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Finding a Mentor for Your Gifted Child

By Lorel Shea, Bellaonline’s Gifted Educational Editor

Intensity is a common feature of gifted children. Highly intelligent children often have strong interests in specific subjects that may last for weeks, months, or even years. Parents may find it difficult to keep up with their child's level of knowledge in a particular realm. What do you do if your daughter outstrips you in math? How about a son who is fascinated by all things mechanical? What can you do if you are not an engineer, or don't have any aptitude for this subject? After materials at the local library have been exhausted, it may be time to consider a mentor.

Who can be a mentor? What do they do? A mentor is an experienced adult willing to share information in a given field. Traditionally, mentors volunteer their time. A mentor usually acts as an instructor or guide, and works one on one with a child. A mentor may be an educator, a professional in a specialized field, or a knowledgeable adult who shares the young person's interest as a hobby. This type of instructor may be found through inquiry at a local college, high school, or place of business. Ask for a tour, or request that the prospective mentor meet with your child to discuss their current project. An alternate way to search for a good candidate is through meetings for an interest based organization, such as a Civil War roundtable, rock and minerals club, or bird watching group.

If your son loves math, a grad student who is majoring in mathematics might get a kick out of becoming his math guru. A neighbor with a backyard rose garden might be a great horticultural resource. If your daughter is into carnivorous plants, you make have a bit more difficulty locating a mentor, but don't despair. So what if the botanist specializing in Venus fly traps lives halfway round the globe? Geography need not be a major impediment to mentorship. Many happy child-mentor pairs communicate solely through e-mail and an occasional phone call.

My daughter has devoted a great amount of time to raising butterflies, grasshoppers, and one very lovely tomato hornworm caterpillar. When she was five, she had questions that I couldn't answer. I contacted an entomologist at a university a thousand miles away, as his web site indicated that he was available for questions. He was quite happy to e-mail my girl and offer helpful tips on caring for her tiny charges. This sort of interaction is a terrific way to get your child ready for a genuine mentorship.

My son has been intrigued by rocks and minerals since he was two years old. At this point, he's read dozens of books on the subject, watched hours of film, participated in several short term workshops for kids, and conducted a fair amount of geological browsing online. Several months ago, I sent an inquiry to a local professor on his behalf. My ten year old is now collecting data and doing serious project work involving the local water table, and he is happy as a clam.

When is a child ready for a relationship with a mentor? Informal learning can take place at any age, but a more structured arrangement may be most beneficial if you wait for the child to reach the following milestones: Your child should be comfortable discussing ideas, asking questions, and making her opinion known. She should be able to read and write fluently, to sit and pay attention to a favorite topic for about two hours. Even if reading and writing are not necessary while with the mentor, the child should be capable of doing some basic research independently and taking notes.

It is often the case that gifted kids lack peers who can relate to their hobbies. A positive relationship with an adult who has the same passion for nanotechnology, tarantulas, or organic gardening may be just what your child needs. Even if another child shares the gifted child's obsession, it is often on a more cursory level. A talented adult who can give informed feedback and enhance the child's understanding is a wonderful find.


An overview of a way that mentoring can be introduced into a school's educational provisions

MENTORING ALLOWS the educational needs of talented students to be met even when these fall outside the school curriculum and outside the expertise of the students' teachers. This is achieved by linking the student with an experienced person from the appropriate field of endeavor. Relating to experts outside the school environment also requires the students to become more responsible for their own learning, with students establishing goals with their mentor, and generally learning by doing.
Selecting students for mentoring
Mentoring best suits students who have already shown some dedication and commitment to the area of interest, such as in already working independently on "real problems or projects" in the area. Self-motivation (at least in the subject area) and organization are also key attributes if the student is to gain from the less structured mentor arrangement.
Selection can, particularly in high schools, lean heavily on self-selection with confirmation sought from parents and teaching staff. One school's selection process is as follows:
 a general invitation is made at assembly for expressions of interest;
 interviews are held with students coming forward, outlining the process and the self-motivation and organization required;
 comments and confirmations are sought from the student's teachers and parents;
 endeavors are made to find a suitable mentor in the student's area of interest; and
 the first mentor/student meeting discusses and refines the student's goals, with both parties able to terminate the relationship should either wish.
Mentors - characteristics
Mentors are not tutors or substitute teachers but rather are professionals interacting with "junior colleagues". Mentors act as advisers, consultants, and role models, and sometimes as critics where this facilitates the student's achievement of their own goals and objectives. Mentors ideally should have:
 an enthusiasm for the subject area;
 considerable experience and overall perspective in the subject area;
 an interest in assisting young persons in developing their skills and awareness;
 some ready communications skills to foster interaction in an informal setting; and
 an awareness of any moral issues that pertain to the field of endeavor.

Finding Mentors
Although not normally paid, mentors can benefit from being involved in a mentoring relationship in terms of freshness and perspective. Mentors can be found from a wide range of sources, including:
 from a school's parent body;
 from other teaching staff;
 from older students (including from secondary or tertiary institutions);
 from local businesses and community arts bodies;
 via professional bodies and associations in the area of interest; and
 from ex-students of the school.
Some schools rely extensively on ex-students. This means that most of the mentors are well known to members of the teaching staff. In some school districts there are centralized mentor schemes that schools can use (eg Mentor Links in the Sydney metropolitan regions).
Risk management
Clearly there are risks involved in linking students with mentors, especially when mentors may not be personally known to members of the teaching staff and the meetings take place other than at school premises. On the other hand it would be a pity if these risks preclude appropriate learning experiences for students.
These risks can be managed by:
 seeking, where possible, mentors that are known to members of staff;
 advising students and parents of the nature of the mentor program including that it may take place away from school;
 asking parents to complete a release and indemnity document in regard to the mentor program;
 asking parents to attend the first meeting between student and mentor and then to agree to the program proceeding;
 providing mentors with simple guideline notes;
 asking both the student and mentor to complete evaluations at the conclusion of the arrangement; and
 allowing either the student or mentor to withdraw from the arrangement at any time.
Apart from common sense the essential principles are to ensure that all parties are fully informed and to ask that the parents or guardians make the decision to proceed and thereby take on the risk. From a parental viewpoint this is hardly unusual - parents frequently take risks in regard to activities as part of their children's broader education


"La gente es maravillosamente tolerante. Perdona todo excepto al genio."
Oscar Wilde.