A Strength-Based Approach to Mentoring

Reprinted from Youth Collaboratory


A Strength-Based Approach to Mentoring was developed through a practitioner-researcher collaboration focused on identifying evidence-based practices in mentoring specifically designed to support youth that have been impacted by parental incarceration. While our research partners designed and implemented a random trial assignment study, Youth Collaboratory defined a strength-based approach to mentoring – a set of enhanced practices that would be integrated into an agency’s standard operating process for community-based, one-to-one mentoring. Development of the enhanced practices was informed by research and practice knowledge from the field and rooted in the Positive Youth Development framework with an intentional focus on strengths and assets. With the completion of the data collection now achieved, we are pleased to share specifically what we’ve developed with the mentoring field.  Here you can access information about implementing each of the enhanced practices along with some tools and additional information.

Children of Incarcerated Parents and Mentoring

During the past 15 years, there has been a massive increase in the rates of incarceration and many of those being housed in correctional facilities are parents. A recently released study estimates that over 5 million children have been impacted by parental incarceration. Broken down, this would be 1 in 14 children. In addition, there is data to suggest a “cycle of incarceration” can easily develop within families impacted. Because of this, there has been a great deal of research examining the circumstances facing the families of the incarcerated and exploring strategies for supporting and interrupting that cycle.

Many of the families affected are dealing with other issues while also coping with the loss of a caregiver and supporter for the family – poverty is high among the families with unstable employment and housing being related challenges. There may also be medical and mental health issues. If the incarcerated parent was positively involved in the family prior to incarceration, the child may lose important socialization, parental supervision, role models, and emotional support with that person – important for healthy development. In addition, the incarceration of a primary provider can result in the need to move in with other family members or friends because housing couldn’t be maintained. Often this also means a new community and a new school. This housing instability along with feelings of anger, shame, and loss make each day a unique challenge for a child.

While it may not be possible to change these environmental factors that youth encounter, it is possible to help them continue forward on a positive course of growth and develop. Caregivers and other adults must make every effort to ensure that they feel secure, protected, and loved. Mentoring is well documented to have a positive impact on children’s lives – children do better in school and have goals for the future. How can we tailor an approach to mentoring that is uniquely designed to support children coping with the incarceration of a parent or primary caregiver?

Building an Evidence Base

Strength-Based Mentoring builds on a Positive Youth Development (PYD) framework for providing services to youth and their families. What we hope to see is what we want for all of our children- that youth have a positive view of their future and view themselves as having purpose. We want to help them to develop the internal resources that allow them to cope with adversity, demonstrate interest in pursuing education and career goals, and feel confident in their social literacy.  Research indicates that mentoring is an effective strategy to achieve this.  The research portion of this project sought to examine how these specific program practices could lead to this outcome.  Twenty mentoring agencies partnered with Youth Collaboratory and our research partners to implement this project by coordinating two grants to integrate a random-assignment research study with implementation of the enhanced practices.  One grant was with the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Researchers with the Center for Evidence-based Mentoring (CEBM) and Innovation, Research, and Training (iRT) designed and managed a data collection system for programs to capture information that they will analyze and report findings. The other grant was with Youth Collaboratory (formerly MANY). Through our work with mentoring agencies nationally, Youth Collaboratory developed a Strength-Based Approach to mentoring, a set of enhanced mentoring practices that are integrated with “business as usual “ program practices. These “enhanced practices” are holistic and encompass several aspects of implementation for a community-based mentoring program, including staff and mentor training on topics related to working with this population using a developmental approach that includes family support and expanded connection to community. This is guided and supported through an enhanced approach to match support and staff supervision.

Youth Collaboratory is excited to share these enhanced practices and implementation tools with the mentoring field. We invite you to preview what’s available in this summary of the Enhanced Practices and to learn the details about what’s involved in implementing them within your program. If you’d like to hear more from practitioners, we invite you to listen to Season 1 of our podcast series where Youth Collaboratory asks “What if?” and hear directly from practitioners involved in this work.

Access enhanced practices summary.

To access the resource, please click here.