More than mentoring: 5 ways leaders can help students expand their influence

Students must learn how to build social capital with their own personal networks.

Teachers serving in mentoring programs is a more equitable way to help students develop relationship-building skills that will be critical in and outside school. But this strategy has its limitations, as it can strain overworked staff and may be more “institution-centric than student-centric,” says education researcher Julia Freeland Fisher.

Superintendents, principals and other educators may find greater success by taking an “asset-based approach.” This means helping learners build social capital and expand their influence by strengthening connections with people they already know, says Fisher, whose Students’ Hidden Networks analysis offers comprehensive guidance on a technique called “relationship mapping.”

The ultimate goal is to equip all students with the same type of connections that more affluent students are likely to take advantage of as they apply to college and plan their careers, she says. Educators can also turn to multiple organizations that are already engaged in helping students develop social capital and mobilize personal networks.

“When selecting a college major, students are most likely to receive advice from family and friends, ahead of on-campus resources,” Freeland says. “Also, emotional support from their families is a key predictor of low-income and first-generation students persisting in schools. And students may be more likely to seek support from non-school or program staff.”

More than mentoring: How it works

More than 70% of students report that they have people in their lives who can provide support through mentoring. But they also said they need help building and tapping into those networks, according to a survey by an organization called Social Capital Builders.

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And there is still a mentoring role for educators. Teachers or counselors can start students mapping their relationships by putting their names in the middle of a piece of paper, and making lines to people they know in their communities. A website, Connected Futures, can guide middle and high school students and educators through the mapping process.

Here are 5 ways to use relationship mapping to help students build wider, more supportive networks:

1. To teach students about the power of networks and social capital. In a model developed by equity advocates at Beyond 12, coaches ask students to reflect on the people who have helped them reach their goals and the people whom the students themselves have helped. This connects students’ outside-of-school experiences with on-campus activities that will benefit them.

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2. To increase the likelihood that students mobilize their networks. Embed students’ goals into their relationship maps. This requires them to identify people they know who will help them tackle real-time challenges and force them to have new types of conversations with these supporters.

3. To expand access to support and increase students’ sense of belonging. Ask students to list adults at school whom they trust. This can guide educators to form connections with students who don’t yet feel connected to anyone at school.

4. To expand students’ professional networks. For working-age students, educators can encourage students and their families to reach out to employers whom they already know. This can create deeper relationships than when districts bring in guest speakers or enter formal partnerships with local companies.

5. To boost persistence and success long-term. Relationship maps will remind students about connections they’ve made, which can help them tap into their networks as they set new goals.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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