Findings suggest you can double your effects

By Jean Rhodes and Kirsten Christensen

In a recent study of nearly 2,000 mentors from thirty nationally representative youth mentoring programs operating across the United States, mentors were asked how they spent time with their mentees (Jarjoura et al., 2018). The responses reflected a “non-specific”  approach that emphasized friendship and broad (as opposed to more targeted) goals. The most common response, “making time to have fun,” was followed by activities such as discussing important people or personal issues, going to cultural or other special events, and engaging in creative activities (Jarjoura et al., 2018).

Yet, this relationship-based approach alone may not adequately address the substantial emotional, behavioral, or academic difficulties that mentees face. Compared to national samples, youth who are referred to mentoring programs are at higher risk for a variety of difficult life circumstances (e.g., poverty, parental substance abuse), as well as behavioral and mental health issues like depression, anxiety, aggression, and attention difficulties (Jarjoura et al., 2018). Moreover, recent evidence suggests that families from marginalized communities often perceive mentoring programs as an alternative to professional healthcare services. For example, one study found that Black caregivers were twice as likely as White caregivers to turn to mentoring programs to address their children’s externalizing behaviors such as aggression, hyperactivity, or conduct problems (Vázquez & Villodas, 2018). Given the diverse barriers to accessing high-quality professional mental health services within marginalized communities, including language differences, discrimination, and financial costs (Cook et al., 2013; Vázquez & Villodas, 2018), mentoring may tend to be a less stigmatizing and more culturally congruent approach to supporting youth with mental health needs. Yet, in the absence of specialized training and clear goals, many mentors in programs with a non-specific focus report feeling overwhelmed by their mentees difficulties (Spencer, 2007). Thus, although efforts to develop strong mentor-youth relationships are certainly necessary, it may be equally important to provide mentors with training in targeted approaches that more directly address the specific needs and circumstances of mentees. Research suggests that, relative to  non-specific friendship approaches, targeted approaches are more effective. When mentoring activities are calibrated and targeted to these specific challenges, youth see stronger academic, psychological , and social outcomes.

Although no studies to date have directly compared these two models of mentoring, the relative benefits of targeted and non-specific models can be explored within the context of meta-analysis. Along with our colleagues, Matt Hagler, Liz Raposa, and Geert Jan Stams, we recently conducted a meta-analysis to explore this issue (Christensen, K., Hagler, M., Raposa, M., Stams, G. J., & Rhodes, J. (in press). “Non-specific versus targeted approaches to youth mentoring: A follow-up meta-analysis” Journal of Youth and Adolescence). This study built on a recent meta-analysis of 70 intergenerational, one-on-one mentoring program evaluations, representing more than 25,000 youth, that were conducted from 1975 through 2017 (Raposa et al., 2019). One potentially important moderator that this meta-analysis did not code or analyze involves whether the program took a non-specific, relationship-focused approach versus a more targeted, problem-specific approach. To address this gap in the literature, the current meta-analysis sought to examine the relative impact of these two distinct approaches to formal mentoring. Using rigorous inclusion criteria established by Raposa et al. (2019), analyses included all relevant outcome studies of intergenerational, one-on-one formal youth mentoring programs. For this study, an additional coding procedure was implemented to identify whether each study involved a program that took a non-specific, friendship-based approach versus a targeted, problem-specific approach to mentoring.

Studies were coded as tests of the non-specific friendship model if they involved a program in which mentors were trained to act as a caring friend, primarily engaging in non-specific recreational activities with their mentee, rather than targeting a particular youth challenge or need. Articles were coded as testing a targeted approach if the mentoring intervention both a) targeted a specific youth population (e.g., trauma exposed youth) or challenge (e.g., depression, academic difficulties) and b) implemented a mentoring intervention specifically designed to match the needs of the target population or challenge.  The meta-analysis yielded an overall effect size of 0.19, an impact not significantly different from that found in Raposa and colleagues’ meta-analysis (0.21) and one that corresponds with a conventionally “small” effect (Cohen, 1988). However, when type of program was examined, targeted and more problem-specific programs had an average effect size of 0.25, which was more than double the average effect size non-specific, friendship-based programs (g = 0.11). These findings are in line with recent calls from mentoring researchers for stronger alignment with theoretical and evidentiary standards of prevention science (e.g., Cavell & Elledge, 2015). Such standards typically require a close association between structured interventions and identified target problems in youth. Across outcome subcategories (i.e., academic, psychological, cognitive, social, physical health) the effects of targeted programs ranged from 0.11 (cognitive) to 0.28 (academic), while the effects of friendship-based programs ranged from 0.07 (psychological) to 0.13 (cognitive). Targeted programs were significantly more effective than non-specific programs in improving academic, psychological, and social functioning,

This does not mean that relationship-building activities and training are not important in targeted mentoring approaches. Indeed, many of the programs that we coded as “targeted” discuss the importance of developing sufficiently strong mentor-mentee bonds as the context and catalyst for the targeted intervention. Even the strongest proponents of more targeted approaches (e.g., Cavell & Elledge, 2015) emphasize that mentoring is a relational intervention, and proponents of friendship-based programs (e.g., Li & Julian, 2012) do raise valid concerns that overly prescriptive, rigid approaches could threaten relationship quality and mentees’ persistence in the intervention. This tension runs parallel to long-held debates in psychotherapy research about the impact of structured, evidence-based therapies relative to the non-specific or “common factors” of therapist warmth, empathy, and support provided across therapeutic modalities (e.g., Weisz et al., 2017). Meta-analyses of child and adolescent psychotherapy have consistently found that, across treatment modalities, therapist-youth working alliance has a moderate effect size on youth outcomes, even in the context of structured treatments like cognitive-behavioral therapy, and that certain relational variables (e.g., counselor empathy, genuineness, and warmth; counselor direct influence skills on youth; youth willingness to participate) significantly boost outcomes (Karver, De Nadai, Monahan, & Shirk, 2018. Mentors should be provided training in these universal characteristics of effective helping relationships, as they serve as a strong foundation for targeted skills development and remediation.

Programs should strive to find equilibrium between relational bonds and the delivery of more targeted and specific approaches to mentoring. When this balance is achieved, the mentoring relationship may be poised to better address the needs of today’s youth.