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From heart palpitations to sweaty palms, a nauseated stomach to pounding headaches, imagine how many different ways that children can feel anxiety. There are over one hundred different ways in which the physical symptoms of anxiety can manifest.

Imagine how many children are debilitated by feelings of worry, panic or fear. Children who cannot function in their everyday lives because catastrophic thinking has taken hold and suffocated all thoughts of reason or realistic thinking.

Now imagine for a moment this same child feeling joy, a glimmer of happiness, and a sense of accomplishment. Imagine how that child would thrive. It is not as far out of reach as one would expect. Let’s for a moment venture the concept of peer mentoring.

Peer Mentoring
Recently, I had a chance to hear first-hand how this social process opened the window into a new world for an anxious child.

Claire has been struggling for many years with overwhelming social anxiety. Thoughts of fear, worry and sheer panic have consumed most of her days. The mere suggestion of walking into a room full of people would bring her to inconsolable tears. Over the years her parents and teachers have created a realistic environment where her worry thoughts could be spoken about and challenged when deemed appropriate. Then one day a little exercise in peer mentoring helped to make a huge shift in perspective for this nine-year old. It also began to facilitate a whole new set of strategies to employ when that pesky anxiety monster was speaking too loudly.

At most schools at a certain age the older children get a chance to become peer mentors to the younger grades. Whether its reading buddy, lunch buddies or bus helpers, it is a great way for learning in a way that fosters an incredible sense of community.

Peer Mentoring in Action

Peer mentoring is a form of mentorship that usually takes place between a person who has lived through a specific experience (Peer Mentor) and a person who is new to that experience (the Peer Mentee). (Wikipedia)

In Claire’s case she was paired up with a very soft-spoken little girl. The task at hand was for Claire to help her new little buddy learn to read. The first interactions were quiet as Claire felt self-conscious of speaking in front of her new buddy and her new buddy felt equally as nervous. Week by week the two soon realized that neither would be a threat. Claire had some very interesting observations about her new friend. “She’s so quiet”, “She speaks so softly, I sometimes can’t hear her”, “She doesn’t say much–just shakes her head for yes and no”, and “She’s such a sweet girl”. “Was I like that?” she asked.

The Impact of Peer Mentoring
The epiphany came the day that Claire asked her buddy a question about her favourite character and lo and behold she replied – softly and timidly but it was a response. Claire was speechless because she finally made a connection. So what happened for Claire? How did peer mentoring make an impact?

  • Through her own eyes she was able to see what that fear of speaking aloud looked like. She was actually able to experience it on the other side – the teaching side–by getting a sense of how patient and encouraging one needs to be when helping someone through those overwhelming moments.
  • She was able to see her buddy struggling and learned that in order to move forward you need to try different strategies; whether she realized it or not, each time they met, Claire tried something different to prompt an answer from her buddy.
  • She was able to see just how amazing it is when you make that connection with someone whose fear is taking over.
  • She was empowered by her own accomplishment of patience, support and understanding by reaching a goal that she set out for her and her new friend.

Summary
What a fabulous experience for both the children. I always advocate for building that village of support to enhance everyone’s life, and this is a prime example of just that. Perhaps in our schools we need to stretch this idea out even further – have a peer mentoring group for more classes such as gym and drama. Allow those children that have been there and conquered that fear lead the way. Surely there must be some time for that? After all, aren’t all children worth it? Isn’t it every child’s right to feel empowered and happy and supported? I sure think so.

Reference

Wikipedia, 13 November 2012, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peer_mentoring>.