Dr. Allison Cloth Introduces Needs-Based Mentoring Approach for Schools

Dr. Allison Cloth is an Assistant Professor of School and Applied Child Psychology at The University of British Columbia. She and her colleagues recently introduced a theoretical framework, the Needs-Based Mentoring (NBM) approach for school-based mentoring programs in order to address the limitations of these current mentoring practices. In this interview, Dr. Cloth discusses those limitations, evidence-based elements of the proposed framework, and how trained school professionals can play an integral role.  

Saniya: The Needs-Based Mentoring (NBM) approach introduced in your latest publication emphasizes a structured and evidence-based framework for school-based mentoring. What were the limitations of current school-based mentoring practices you and your colleagues hoped to address with this framework?

Dr. Cloth: In my experience as a mentor and later as a mentor trainer and researcher, reading about School Based Mentoring (SBM), there were a few major limitations – there was no strong common language about various concepts in mentoring, and there was a lack of a theoretical framework about how to practice and measure mentoring youth in schools. Additionally, there were evidence-based techniques that we knew about that needed to be included in SBM such as data-based decision making – in order to follow a ‘Response to Intervention’ quality and measurability, as well as making sure the relationship is student centered, autonomy supportive, strengths based, and really in tune with what it means to engage a youth in the collaborative process of mentoring. We can’t mentor at someone, it needs to be collaborative.

Saniya: NBM is described as a targeted and formal approach to school-based mentoring (SBM), that includes 5 evidence-based elements: engage, teach, advocate, assess, structure. Can you elaborate on a few of the measurable and practical components of these elements that can help enhance the effectiveness of mentoring?

Dr. Cloth: Measurable is all relative (to the element). As you get into more in the next question, for me, this approach was born with the words willingness and ability. This is what NBM is about from the start. In the element Engage, a mentor starts by ‘measuring’ the mentee’s willingness and ability to meet and chat (and their willingness and ability to have ‘mutuality’ in those conversations, not just shrugs). So, the part to measure is attendance and engagement. So, if the mentee does not come to sessions or avoids meetings or doesn’t talk, that element is not realized or accomplished. This then takes into consideration the element that should also take place all along the mentoring pathway – Assessment. In this element, mentors ask themselves questions about their mentees willingness and ability to engage in different components and elements of the mentoring experience. The element Structure is about figuring out what to do collaboratively in the mentoring relationship. During the element of Structure – mentors can ask ‘is the student coming up with goals for our time together?’, and “are we focused on a goal?’ (e.g., an academic or behavioral skill to improve). Measures in the Structure element are more ‘obvious’ like logs akin to those used in Check & Connect ©  to monitor and measure improvement.

Saniya: You and your colleagues highlight the importance of continuous assessment of student willingness and ability to engage in mentoring activities. Could you discuss how this aspect of NBM contributes to a more tailored and effective mentoring experience for youth at-risk, and how mentors can navigate this process in a student-centered manner?

Dr. Cloth: Youth deemed ‘at risk’ are demonstrating difficulties in school or out of school or both. It is important to start by focusing on developing a relationship the mentee feels is safe for them, where their mentor isn’t just another judgmental adult at school, but someone in their corner, that they are willing and able to work with. One of the skills that promotes positive outcomes in therapeutic relationships is ‘genuineness’. We lean into authenticity in NBM. Sometimes students who are perceived as ‘at-risk’ have non-natural helpers try to work with them in a ‘pull them up by the bootstraps’/‘tough love’ way or even more punitively. These non-natural helpers can be critical and demanding and this can shut down the relationship and lead to a negative self-fulfilling prophecy when students ‘don’t improve’. I have seen these attempts at ‘helping’ and it can make natural helpers in schools sad to witness. In my training in Motivational Interviewing (MI), we know very well that we can’t ‘make a person change’ or ‘talk them into it’. There has to be a different ‘mind-set’ (thank you Miller & Rollnick and MI) about how to approach change. Education policy should know to invest in natural helpers and give them the time, resources and ingredients (NBM) to engage youth at-risk in student centered and strength based mentoring relationships. These corrective relationships can help facilitate goals that allow youth to feel success in school. Success breeds positivity and more success. NBM’s continuous element Assessment is about honestly checking in with different components of mentoring to see if the relationship is working—for all involved in order to see improvement. It has to be student centered because they are who it is all about. Some of our questions in the article help pave the way and more are on their way. I think this is also where mentee choice for mentors matters and training school professionals who want to do this with youth matters. A final thought on this question is, learning and practicing MI skills is a great way to learn to navigate being student centered. 

Saniya: The approach suggests that incorporating trained school professionals as mentors, with backgrounds in education, can be particularly effective as they use data-based decision making skills in course and academic skill development. How does the framework incorporate this type of decision making and what type of support and training would you recommend for school-based mentors implementing NBM?

Dr. Cloth: By engaging school professionals as mentors, data-based decision-making skills are often already known and trained. These come in handy with the element of Structure in NBM when the relationship is focusing on a skill to be developed and monitoring and measuring improvement and success. I think training mentors in NBM would be primarily focused on MI. There is not nearly the uptake of this as a critical communication approach in schools as there has been in medicine, yet service providers in both places want to see change in their ‘clients’, ‘students, ‘patients’ (and I believe there is equal urgency!). I see public education as a great potential economic equalizer. Getting a secondary school education can help youth at risk access wider opportunities for success. Too many youth at-risk drop out and we need to have and train and use mentors to help retain and (re)engage more students at risk. As DuBois and Raposa noted in their meta-analyses, more effective mentoring relationships and positive outcomes come with mentors who have educational backgrounds. Educators come to mentoring with data-based decision making and teaching skills experience and they are using these skills all the time to grade and assess students academically and socio-emotionally.

Saniya: Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share with our readers? Anything you’d really like them to take away from this work?

Dr. Cloth: In initial drafts of the article the elements were ‘phases’. I am glad they are no longer phases as they are unique elements in the approach and we don’t want to prescribe a ‘when’ to any of the elements. That said, I would offer that both Assessment and Engagement are continuous foci in NBM and are occurring throughout the mentoring relationship. Teaching occurs as teaching needs to happen in these relationships—and that is why it is and has always been called Needs Based Mentoring. When a mentor and mentee are working on setting an academic or behavioral goal, some instruction (with permission) may be needed. Similarly, Advocacy occurs when it needs to happen, and an authentic natural helper-mentor does not say ‘that’s not our/my job’ to tutor or to provide counseling, but instead tries to link their mentee and/or their family to resources in school or outside of school to assist. Schools should all have a thorough and regularly updated list of community resources on hand for this purpose. This is what Tier 3 (youth with the highest level of need for support, the 1-5% of youth in schools) should be all about, individualized support. If I had a ‘call to action’ it would be policy based. I would want a call to create a mentoring ‘line’ or ‘track’ for teachers and other school professionals (EA’s, counsellors, support workers, etc.). This line would give these professionals an additional block off per day to work with mentees. Put mentoring in all schools as a matter of course and to a responsible and responsive per capita ratio of need!