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Tips for providing on-line mentoring support to students

As the coordinator of University of Tasmania's specialist peer mentor program that supports students on the Autism Spectrum, I am discovering what works well in going from delivering a face-to-face service to going totally on-line. I believe that what we’re finding could be helpful not only for other mentor or peer support services, but more broadly for Disability Practitioners who are providing on-line support to students.   

Here’s what we’re finding so far:

  • Normalise the uncertainty – it seems that most of us are finding the current times unsettling. Uncertainty and ambiguity abound. And if it feels like people are making it up as they go along, that’s probably because they are making it up as they go along!  We are all in this together, and the feelings most of us are experiencing are a normal and healthy response to what’s going on. So rather than ignore any fears or unsettling feelings, or get too stuck in them, we can acknowledge, accept, and use them as resources that can help us relate better to what the students we’re supporting are experiencing. Russ Harris’s FACE CoVID free ebook has some really helpful tips on dealing with our emotions at this time.
  • Plan the week – as well as sticking as much as possible to usual sleeping and eating routines it can be important have a weekly plan that is precise and detailed about what to do at a certain time each day. For example, it might be that on Tuesdays at 10am you watch a lecture for one of your units, and at 12pm that day you do the pre-readings for your workshop. As it then takes less mental effort to decide what and when things get done, it makes it easier and more likely to be productive.  And for students who feel overwhelmed or unsettled this can also give them a sense of control in this area of their lives. Check out the How to Transition to Tertiary Education for an example of a weekly planner.
  • Leverage existing routines – as prompts to get started on work. Our days are full of existing routines that can be used as prompts to remind us to start on a task.  Rather than rely on phone alarms – that students get immune to – help them find a routine in their day to get them started.  Power this up by using the term ‘after’ to identify the prompt and then the focused task. For example ‘after I brush my teeth in the morning I will go to my computer and open my study page’.   BJ Fogg from the Stanford University’s Behavioural Design Lab has some great tools to create new habits.
  • Regular check-ins – some of our mentors are chunking their one-hour once-a-week meeting into two or three shorter meetings dispersed across the week. In particular, a quick Monday morning meeting works well to help start the week off and ensure that the weekly planner is ready to go. And then a longer meeting mid-week to review process so far, make any adjustments, and follow up anything that needs some assistance. It’s also easier to maintain focus for on-line meetings when they’re shorter.
  • Using online technology – we use ZOOM and are discovering some great ways of making this work.
    • Remember privacy – now that meetings are held in mentors and mentees houses it is important to ensure privacy.  Make sure the computer is in a private area away from others. And check what the camera shows of your personal space. Remind students that it’s their homes/personal space others can see, so not to share more than they feel comfortable with sharing. Zoom provides an option to use a virtual background that can be handy.
    • Video - Our students have the choice of using the video – some don’t mind it on, others don’t like video calls.  However, if students don’t like having the video on we playfully encourage them to turn it on just for a few minutes at the end of the meeting to say good-bye just to give the catch up a more personal feel.  For example, it might be turning on their video to show their cat, or a stress ball.
    • Share screens - Zoom allows us to share screens even when the video option is off. And providing visual data for some students is critical. It might be sharing the weekly planner, checking on-line learning platforms or trying to help decipher an assessment question.
    • Whiteboard – the screen share whiteboard on Zoom is fantastic. It allows text, free drawing and shapes.  Great for mind maps. There is even an option to allow the person viewing the share screen to have remote control of the mouse so they can write on the whiteboard. And the whiteboard contents can be saved, and therefore sent to a student afterwards. 

Written by: Debbie Hindle