better ways to help and encourage them. If mentors cannot interact in person with mentees, they are allowed to send them small gifts such as cards, gold stars, or encouraging notes. Mr. Hunte says that mentors often act like cheerleaders, which sometimes embarrasses the mentees, but also lets them know that someone is really paying attention to them.

A mentor’s impact on a mentee’s life can be so important and profound that in some cases, a mentee wants to succeed if only to keep from disappointing the mentor. A family member, teacher or friend has often known a student longer and can provide important forms of support. However, the attention and encouragement from the right mentor can help a student follow through and complete educational goals, pursue a job, and approach the future with confidence.