Deconstructing “risk” in youth mentoring programs

By Cyanea Poon and Jean Rhodes

Mentoring programs and researchers often try to get some sense of the “risk factors” facing their mentees. To do so, they often tally up everything from family poverty and marginalization to personal struggles with mental health or friendship.  In a recent study (Poon, Herrera, Jarjoura, Keller, McQuillin, Keller, T., & Rhodes (2022),  we argue that the common practice of simply adding up equally weighted but widely different “risks” is problematic as it can obscure the fact that presenting problems often result from contextual stressors and adversities. To test this idea, we drew on data from a large-scale evaluation (N = 2,165 across 30 programs) of enhancements to mentoring programs in the United States (Jarjoura et al., 2018) and identified four statistically meaningful subgroups of mentees based on their internalizing, externalizing and social challenges at baseline.

  • Low Challenges (69% of the sample).
  • Moderate Challenges (19.2% of the sample)
  • Elevated Challenges (4.5% of the sample)
  • High Externalizing and Social Challenges but Low Internalizing Challenges (7.2% of the sample)

The study (Poon et al., 2022) goes into greater depth, but here are four key takeaways:

  1. A sizable minority (30%) of youth present to mentoring programs with significant mental health, behavioral, and social challenges.
  2. Mentees in the high externalizing profile were more likely to be male than youth in the low challenges profile, while mentees in the groups with elevated internalizing were more likely to be female. This is not surprising, as male adolescents tend to exhibit higher levels of externalizing behaviors, whereas female adolescents tend to show more symptoms of depression than their male counterparts.
  3. Membership in the most elevated challenges profiles was associated with a range of contextual stressors, including being in the foster care system, having a family member who was involved in the criminal justice system, having a caregiver who had been diagnosed with a mental health issue, and living in a low-income household.
  4. Our study also showed how mentees’ presenting challenges may affect mentoring relationship outcomes. Notably, youth in the low challenges profile reported significantly higher levels of closeness, youth-centeredness, growth focus and overall mentor-mentee relational health than the other groups, highlighting the struggles mentors face when their mentees face internalizing, externalizing, and social struggles.

Taken together, these results point to the importance of distinguishing contextual stressors from manifestations of those stressors. Such distinctions will help to deflect victim-blaming narratives and enable program staff and mentors to better address the needs of youth who are referred to mentoring programs.

Poon, C. Y., Herrera, C., Jarjoura, R., McQuillin, S. D., Keller, T. E., & Rhodes, J. E. (2022). Deconstructing “Risk” in Youth Mentoring Programs: How Environmental Stressors and Presenting Challenges Shape Mentoring Relationship Outcomes. The Journal of Early Adolescence.