Are youth mentoring programs effective? New analysis sheds light

By Elizabeth Raposa and Jean Rhodes, Youth Today

Are boys more responsive to mentoring than girls? The findings are mixed, though recent studies seem to suggest that boys may derive additional benefits. Does mentoring move the needle more for certain outcomes (e.g., depression, behavior, academics)? Again, findings are mixed, with the most recent comprehensive meta-analysis showing very few differential effects.

Meta-analyses, comprehensive assessments of previous studies on a given topic, can produce more reliable and precise impact estimates than individual evaluations and permit comparisons across many mentor or mentee characteristics and approaches. Although the ability to make comparisons depends on the quality of the information provided in the original evaluations, an analysis of overall mentoring program impacts sheds important light on the field.

Some studies have focused on specific subsets of youth, settings, or populations. For example, meta-analyses of youth at risk for delinquent or aggressive behavior have found small, but significant, positive effects of mentoring on juvenile reoffending and delinquency.

In another study, psychologist Lillian Eby and her colleagues evaluated mentoring in youth, academic and workplace settings. Mentoring again had a small but significant positive effect on outcomes. Youth mentoring programs had smaller effects on most outcomes, compared to mentoring programs for young adults in workplace or higher education settings.

Other studies have taken a broader approach. Psychologist David DuBois and his colleagues published two comprehensive meta-analyses of youth mentoring program evaluations. Both showed mentoring had small but significant effects. These studies underscore the importance of program rigor. For example, in 2002, programs had stronger effects when they deployed a greater number of recommended practices, such as mentor screening, training and supervision, as well as structured mentoring activities and monitoring of program implementation.


Recently, together with several colleagues, we conducted a meta-analysis to estimate the impact of 70 intergenerational, one-on-one mentoring programs based on evaluation data from 1975 through 2017. The data represent more than 25,000 youth with an average age of 12 years old. Specifically, we looked at all outcome studies of intergenerational, one-on-one youth mentoring programs written in the English language during that time.

Our analyses revealed that mentoring programs are a modestly effective intervention for youth at risk for a range of psychosocial and academic problems, which is consistent with past comprehensive meta-analyses. This is noteworthy. Our study included more recent data, which we assume reflect an increased focus on evidence-based practices in mentoring.

The data also showed that programs that served a higher percentage of male youth had a greater effect. This is consistent with at least one previous meta-analysis of mentoring, which showed that programs with more than 50% males had stronger effects. This is still a largely unexplained finding. However, it’s possible that girls enter mentoring programs with more complicated relational histories than boys. This may initially hamper mentors’ capacity to forge productive ties with girls.

Also consistent with previous studies, we found programs with a greater percentage of mentors who worked in helping professions produced better outcomes. Volunteers with previous experience helping youth may feel a stronger sense of efficacy, which is often associated with better match outcomes. For example, one of our earlier studies found that volunteer mentors with greater self-efficacy and previous involvement with youth in their communities were more successful in working with youth from high-stress backgrounds.

Contrary to expectations, we found no significant differences between programs of different lengths. Previous research and theory suggest longer relationships are important. It may be that relationship length is important to youth outcomes within a specific relationship or program. However, it may be less important in distinguishing overall levels of mentoring effectiveness across programs. In fact, programs that had expectations for longer match meeting times actually yielded fewer positive outcomes.

This may point to the need for programs to establish realistic expectations around the time that individuals commit to the program. Daylong activities or multiple hours of relationship-building per session might overtax the commitment of the mentor, youth or youth’s family. This may raise the risk for dissatisfaction or premature endings in mentor relationships. Models in which mentor and youth meetings occur over the course of just a few days or weeks, or spaced over large intervals of time, may be more effective.

Findings from this meta-analysis provide some support for one-on-one, caring relationships with adults. In particular, it is a low-cost intervention with the potential to reach large groups of youth and reduce the need for more intensive treatments. Nevertheless, these findings emphasize the need to remain realistic about the potential of mentoring programs as currently implemented. Opportunities for improving the quality and rigor of mentoring practices and evaluation strategies remain.


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