What we can learn from a “glittering ounce” of good news

“Good news is rare these days, and every glittering ounce of it should be cherished and hoarded and worshiped and fondled like a priceless diamond.”

-Hunter S. Thompson

by Jean Rhodes

Let us take a moment to recognize an extraordinary mentoring program that recently produced remarkably promising findings. The Arches Transformative Mentoring program has delivered on its name—transforming the lives of young men across New York City. Like other effective mentoring programs, it is characterized by three key features: 1) an evidence-based intervention developed with theoretical precision; b) integration with additional systems to ensure that youth get the support they need; and 3) a strong evaluation that enables iteration and improvement. Through Arches, mentors meet with groups of youth on probation to deliver and support an interactive journaling intervention. The journaling curriculum is informed by cognitive behavioral principles that enabled mentors to target specific processes that contributed to recidivism. And, because mentors have backgrounds similar to the the youth, mentors serve as “credible messengers.”

Relative to a comparison group, felony re-conviction rates among Arches participants were a remarkable 69 percent lower after one year of probation and 57 percent lower two years later, with impacts driven largely by improvements in participants under age 18. The evaluation also showed improvements in participants in self-perception and relationships with others. Arches is a prime example of what Cavell and Ellridge (2013) have described as “mentoring as a context for intervention” approach. This approach calls for mentors to build on the strength of their relationship with youth to deliver an intervention that targets a shared goal.  This can include anything from helping youth on probation to focused efforts around college applications or mentor recruitment. Depending on their experience and desired level of commitment, mentors might serve in a paraprofessional capacity or in more of educational role.

A potentially lighter lift that some programs deploy is to supplement, bolster, and extend evidence-based interventions (e.g., those targeting absenteeism, social-emotional learning, health behaviors) that are already being implemented within a larger system. In this “intervention as context for mentoring” approach, volunteers support proven interventions by: providing opportunities to practice, reinforce, and monitor newly acquired skills and behaviors; delivering small components of a larger intervention; or helping youth to recruit natural mentors to extend skills and behaviors long after the intervention. From this perspective, evidence-based interventions become the context for volunteer mentoring, not the other way around. There is ample evidence that mentors can have an additive effect to already proven programs–providing additional contexts to practice and consolidate skills. Conley and colleagues (2015) found that skills-training programs that included supervised practice were more effective than those that did not incorporate it. Supervised practice is an important piece because youth who are learning new behaviors need support and individualized feedback (Conley et al., 2015). The program Diplomas Now, a multi-faceted approach that promotes student success is a good example of this. Based student needs, City Year AmeriCorps members serve as mentors and work with school staff to support and reinforce new skills. As with Arches, mentors are not expected to change multiply-determined behaviors on their own. Instead, they play a supportive a role, the mentors can give support, clarify program information, and monitor mentee responses to ensure correct implementation of the intervention.

In both cases, the sine quo non is that there is a precise, mutually desired goal (e.g., emotional regulation, attendance, job skills, independent living) and that mentors are trained to deliver and/or support those goals through evidence-based (EB) practice. Often this EB practice draws on cognitive-behavioral activities such as thought labelling, behavioral activation, and relaxation exercises (Day et al., 2013). Such mentor approaches stand in contrast to what Cavell and Ellridge have referred to as “mentoring as relationship” (i.e., where the goal is to create more free-flowing, supportive relationships), which continue to dominate youth mentoring practice. Although I was firmly in this camp for several decades, data and observation led me to accept the wisdom of more goal-directed approaches.  Although this approach can sometimes be transformative, a friendship model is often weak coffee, particularly as difficulties multiply. And with a few exceptions (i.e., updating a working model of attachment through an intensive, corrective experience), a relationship-only approach is not designed to target specific, recursive processes that underly the youth’s struggles. This approach rarely addresses the underlying process that led to difficulties, so mentees are often left with the same mindset and behaviors that precipitated the referral and, all too often, a heavy heart. There’s simply not enough incentive and infrastructure to enable the average volunteer in the friendship model to shoulder an increasingly heavy burden .

Case in point is a recent city-wide initiative designed “to reduce chronic absenteeism by connecting students with trained and caring mentors.” Rather than deploy mentors to deliver an evidence-based program designed to tackle this difficult problem, the mentors were trained in a relationship-building curriculum that was developed by the implementers and based on Elements of Effective Practice (EEP). I helped to write the Elements so I understand its strengths and limitations. The EEP was intended to provide the field with broad standards of practice, not to replace the science of curriculum development and testing. Mentors and mentees ended up spending most of their time (60%) in general conversation “talking and listening,” with fewer than 15% of the pairs spending any time discussing the problems that led to the absenteeism and/or supporting academic work. Moreover, although mentors could email or call, most dyads met only three times (for less than 30 minutes) over the course of the school year. Perhaps not surprisingly, two-thirds of the mentees reported that they wished that their mentor spent more time with them. I zoom in on this particular program, not to invoke shame or embarrassment, but to describe why, overall, mentoring has failed to deliver on its promise. Wouldn’t it have been more effective to  deploy mentors to deliver or help support a proven approach to absenteeism?  Far from an outlier, the program exemplifies the ways in which vague goals and an overly optimistic approach to what a relationship-alone process can accomplish have constrained our field.

Understandably,  more goal-oriented programs approaches may feel like a heavy lift, but they need not be. In fact, as Cavell & Ellridge (2013)  note, more targeted programs “might be more limited in scope, more structured in their delivery, and briefer in duration, but such programs already exist and growing evidence supports their use.” Moreover, with effective training and an eye on a particular prize, mentors may feel less overwhelmed and more efficacious.  Some might argue that a more goal-oriented approach is heavy handed and counterproductive. This argument often stems from the meme of so-called “developmental” relationships over more structured approaches, a distinction that was first presented nearly 20 years ago. The field has evolved considerably in the ensuing years, yet beliefs about the counterproductive nature of providing structure and goals have lived on, resisting evidence that has highlighted the benefits of a more balanced integration of autonomy, support, and expectation. S

kills-based programs are, however, prone to reducing the complex circumstances that often lead to vulnerability to specific goals, often locating the problem and solution within the individual. This need not be the case; mentors can be trained to acknowledge and discuss systemic oppression and other external barriers to achievement with their mentees. Moreover, when the intervention is embedded in contexts that are addressing broader issues (e.g., school reform, neighborhood safety, juvenile justice), a different message regarding the solution is conveyed. In fact, when middle-class mentors work with marginalized youth they often become more fully-engaged citizens and voters, and can empower their mentees to recognize and redress systemic forces of racism and oppression in the context of the relationship. In other words, it is possible to hold both a social justice and a problem-solving consciousness, and do the individual work necessary to help young people thrive within their schools, communities, and workplaces.

Finally, readers may wonder why we even need to rethink mentoring, as it seems to be working just fine and can serve as the gateway and motivational force toward more concerted effort and change down the road. Setting aside the opportunity costs of not intervening with the best approach at the earliest possible developmental stage, we are faced with the fact that  mentoring as we know it is often of limited effectiveness, and that volunteer mentors are in short supply. As funding for social programs has tightened, there has been a growing focus on evidence of impact, including questioning the economic return from societal investments (Haskins and Margolis 2015; National Academy of Medicine et al. 2016). Increasingly, the public and legislators alike are demanding that public resources be spent on programs and policies where the public benefits outweigh their costs. Since this is not always the case for mentoring, particularly friendship models, mentoring as a field may find itself competing for increasingly scarce resources. Volunteers often bring extraordinary levels of empathy and social capital to the lives of vulnerable youth, the key is to harness it in ways that maximize their contribution of this scarce resource. For the past decade, the number of Americans who are willing to serve as volunteer mentors has remained steady at about 1% of the adult population, or around 2.5 million—and no amount of outreach and cajoling seems to have moved this needle. Despite their status as a precious resources, we routinely squander volunteer mentors by placing them in impossible situations. In the context of complicated social, behavioral, and emotional struggles of their mentees, and with neither the roadmap nor the endpoint clearly defined, nearly half of the volunteer mentoring relationships terminate prematurely. Average rates are even higher for mentors who are paired with youth at higher risk (Kupersmidt et al., 2016). This linear association between risk and termination implies that we are asking too much of our volunteers. Focused, evidence-based programs that train mentors to support mentees toward shared goals hedges this loss by providing clear milestones and a potentially larger context of supportive adults.

So how do programs retool themselves to align with this model? A clear needs assessments can help program staff identify presenting difficulties and their severity as well as goals of the youth. Preventive approaches can range from universal interventions offered to all youth, selective prevention targeted for subpopulations that may be at increased risk because of various demographic or socioeconomic circumstances, and indicated prevention delivered to those at risk for difficulties due to experiencing early signs of psychological, behavioral, or academic struggles that have not yet developed into more serious problems. For youth at increased risk or already experiencing difficulties, programs may wish to identify and or develop EB approaches that can be delivered in the context of the relationship. In other cases, programs might build alliances and funding streams to more directly work with established programs and then train and support the mentors in serving those programs. In other cases, the youth may be at risk but there may be no clear presenting problem (e.g., the young person needs a role model, companionship, guidance). I would contend that trained, volunteer mentors should be deployed mostly in the service of selective and indicated prevention goals, i.e., for youth at elevated risk or who are showing early signs of difficulty. For more universal, health promotion goals, youth should be provided with guidance in how  to identify, approach, and maintain helpful relationships with the coaches, after school staff, teachers, clergy, and other natural mentors in their everyday lives. Granted, caring natural mentors  may be in short supply, but even in what might seem like relationally-bereft populations (i.e., unemployed, high school dropouts), the National Guard’s Challenge model has successfully helped youth identify and recruit caring adults. Models that blend the structure of an intervention and then seek to to cultivate latent intergenerational bonds seem to hold enormous promise in this regard (e.g., Connected Scholars, Project DREAM). At the same time, strategies that cultivate more social capital in schools and neighborhoods–by encouraging adults be more intentional and inclusive in their mentoring–will help keep the pond stocked with both the strong and weak ties that youth need to achieve their goals.

So, in a nutshell, because volunteers are in such short supply, and because the problems besetting today’s youth require evidence-based approaches, we need to consider how to extract more from their service—not necessarily in effort but in effectiveness. Every time we “spend” a volunteer, program resource, or taxpayer dollars on a poorly specified approach that fails to yield maximum returns, we are squandering opportunities to be genuinely helpful to a young person. In the words of Michelle Obama, “Change is hard and change is slow.” But change is not impossible, and comprehensive programs that target recursive processes can do wonders.