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Culturally relevant mentoring benefits aboriginal students, study finds

TORONTO — Indigenous students coached by aboriginal mentors appear to do better at school and be mentally healthier than their non-mentored peers, a new Canadian study indicates.

While the findings are not definitive, the two-year study does suggest culturally relevant mentoring offers clear benefits for First Nations youth.

The study, published in the "Journal of Primary Prevention" and led by Claire Crooks with the Faculty of Education at the University of Western Ontario, is billed as the first of its kind in Canada.

"This program was able to help these indigenous students develop a positive sense of identity tied to their culture," Crooks said in a statement.

"We can now show with real evidence that when they feel better about themselves, know who they are and understand where they came from, there are hugely positive impacts in almost all other areas of their lives."

From 2011 to 2013, the study team followed 105 aboriginals aged 11 to 14. The Grade 7 and Grade 8 students at the Thames Valley District School Board met weekly with an indigenous adult mentor. The sessions focused on coping with stress, and on First Nations spiritual, physical, mental and emotional teachings.

The researchers reviewed their report cards and standardized test scores, surveyed and interviewed participants, and spoke to principals and teachers.

The exploratory study offers "promising evidence" that such programs can have positive impacts on the well-being of aboriginal youth, with the beneficial effects particularly evident among those students who received the full two years of mentoring, the researchers say.

"Program participation affirmed students' cultural backgrounds, influenced youth to embrace their individuality, and enabled students to gain confidence when speaking in groups," the study states. "The program provided opportunities for students to connect their cultural teachings to their current life experiences, both in and outside of school."

The study comes at a time of increased awareness of the grim fall-out of Canada's Indian residential schools — including higher levels of depression, suicide, substance abuse and conflict with the law. Crooks said she hoped the research would spark conversations in Canadian schools about how to help indigenous youth succeed.

"For a long time, our school systems weren't designed to meet the needs of these youth," she said. "This study shows educators can partner with indigenous communities to make a profound and important difference for these students."

However, the authors, who consider their findings preliminary, note several important caveats.

Study limitations include the small number of participants, who may have felt the need to speak positively about the program. Nevertheless, the authors say a "clear need" exists for what they consider both valuable and necessary research and urge other researchers to do more work in the field.

Paul McKenzie, a superintendent with the school board, said the positive effects of the program spilled over into the larger population.

"Mentored students brought an understanding of their backgrounds and communities to the schools, and in doing so really helped to bring this into our collective identities as well," McKenzie said.

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