Do Mentees Just Wanna Have Fun?

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 8.05.19 AMby David DuBois

Much of my research has been focused on examining the ways in which mentoring, if infused with more intentional and active forms of guidance, can be more effective. Illustratively, in a recent meta-analysis of youth mentoring program evaluations that I conducted with several colleagues (including Jean Rhodes, the editor of the Chronicle), we found evidence that programs were significantly more effective when they systematically trained and supported mentors in taking on teaching or guidance roles in their relationships with mentees (DuBois, Portillo, Rhodes, Silverthorn, & Valentine, 2011). Building on this finding, I’m presently collaborating with Tom Keller, in partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA), on a multi-site study of the potential benefits of incorporating a variety of learning-oriented activities and resources developed by the Thrive Foundation for Youth into BBBSA community-based mentoring relationships.

I’m certainly not alone in looking to find ways to draw on an educational framework to enrich mentoring relationships and what they can offer to youth. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, for example, recently has invested over $10 million in an evaluation and demonstration initiative (referred to as the “Mentoring Enhancement and Demonstration Project”) that is focused on examining the effectiveness of enhancements to mentoring programs that are focused on strengthening the teaching and advocacy roles of mentors. Certainly, such efforts are a welcome development to those observers – who can be found in the realms of not only research, but also practice and policy — who have been skeptical of what volunteers, typically with limited training, can accomplish through simply engaging with youth in activities that seem much more light and recreational – for example, playing video games, getting a bite to eat, or shooting baskets – than educational.

But in advancing a more intentional, educational approach to mentoring, have we been overlooking an opportunity to enhance program effectiveness by supporting mentors in simply doing more of what may already come naturally to them? The findings of a recent study, led by Carla Herrera, co-authored by myself and Jean Grossman (Herrera, DuBois, & Grossman, 2013), suggest that the answer to this question is yes. As Jean Rhodes has eloquently reported elsewhere on this website, the study found robust evidence that volunteer-based, one-to-one mentoring relationships offered through BBBSA and other programs can significantly reduce levels of depressive symptoms among youth. The importance of this finding is underscored by the sobering reality that nearly one in four youth in the sample reported serious signs of depression on a standardized symptom inventory at the beginning of the study. Indeed, whether one is looking to recent tragic events such as the New Town or Aurora mass shootings or the research literature, the devastating and costly consequences that mental health issues such as depression can have for both young people and their communities are abundantly evident.

As I have had to time to reflect on our findings, it has occurred to me that they really should come as no surprise. Interestingly, one of the staples of evidence-based treatments for depression is something referred to as “pleasant activity scheduling” (for a meta-analysis of the effects of this approach to treatment of depression, see Cuijpers, van Straten, & Warmerdam, 2007). Just as the name suggests, pleasant activity scheduling entails helping patients to identify and engage more frequently in activities that they find to be fun and enjoyable. As a former child therapist myself, I can attest that this can be easier said than done. In part, this is because pessimism, lower energy levels, and a tendency to not find pleasure in activities that one used to find enjoyable are often part and parcel of the symptom picture of depression – together, such factors can make it a formidable task to get patients to “buy into” the idea that something so seemingly basic as making it a more of a habit to do things that are fun will be helpful to them. It is not unusual, in particular, for depressed patients to return to the next session having not even attempted their “homework” of engaging in their selected pleasant activities.

Enter mentoring. What are mentors typically charged with doing through programs such as Big Brothers Big Sisters? Certainly, getting to know the interests of their mentees and spending time with them engaged in activities that reflect these sources of enjoyment are near, if not at, the top of the list. And, unlike therapists, mentors have the leg up of being able to be activity partners for youth, giving them the hands-on encouragement that it may take to get them engaged and modeling what it looks like to simply relax and have a good time.

If it is not already clear, I’m suggesting that programs should feel good about what they are already doing to make sure that youth have fun and adult companionship in their lives. They should also feel confident in referring to this aspect of what they do as an evidence-based (aka research-supported) approach to strengthening the mental health and well-being of young persons. No doubt, too, if we (practitioners and researchers) put our minds to it, we could find ways to fine-tune mentoring’s version of “pleasant activity scheduling,” thereby enhancing mentoring’s value as a strategy for promoting the mental health of young persons and in so doing their prospects for successful and healthy futures. Let the fun begin!

Cuijpers, P., van Straten, A., & Warmerdam, L. (2007). Behavioral activation treatments of depression: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 27, 318-328.

DuBois, D. L., Portillo, N., Rhodes, J. E., Silverthorn, N., & Valentine, J. C. (2011). How effective are mentoring programs for youth? A systematic assessment of the evidence. Psychological Science in
the Public Interest, 12, 57-91. Available at

Herrera, C., DuBois, D. L., & Grossman, J. B. (2013). The role of risk: Mentoring experiences and outcomes for youth with varying risk profiles. New York, NY: A Public/Private Ventures
project published by MDRC. Retrieved from