The Research Files Episode 72: Online mentoring for disengaged students

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Hello and thank you for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine – I’m Jo Earp.

The high school years are an important steppingstone to future study and career opportunities, but it can also be a difficult time for some students. So, how can teachers and leaders support teenagers who are not engaged with their studies or who may be at risk of dropping out of school all together? My guest on episode 72 of The Research Files is Professor Joseph Ciarrochi from Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education. He’s the lead researcher for projectHOPE – a program that’s notched up success in re-engaging at-risk secondary students with their schooling.

Through projectHOPE, students are connected to qualified mentors. Now, the particularly good news is that researchers found that just a 15-minute online mentoring session once a week made a big difference. In this episode we’ll find out more about the research team, how the program works, and the impact on students – including their wellbeing and engagement at school.

Explaining his own motivation for being a part of projectHOPE, Professor Ciarrochi says: ‘I was bullied during high school and ate lunch alone. I wish I could travel back in time and help my younger self with how to manage difficult people. I would also help my younger self to engage in school, because ultimately the schoolwork was for me and not for my teachers. I would tell myself that things were going to be alright, that if I just stayed focused on the things I cared about, the bad stuff would pass. This project is my way of going back in time, and helping at-risk teens re-engage with school and avoid an unhappy adolescence.’

Here’s our interview.

Jo Earp: Professor Joseph Ciarrochi, welcome to The Research Files. It sounds like your own experience of school was a difficult one, and that you can identify with some of the issues that at-risk students are going through. Was that an important thing for you personally, to share your own experience and motivation for being a part of the project?

JC: Absolutely, I was pretty clueless in high school and I didn’t talk to anybody; I didn’t talk to my parents, I didn’t talk to my teachers. I had a bad upbringing, and I didn’t really trust adults, so I was kind of on my own and pretty clueless about how to deal with difficult people. I didn’t know that if I talked to my teacher they would have helped me, they would have helped me to learn and helped me in my future – I had no idea about this. So, I spent my entire four years, or whatever it was, in high school messing up and getting into conflict, getting suspended, and I even flunked my senior year. It was just so painful and unnecessary. So, when I talk to young people I can tell them.

People probably underestimate how painful it is for a young person to be struggling at school. I mean, all the teens pretend like they don’t care, it’s all cool. But, to not be making it at school – everybody knows that you’re not making it, everybody knows that you’re flunking, everybody knows that you’re doing badly. And kids can pretend like they don’t care, but my experience working with these kids that are having difficulties, they care a great deal and they just don’t believe in themselves, and they feel shame, and they’re very hard on themselves. But, in response, what the teachers see is this aggression and acting out a lot of times and trying to be cool because it’s so painful to deal with this. It’s literally like being excluded from the tribe to be able to not be able to ‘pass’ school, you know, get good enough grades to stay in school.

JE: You’re the lead researcher for projectHOPE. There were eight Chief Investigators in all – the other seven (and we’ll give them a name check) were Professor Phillip Parker, Professor Rhonda Craven, Professor Richard Ryan and Dr Baljinder Sahdra (they’re all from ACU), from the University of Sydney there’s Professor David Evans and Dr Cathy Little, and Dr Fabri Blacklock from University of New South Wales. So, projectHOPE is actually based on a US program called Check & Connect, isn’t it?

JC: Yes, so the main idea of this program was it’s a two-year commitment. So, imagine a young person is about to, their dropping out, they don’t believe in themselves, they’re disengaging, their parents are stressed or maybe not very involved. And so the idea was that you give a young person a mentor and you give that for two years so that the young person knows that there’s going to be this adult who cares and believes in them, showing up every week – no matter what they do, no matter how badly they behave, this adult is going to be there showing up and encouraging them and believing in them. That’s the heart of it. There’s also other practical things like problem solving and working through bullying issues, but the heart of it is there’s this relationship you have (this is the idea of Check & Connect) that is just very stable and persists and that adult’s commitment to the young person motivates the young person to keep coming. It’s that relationship. So that’s the main idea and that’s what we planned to do, but of course COVID got in the way, and COVID forced us to radically change the plan.

So, before this, we really believed that Check & Connect was a two-year, very massive commitment and we started it that way. We started travelling to schools and it was time consuming. We had to go to, you know, Redfern and different places in Sydney – and there’s traffic and there’s parking, then you check in … So, to mentor, say, six kids, even if it’s only 15 minutes it’s taken us an entire day and we’re limited by the fact that if we go to Sydney we can’t drive to a rural area on the same day. But COVID just forced us to change because schools weren’t allowed to have visitors during COVID. So, we had to come up with an alternative. And so, we decided to try this online version of it.

And that turned out to be a real breakthrough I think, because it proved to us that this can work; and it doesn’t take two years, and you don’t have to be face-to-face; and maybe it would be better, we don’t know, that’s unknown. But the point is we could (via Zoom) standardise everything we do – so you could have a mentor who helps the young person, goes through a protocol, for 15 minutes – and we could go into rural areas, we could go into the city, we could go into Queensland if we wanted to, or the Northern Territory, or the United States if we have to; it doesn’t matter, it’s just a phone call, and still be in the same place.

So, the efficiency … we’re talking about – let’s say two-and-a-half hours of travel, is now nine mentored kids. That’s the difference, that is shockingly efficient. And they responded, it was fantastic, they responded. It was a challenge sometimes, but it worked. And so, I’m pretty excited by that.

JE: And that online model actually turned out to be a fortuitous switch – what you thought might be an issue was a success – but, before we talk about that, can you outline who you wanted to target with this program and who the participants were?

JC: Yeah, so what we’re looking at, is young people who are not completely out of school, not completely checked out. So, they’re the ones who are kind of on the borderline – they’re disengaging a bit and they’re at risk, so we’re catching them early. So, if it’s a young person who’s already out of school and not showing up then we can’t really reach them, but these are the kids that are engaged but they’re disengaging; and if we catch them now the idea is that we will prevent it from happening.

So, they’re kids that are going to school regularly but are just not quite connecting, and the teacher can see the change, and they’re struggling. Not the young people who were in total crisis, but the young people who were kind of starting to struggle. And these are often the young people who, I mean if they’re completely out of school they’re not causing hassles, but you know, if they are disengaging and they’re going to school this means that this young person is probably causing a heap of trouble for the teacher. You know, the teacher might have 29 brilliant students, but if there’s the 30th student who’s acting out, talking, distracting, most of your energy is going to be going into managing that one young person. So, we focus on that one young person and the idea is not only would we help that young person, but a lot of the teachers expressed gratitude because that student started to get along better with the teacher and free that teacher up for other things.

JE: The role of the school then, were they just involved in the beginning in terms of recommending the students. How closely did they work with you throughout the project?

JC: The more the school is involved the better. So, the absolute best was when we were assigned a teacher, or a person who is like the wellbeing person, who kind of interacts with us and interfaces with the student. So, if we have somebody on the ground who’s really engaged then we can talk to them – we can say ‘look, this student is having a lot of trouble with this teacher and we’re worried about this, and maybe there needs to be a conversation’ or something like that.

So we can start to anticipate things and that person who’s in the school know how things work, she knows the history, she knows all that stuff and she (or he, sorry) can then work with the program and the school. So, we worked very closely with the school. We would talk to teachers we would talk to the wellbeing person – we could even talk to counsellors if we had to. So, it was really good. But we were also very respectful of the school; we knew that there was policies and so we didn’t’ go over their head or talk to parents without permission, so we stayed very closely within their rule base and our whole goal was to support them and the young people.

JE: I’ve been in Australia now for 13 years I think it is (listeners can probably tell because of my Australian accent) but one of the things that still amazes me is just the vastness of it all. You mentioned there about the online aspect meaning that projectHOPE could really reach out to students in rural and remote areas. So, did you end up working with students in different states?

JC: It was New South Wales for now, but we did go rural (Southern Highlands), and we were in the urban areas of Western Sydney. But even going from one part of Western Sydney to another, you might as well be travelling out to the Blue Mountains – even if it’s not remote it’s still sometimes hard to get to places. Yeah, we had quite a diversity, but there’s nothing stopping us from say working with kids in Darwin, absolutely nothing. So that’s super exciting and we got the system very efficient and very structured. All the mentors knew what they were doing, we were all on the same page and able to deliver I think a positive intervention.

JE: Who were the mentors that you chose and how did you select them?

JC: Well, I was one. So, they tended to be people with at least an undergraduate degree (for now). I believe we could use just probably anybody with an undergraduate degree would be fine; I think we could even use people without that – they just had to be properly trained. We just haven’t tried it yet, we tried for the easier option for now, which is they didn’t necessarily have to have a psychology degree or anything like that, but it helped if they’d gone through the education process and you know they could kind of talk to young people about that. So, no really sophisticated knowledge, we’re not clinicians or psychiatrists or anything like that, we’re just regular folks. And the structure of Check & Connect kind of allows you to deliver evidence-based stuff in a very standardised way, so that’s nice.

JE: You’ve recently published a project report (PDF, 725KB) – and I’ll pop a link to that into the transcript of this podcast, which you can find at under the podcasts tab, or just search for ‘episode 72’. I’m really keen to spend some time now digging into the findings. What were the big takeaways for you?

JC: Well, I mean, first of all we were giving much less dose than Check & Connect – so that’s really testing it, because it’s like ‘can we get away with much less, because not every school can afford two years of mentoring?’ And the answer is, I think, ‘yes’.

The young people who were mentored (compared to a control group), tended to care more about school, completed their homework, they showed a higher willingness to learn, they were happy to be at school (which is a big one) and they said they were working hard to do well at school. And what we saw was that the control group tended to … as time passes in school they don’t always feel as connected to the teacher, so the control group might lose the sense of the teacher support; they get tired of school, they get a little bit more dysregulated sometimes.

And so, we found that in the control group but the mentoring group kind of managed to hold steady during the course of the mentoring, so that was good. They showed improved outcomes with regard to being hopeful, being able to regulate their emotions (those kinds of things) and feeling supported by their teachers.

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JE: A reminder to listeners that this was just a 15-minute session, once a week. It’s hard to give a typical conversation, but what kind of things might be covered during the session?

JC: Absolutely, so we had to structure it – it couldn’t be a therapy session, nor could it just be random, because 20 minutes goes pretty fast, so we had to be very efficient. We had a fabulous team that helped out with that.

The main thing is … so you have 20 minutes right, so the first thing you do is you check in, you say ‘So, how are you going? How are you feeling?’. And we have the school records, so we know if there’s been a suspension, any kind of transgression we are aware of it. So, we check in with them, we check that, we say ‘Oh we notice you haven’t been in Tuesday and Thursday, what’s going on? Oh, what happened you got suspended’ or ‘you got into a fight and you went to detention’. So that first part is just checking in.

So, this is actually a surprisingly important part because now the young person knows that we’re checking in and we’re monitoring, so next week – and hopefully they like the mentor, which they usually do – they know that the mentor is going to say ‘What happened here?’. So that’s the first part, is checking, and then we connect with them. That is flexible but is still pretty structured; if we see a problem – like with the teacher or a student – we might problem-solve. It’s amazing the young person usually it hasn’t even occurred to them to try something different other than fighting, you know fighting the teacher.

So, a big part of the program was helping the young person to understand what their needs are and what’s important to them. Because when they act out and get suspended and start to disengage it actually is almost always against what they care about. Even the kids that don’t love academics still want to be at school to play sport and be with their friends. So, being suspended is against that value, but all of them want to have a future. And so what we do is we talk about ‘what kind of future do you want?’ and in almost every instance that future requires education, you know.

We know education is essential for just about everything – even if you want to do a trade, things are so complicated now that you need to be able to understand computers, you need to be able to understand technology, you need to be able to understand those things to work on engines, which have computers in them or to do any of the trades really, if you want to run your own business someday. So, you know a big part of it is they’re all gong to say ‘this doesn’t matter why do I have to tell you this is stupid’ and so that’s a big part of what we do, is kind of sell education.

We problem-solve with them. And probably one of the most important features is no matter how badly they do or how much difficulty they cause, we believe in them. And we really express that, no matter what happens we find the ways in which they are doing well, they are intelligent, they are showing strength, and we just hone in on that and we really try and amplify that.

So, a lot of these kids only hear negative things, because they’re in school and teachers are just exhausted and they’re trying to keep them under control, so they only get negative feedback. Anything that goes back to the parents is negative – they’re not sending a lot of positive things back necessarily. So, we deliberately try and instead of putting punishment on the negative things they’re doing (we do discourage it) we try and really reinforce the positive alternative. So, we just look for any diamond in there and when we see it we’re just like ‘Wow, you’re mountain biking, that’s amazing how dedicated you are and how stressful this is for you but you’re still willing to do it. What if you could take those same skills and apply it to this maths course? Because you know you told me earlier, last week, that you wanted to pass this course, that this was important because you want to be an engineer someday. What if we could take that same skill you had in terms of racing mountain bikes and turn it into doing well in this class? Do you want to give that a try?’

So that’s the kind of thing we do, we try and find where they’re strong, we reinforce the heck out of that and we show how those skills can be used in other academic ways. So that was our angle in. The hardest question [from the student] is always ‘well, how does this matter to me?’. If it’s trigonometry, you know, you have a challenge! But I think we manage to kind of show them how these thinking skills were going to be absolutely essential – it didn’t matter what kind of job they wanted.

None of these kids – as cool as they’re trying to act and as different, they don’t care, ‘whatever, screw the teachers’ (that’s their kind of outside attitude) – none of them want to be cut off from education and their peers.

JE: You said earlier that the ones that are not attending you can’t reach them. Did this intervention help with general attendance? I mean, presumably some of the students had attendance issues.

JC: We didn’t get an attendance effect, but that’s one of the targets. But these were, these kids were pretty decent in the attendance level – they were sometimes skipping but it’s hard, I think we’d need more time to see that effect, it’s just a bit of a tricky one. But they generally didn’t disengage, so yeah. They were much more engaged so I would assume that attendance would stay up over time.

JE: One of the major positive impacts was on student wellbeing. What was the feedback you were getting from them and from the teachers as well?

JC: Yeah, they were a lot happier, but the teachers would be like thanking us and ‘wow, [he or she] is really settling down’. That kind of feedback was awesome.

It wasn’t a miracle – some kids were still very difficult and some kids left the mentoring, so this is not a miracle. Some kids stopped seeing the mentor. One of the big challenges was that initially there was a little stigma, it was like something is wrong with you if you go see a mentor, so we worked really hard to overcome that and say we’ve identified people who have potential and this is about strengthening their potential. So, that was a major challenge. Some kids dropped out because they thought it was uncool. So we lost a couple of kids but, mostly, once they got through a couple of sessions our mentors connected with them and they loved it and it was no problem.

JE: And what about in terms of schoolwork was there an uptick in that?

JC: They worked harder at school and they were [completing homework at a higher rate]. And they said they were working harder at school, so that’s something that’s tough for a young person to admit, but they became more engaged and committed, behaviourally, to school.

JE: I just want to return again to the feedback from the students? Were they seeing the benefits of putting in the time and the effort – was that starting to pay off, in their own eyes?

JC: Absolutely. We got much more positive feedback than I expected because a lot of my mentored kids, when they’re acting cool they don’t act like you’re helping them. And this is a message for teachers as well by the way. You know, you act with kindness and caring, the young person isn’t necessarily going to give you feedback that ‘thank you’, they’re not going to say thank you necessarily. This is one of the hardest things working in the education system.

When I was a senior in high school I did very badly in English, of all things. I’ve now written a bunch of books, but I flunked English and yet that was one of my favourite teachers – Miss Martinez – because she, unlike other teachers, didn’t think I was doing something mean to her, she didn’t take it personally, she was always kind to me. Whereas other teachers took it really personally, they attacked me, they embarrassed me in class when I was doing poorly. They thought I was attacking them rather than just being disengaged.

So, one of the big lessons I learned was, being a mentor, being kind, they don’t really tell you straight to your face. And this will be true for teachers that your kindness, they will register it and they will appreciate it, but they won’t necessarily tell you or show you. So fortunately we measured it, so they could give us feedback in private. And they did express that they were happier, that they cared more about school, and they were more willing to learn – even thought they never said that out loud, they would answer to that on an anonymous kind of questionnaire.

JE: Great, so like you say it’s by no means a miracle, there were some kids that dropped out and it’s important to mention that. But it certainly had some positive impacts. One area we haven’t yet talked about is why is it important that schools look to provide this support?

JC: Well, we know how important education is. If you look at research, each year of extra engagement – this is the biggest possible picture I’m giving you – is associated with less risk of death. So, it’s connected to mortality but also each year they stay engaged in school they’re less likely to enter the criminal system, they’re less likely to be addicted to drugs. There’s a kind of discipline, and the kinds of choices that are created, I think, by education that’s a powerful protector factor. And I don’t know if there’s anything more powerful than that. The last thing you want is a kid wandering the streets around 9th Grade, you know … all the risk factors come into that.

And, like I said, I just don’t think you can get away with not having that education anymore. No matter what trade you’re going into there’s still computers, there’s still payrolls, there’s still complicated things. And the way the world works, the way people are trying to sell things to you and con you out of things all the time on the internet. You absolutely have to be able to think and that’s what high school teaches these young people – how to think critically. And if they don’t have that they’re more at risk to harming themselves or having other people con them and harm them. So, I think it’s a massive protector factor and that’s why we want to keep them engaged as long as possible.

JE: So in terms of the current situation, you mention in the report that 26 per cent of youth in Australia don’t attain a Year 12 or Certificate III equivalent by the age of 19, and often that’s for preventable reasons and then you highlight that 10 per cent are subsequently not in employment, education or training at age 24. So, trying to find a solution to that seems like something we should be putting a lot of effort into.

JC: I agree. I think the place to pour resources into is high school. I think high schools are underfunded, every teacher I come into contact with they’re just so overworked, exhausted and they just … the hardest part about getting this into a school is that nobody had any free time. And it wasn’t that they weren’t trying, they were dedicated people, they had no free time. And you needed just a little bit of free time to set up a new thing, but schools are just like treading water, the teachers are just barely staying afloat.

And so I feel like this is more policy, but there just needs to be funds poured into schools to deal with things like this, because if you think about it, at 24 when it’s a problem, if they’re incarcerated or they’re not employed that’s costing the government hundreds of thousands of dollars, per person. And if you can prevent it, it makes sense economically, it’s not a waste of money.

And I feel like the teachers and the people who work at schools really need extra support with the kids that are giving them most trouble, because those kids can just suck resources and energy out of the system and then you have 28 other kids that are getting much less attention. I suspect that’s quite stressful to teachers, and could quite burn them out, those difficult kids.

JE: Turning back to projectHOPE – and as I mentioned earlier I’ll put a link into the podcast transcript to the report – do take a look, I recommend you read it because there’s a lot of detail in there, a lot of information about what happened, who you targeted and what the findings were. What’s next for the program then and what’s still missing on the research side of things?

JC: We need to get more funding to keep doing it. We’re looking for ways to continue it – making the economic argument that’s it’s actually incredibly cheap to do this, compared to manage things once they hit crisis level. So, to prevent the crisis is far cheaper than to manage a crisis. And that crisis happens monthly in schools, that crisis happens after people get disengaged and get involved in the criminal system. So that’s the main argument, is to try and get more funding for this.

We really want to also do a bigger trial to see how we can best help young people, but what also young people are disengaging and is there, you know dropping out, is there something that we can do for them?

I think we need to think about how we destigmatise it a bit more, so I sometimes wonder if it would be good when you do mentoring to have a few of the really good kids in it too, just so everybody knows when you come to the class to get a kid out for mentoring it’s not always who they think is the bad kid. It’s like, a couple of good kids are out.

You know, there’s so much still to do in terms of evaluating how it works, how to make it more efficient, how to make it more effective. You know, we could develop support materials for the young people, with videos and audio and maybe even have peers help out. You know, there’s a lot that can be done ...

JE: Well, that’s been brilliant, thank you so much for talking about projectHOPE today. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation. We wish you well in the future, but for now Professor Joseph Ciarrochi thanks very much for sharing your expertise with The Research Files.

JC: Thank you.

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Ciarrochi, J., Filardi, N., Parker, P., Craven, R., Evans, D., Little, C., Sahdra, B., & Blacklock, F. (2021). projectHOPE Online: Mentoring to re-engage at-risk youth with their education for our future. (IPPE Report). Institute for Positive Psychology and Education, Australian Catholic University.

ProjectHOPE worked with students who were starting to disengage. As a principal, think about your own school: Do you have students who are struggling, who are still attending school but starting to disengage? What support systems do you have in place to help get them back on track?

In this episode, Professor Joseph Ciarrochi says mentors focus on the student’s strength (including activities outside school) ‘reinforce the heck out of that and we show how those skills can be used in other academic ways’. As a teacher, think about one or two of your students. Make a list of their strengths. How could these strengths be applied to what’s happening at school?