Developing web-based training for mentors of military-connected youth

Spencer, R., Gowdy, G., Herrera, C., Heubach, J., Slep, A. S., & Cavell, T. A. (2020). Web-Based Training for School-Based Mentors of Military-Connected Youth: A Multi-Phase Development Study. The Journal of Primary Prevention.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Increased awareness of the stressors associated with being a military-involved youth has influenced more schools to provide support for them. 
  • This paper describes a multi-phase development study that aims to provide online training for adult mentors for children with a parent serving in the military. 
  • Military parents in phase one focus groups expressed concerns about the program’s design. 
    • They stated that many programs tend to reinforce negative stereotypes of military families by labeling children as “military”. 
    • Military parents highlighted the importance of positive support approaches, where military-connected youth the same way as other children.
  • The study’s iterative approach applied knowledge from training literature from providers of military families, comments from parents, and feedback from stakeholders.
  • Volunteers, who finished the training module, said that it was helpful and expressed their eagerness to apply the knowledge in their interactions with their mentees. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

This paper describes a multi-phase effort to develop a web-based training for adults serving as mentors in school-based programs for youth with a parent in the military. In Phase 1, we conducted focus groups with military parents to: gauge their receptivity to this type of supportive intervention, identify program features that would make the option of mentoring for their children more or less appealing, and identify specific training needs for adult volunteers preparing for the role of mentor to youth in this population. In Phase 2, we used an iterative process to develop the training protocol, including cycling through multiple drafts, creating a web-based platform, reviewing and incorporating feedback from various stakeholders, and then pilot testing the training with two groups of mentor volunteers as part of a school-based mentoring program for military-connected students. We report on what we learned from the military parent focus groups, including parent skepticism about the need for such a program, concerns about potential stigma, and the need for mentors to have some understanding of military culture. We describe how we used that information to develop a practical and accessible training module for volunteer mentors, especially those without a military background, who could be matched with military-connected youth.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

In this paper, we describe our efforts to design a web-based training for adults who intend to serve as mentors to military youth in an SBM program (Cavell et al., 2019). Our aim in developing this training module was to prepare mentors to be responsive to the needs of military youth and sensitive to military culture and family life (e.g., Murphy & Fairbank, 2013). In focus groups, we heard parents express concerns about programs designed to help military youth. Congruent with previous research, parents in our study noted a tendency for these programs to “tag” children as “military,” thereby creating potentially negative stereotypes about military family life (e.g., Russo & Fallon, 2015). Participating parents also reported difficulty seeing the “fit” between youth mentoring programs and the needs of their children, which corroborates findings from a previous study examining the mentoring of military youth (Basualdo-Delmonico & Herrera, 2014). The view of these parents, perhaps like many in the United States, is that BBBS and other formal mentoring programs are mainly designed for youth from single-parent homes at risk for serious negative developmental outcomes. Although not an entirely accurate portrayal of BBBS of America, this perception does reflect BBBS’ history of focusing on youth from single-parent homes, who are thought to need a positive adult role model (Morrow & Styles, 1995). For participating parents, it was important to avoid services that emphasized that their children were different from other children; instead, these parents expressed a clear preference for programs or approaches that focused on positive support, which would be appealing to many groups of children and families. In keeping with this sentiment, parents articulated a desire for mentors of military students to have a more circumscribed role—one that focused primarily on supportive interactions that were fun and safe. In this way, programs could prevent the missteps of well-intentioned mentors who were not sensitive to, and respectful of, the different ways that parents manage and frame military service and periodic deployments for their children.

Lessons learned from military parents in our focus groups support findings from previous research that suggested the need for specialized training of mentors who are matched with military youth (Basualdo-Delmonico & Herrera, 2014). These lessons were used to develop a training module designed to increase mentors’ knowledge and awareness of military culture and family life. Parents had emphasized these points as critical to preparing volunteers for the role of mentor and how to be most helpful to the youth with whom they were matched. Our training also included explicit examples of how mentoring can be helpful as well as harmful to military students. Particular emphasis was given to the risks of introducing military-related subjects and terms that were not part of parents’ approach to informing their children.

We developed the training module to supplement the pre-match training typically provided by mentoring programs partnering with schools. In the MSM project, that meant that our mentoring program partner still offered their standard pre-match training to mentors but augmented that preparation with this military-specific training. Building a training module that focused not on a particular type or format of mentoring but instead on the broader needs of military youth and families supports its use by an array of mentoring programs seeking to serve military youth in a school context. The web-based platform also contributes to the potential use of the training module and provides mentoring programs partnering with schools the option to offer the training remotely and at a time convenient to its volunteers.

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