A pyramid scheme for mentoring programs: Well, not exactly

Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.

John F. Kennedy

by Jean Rhodes

Although most youth interventions are developed in response to particular needs or goals, mentoring programs were conceived more broadly as an extension of informal helping relationships. For nearly a century, most volunteer mentors were tasked simply with building friendships with disadvantaged youth. Many programs still adhere to this template, and their volunteers are relatively unconstrained—other than to be genuinely responsive and open to the needs and interests of their mentees.

This “friendship model” has gradually ceded ground to more focused, skills-based programming that are aligned with the broader field of prevention science (Cavell & Ellridge, 2015). Some programs even take a quasi-therapeutic approach, in which paraprofessionals or trained mentors help youth with early-stage mental health, behavioral, or other difficulties. This shift is consistent with the field of psychotherapy, which has moved from more open-ended, intuitive, relational approaches to cognitive-behavioral and other more active forms of treatment. But in the absence of a clearly articulated strategy, our goal of defining the purpose of mentoring remains complicated.

One way to the clarify is to consider the designations established for public health interventions, i.e., universal, selective, or indicated, which specify both the target population and required level of intervention (Gordon, 1983). These are often depicted as a pyramid–which encompass everything from the large-scale, population-based universal preventive approaches that reach many to selective prevention approaches that target those who are at risk for possible poor outcomes all the way through to indicated prevention approaches for those who showing early symptoms or difficulties.

Universal mentoring interventions might be those offered to all young people in a given classroom, school, or community, irrespective of risk. This could include a peer mentoring program that helps ease the transition to high school amongst  all 8th graders in a school district. More commonly, however, mentoring programs fall within the selective prevention realm, targeting subpopulations that are at elevated risk by virtue of their personal, demographic or socioeconomic circumstances (e.g., children living in low-income neighborhoods, immigrants or refugees, children of incarcerated parents, first-generation college students). Mentors can help strengthen their coping skills, etc. in ways that prevent problems and foster positive developmental outcomes. Those serving the smallest subsample of youth in indicated mentoring prevention are delivered to youth who are already experiencing early signs difficulty, but are not yet diagnosable (e.g., disruptive kindergartners , trauma-exposed youth in foster care). 

Such distinctions enable programs to set boundaries around their service models, to better target recruitment efforts, and to draw on evidence-based practices that are specific to the goals and populations they are serving. They also lead to a better calibration of the skills and experiences of volunteers with youth’s needs. But, because many mentoring programs have not historically drawn such distinction, they have sometimes struggled to match the needs of the mentees with the competencies and experiences of the volunteers.

Well-intentioned volunteers with little or no previous experience are best placed in universal or selective prevention programs whereas more seasoned mentors are best reserved for selective or indicated programs or approaches. Indeed, one of the most robust findings to have emerged from the youth mentoring literature over the past 20 years is that volunteers with experiences in the helping professions tend to be more committed and effective.  Regrettably, seasoned volunteers are often placed with youth who are at lower risk, while everyday volunteers are sometimes thrown into the deep end with youth who are struggling with emotional, behavioral, or other difficulties. As I discussed in my previous column, this leads to high rates of early terminations (see Figure 2). 

In addition to better placement of volunteers, the pyramid framework enables us to more effectively place youth into programs that will address their needs. Youth who are already experiencing symptoms may need more than a typical mentoring program has to offer, and may be better served by an indicated (i.e., quasi-treatment) program or even more intensive professional treatment. Indeed, youth mentoring program evaluations suggest that mentoring is not as effective (DuBois, Holloway, Valentine, & Cooper, 2002), enduring (Raposa, Kupersmidt), or satisfying (Herrera et al. 2003) among youth who demonstrate more serious individual risk factors (such as academic, behavioral, or relationship difficulties).

With a more purposeful calibration and clearer direction, we can better harness the efforts and courage of our volunteer mentors. Thoughts?