Column Editor Renee Spencer’s Note: Recent scholarship is drawing attention to the link between mentoring and the long-standing and rich literature on social support. For example, Sterrett and colleagues (2011) argue that social support theory can offer a guiding framework for continued research on supportive non-parental adults and the role they play in promoting positive adolescent development in multiple domains. Evidence from the social support literature has much to offer to our understanding of how mentoring can support youth development. The article summarized below by University of Massachusetts at Boston Clinical Psychology student Max Wu, presents findings from a study examining how support from various providers – teachers, peers and parents – influences school engagement from middle to high school.
Wang, M. T., & Eccles, J. S. (2012). Social support matters: Longitudinal effects of social support on three dimensions of school engagement from middle to high school. Child Development, 83(3), 877-895.
This study examined the role of social support from multiple sources on school engagement from middle to high school. Active school engagement is critical to a student’s educational success and individual development. School engagement encompasses components such as positive conduct and compliance with school rules, as well as enjoyment and interest in the classroom. Few research studies have investigated the influence of contextual factors on school engagement over time. We know that social support from parents, teachers, and peers can promote positive development during adolescence. This study looked at whether these three sources of social support also facilitate school engagement.
1,479 students were recruited from 23 schools in a single large and ethnically diverse county near Washington, DC. Data was collected over time, from when the adolescents were in 7th grade until 11th grade.
On average, all three of the indicators of school engagement studied declined from the 7th to the 11th grade among the adolescent participants. However, the different sources of social support all appeared to work against these declines and had varying degrees of influence on the different dimensions of school engagement.
Teachers played an especially important role in reducing the declines in school compliance, sense of school identification, and subjective value of learning at school that typically occur at this developmental period.
Peer social support was associated with reduced declines in participation in extracurricular activities, sense of school identification, and subjective valuing of learning at school. Surprisingly, teacher social support was greater on emotional and cognitive engagement than peer social support.
Parent social support also had a positive impact on school engagement, and had stronger impact than peer social support.
Conclusion and Implications for Youth Mentoring
Although some research demonstrates that teachers and parents have less impact on adolescents as they progress from elementary school to secondary school, this study demonstrates that they are still a very important source of influence. Teachers can convey a sense of caring, respect, and appreciation for their students that can be emphasized in a strengths-based intervention to promote adolescents’ school achievement and engagement. Peer support fulfills adolescents’ need for friendship and helps them to develop of sense of satisfaction with school. Firm and receptive parental support can promote prosocial behavior in school and increase academic motivation.
The findings from this study supported what is called an additive model of social support, meaning that the various sources of support act independently. Therefore, adolescents can benefit from any one of these sources of support. That said, these different sources of support did not appear to influence school engagement in the same way – different sources of support were associated with different dimensions of school engagement.
So what does this mean for mentoring? This study begs the question of whether support from mentors and other supportive non-parental adults may also promote school engagement. Whether or not mentors may have an independent and direct effect, perhaps mentors can serve to support the connections youth have with their parents, peers and teachers. Thinking of mentoring in terms of social support opens up new avenues for consideration of how mentoring can support the positive development of young people.
Sterrett, E. M., Jones, D. J., McKee, L. G., & Kincaid, C. (2011). Supportive non-parental adults and adolescent psychosocial functioning: Using social support as a theoretical framework. American Journal of Community Psychology, 48(3), 284-295.