Engagement and mentor support in youth development programs as an avenue to foster adolescent social development

Chapman, C. M., Deane, K. L., Harré, N., Courtney, M. G., & Moore, J. (2017). Engagement and mentor support as drivers of social development in the Project K Youth Development Program. Journal of youth and adolescence46(3), 644-655.

Summarized by Kirsten Christensen



Given that we are inherently social creatures, adolescence is a particularly critical time for developing extra-familial social ties and cultivating interpersonal skills. Youth programs can foster social development through the two specific mechanisms of participant engagement and experience of support from program adults (i.e., mentors).

Although much is known about the processes through which programs facilitate beneficial youth outcomes, most of the research has been conducted with organized youth activities that do not necessarily represent program purposefully aimed at youth development. Additionally, little research has been conducted on the various program components that foster these positive outcomes. To address these gaps, the authors of this article aimed to assess “how engagement in, and support experienced, during the different components” of the Project K Youth Development Program influenced the development of positive social outcomes among program youth.

Project K is a New Zealand based multicomponent youth development program aimed at fostering goal-setting, communication, problem-solving, and leadership skills in high school aged youth with low academic and social self-efficacy. The three main components of the program are outdoor adventure experiences, a community service project, and an adult-youth mentoring partnership.

The authors proposed a model in which the iterative experiences allow the youth to develop mastery and social resources, and encourages peer bonding, sense of belonging, and self-efficacy in a supportive yet unfamiliar social setting. The current study tested the influence of the three program components on positive social development by examining the youths’ affective engagement in the wilderness adventure and community service challenge, and experiences of support in the mentoring partnership. The authors hypothesized that program youth would experience social gains (i.e., self-reported self-efficacy, sense of community, parent perceptions of social competence) as a result of program participation, and that emotional engagement and emotional support would independent explain these social gains.



Participants in the final sample consisted of 327 youth (183 males) between the ages of 13 and 15 at the start of the program.

Relevant social measures (i.e., social self-efficacy, sense of community, parent perceptions of social competence, engagement, support) were administered to participants both before the start of the program and at program completion. Within one week of completing the wilderness challenge and community challenge, participants were administered questionnaires asking about participants’ experiences. Two weeks before program graduation, youth were administered questionnaires assessing perceptions of the year-long mentoring relationships in which they participated as part of the program.




Participant changes on social measures were evaluated using z-tests (i.e., the t-test equivalent of assessing change in latent factors). Participants demonstrated significant improvements in social self-efficacy from baseline and a small yet significant increase in sense of community from baseline. No significant changes were detected in parent perceptions of self-efficacy.

To establish a structural model demonstrating the effects of mentor support and engagement in the wilderness and community challenges on relevant social outcomes, the researchers also specified several autoregressive models.

Overall, the statistical analyses indicated that youth had high levels of engagement in the wilderness adventure and community service challenge, and endorsed high levels of perceived mentor support. Engagement in the wilderness challenge and perceived mentor support were both significant contributors to perceived social self-efficacy at program completion. Similarly, engagement in the wilderness adventure significantly predicted post-program sense of community. Interestingly, community service challenge experiences did not significantly predict increases on any social measures.

Discussion and Conclusion

The study findings indicate that Project K youth participants demonstrated significant gains in social self-efficacy and sense of community as a result of their engagement in a wilderness challenge and support received from their mentoring relationship. These findings indicate that experiences in youth development programs can significantly and positive impact social skills development, particularly for youth who may not be successfully developing these skills independently.

The findings suggest a need for more research on different program components and activities, and how these can foster engagement and feelings of support, to thus influence gains in a variety of developmental outcomes. Understanding the impact of program activities and components will also allow for more effective activity implementation so that the program impact and benefits afforded to participating youth can be maximized.


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