It Just Takes One – You can be the change a child needs to succeed

A growing body of research has found that an adult role model can make all the difference in the life of a young person. Kids who meet regularly with a formal or informal adult mentor are less likely to skip school, break the law or engage in substance abuse.

Article reprinted from the June 2015 issue of Thrivent magazine. Written by Michelle Crouch

In Phoenix, two high school students have upped their grades and missed fewer school days. In Fort Pierce, Florida, a foster child has more supervision in a better home. And in St. Louis, a teen found her career goal. Their stories may seem unrelated, but these children have one important thing in common: an adult who cared about them. A growing body of research has found that an adult role model can make all the difference in the life of a young person. Kids who meet regularly with a formal or informal adult mentor are less likely to skip school, break the law or engage in substance abuse, according to a study by social research organization Public/Private Ventures. They’re also twice as likely as their peers to attend college, according to a 2009 study published in Sociology of Education. Any caring coach, teacher, aunt, uncle or—of course—parent can help put a young person on a path to thrive, experts say. Search Institute, a nonprofit research center that studies young people, outlines five key actions that can help you help kids.

1. Show you care.
Tell children you care—and show them, too. Be consistent and dependable, especially if you’re working with at-risk youth. They don’t have a lot of constants in their lives, says Jean Rhodes, Ph.D., a mentoring expert and professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. And pay attention when you’re with kids, says Kent Pekel, president and CEO of Search Institute. That means putting aside your smartphone and focusing on what the child does or says. Carl Etzler coaches high school softball in Convoy, Ohio. He invites players to share what’s going on in their lives. “A lot of young people don’t have an adult they can talk to, so I do a lot of listening,” Etzler says.

10 Ways to Show Kids You Care
Search Institute lists 150 ways to make a positive difference in the life of a young person at Here’s a sampling:

• Give them time to relax.
• Notice when they’re acting differently.
• Delight in their discoveries.
• Create traditions and keep them.
• Give them a special nickname.
• Build something together.
• Ask them about things they love to do.
• Celebrate their firsts and their lasts.
• Follow when they lead.
• Apologize when you’ve done something wrong.

2. Challenge growth.
Kids do best when you set high expectations for them, pushing them out of their comfort zones while still supporting them. “No matter how good they are, we must push them to continu- ously improve,” Pekel says. Challenge them to give up a bad habit, ace a test or learn something new.Thrivent member Lindsey Schwartz mentors two at-risk high school boys in Phoenix. She started with a simple challenge: Go to class every day. Then she texted them daily as a reminder. Already, both boys’ grades have jumped. Schwartz says she’s working to change the way they see themselves. “I like to tell them, ‘You’re not a bad kid. You’re a good kid who made some bad choices. I can see the potential in you.’” Pair such encouragement with limits, Pekel says, whether it’s banning curse words or setting a curfew. Remember, kids—even teenagers—need clear boundaries. Establishing limits allows kids to feel safe, creates predictability and reduces anxiety. Most important, it shows you care.

3. Provide support.
You probably already praise the child in your life for efforts and achievements. Unfortunately, not all kids have someone to praise their work—or fight for them when they need it. Felicia Bruce serves as a Guardian ad Litem in Fort Pierce, Florida. In that role, Bruce serves as a foster child advocate in the court system. In one instance, Bruce learned that a teenage girl in her charge hadn’t been to school in five weeks, yet the school didn’t take action. Bruce got the school to draft a plan to better meet the girl’s needs. She even drove her to school on occasion. “She could easily have been one of those statistics about foster children who get lost in the system,” Bruce says.

4. Share power.
Here’s a simple yet powerful step: Give kids a voice and a choice. Listen more, let them direct the conversation occasionally and take their ideas seriously. “It sounds easy, but, in fact, it happens shockingly seldom these days,” Pekel says. “A lot of kids have their lives very heavily structured and scripted by adults.” For Schwartz, sharing power means letting the boys she mentors help choose the activities she does with them. For Etzler, it means getting team input on community service projects.

5. Expand possibilities. Introduce kids to new possibilities and ideas— through outings, books and even conversations. That’s what David Kober of Edwardsville, Illinois, aimed for when he took the softball team he coaches to help with the Special Olympics last year. The event inspired one player to choose social work for her career. She later thanked Kober for helping her find her passion, reminding him why he’s stuck with coaching kids for 17 years. “I like being there for them. I can help them when they need it, show them what’s out there and encourage them to pursue their goals,” he says. “And when they come back and say I made a difference, that makes it all worth it.

Faith before their eyes
Living out faith in front of children may have the biggest influence of all. “That doesn’t mean we start with a sermon,” says Rev. Mark A. Jeske, pastor of St. Marcus Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. “It may mean we start with demonstrating the kind of acceptance and love kids may be starving for.” Model your faith by showing kids:

Unconditional Love Help kids understand that God loves them unconditionally, “messes and all,” Jeske says. “Kids need to know as they zig and zag toward adulthood that God’s love is not volatile like the Dow Jones Industrial Average,” he says.

Generosity Being generous isn’t just about sharing money—buying ice-cream cones and concert tickets. “Your time and your love and energy are things to be generous with,” Jeske says.

Mercy When we react to kids’ mistakes and wrongs with mercy, we show how God forgives. Jeske compares God’s mercy to water: Rain falls, nourishes us and the earth, evaporates and falls again in a never-ending cycle. “Mercy does its work when it moves into us and through us. The idea is to keep mercy moving,” he says.