Five important takeaways from a new meta-analysis

Poon, C. Y. S., Christensen, K. M., & Rhodes, J. E. (2021). A Meta-analysis of the Effects of Mentoring on Youth in Foster Care. Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

By Jean Rhodes, Cyanea Poon, and Kirsten Christensen


Research suggests that mentoring programs may promote a range of positive outcomes in youth populations. Less is known, however, about the extent to which such programs are effective in specialized youth populations, such as youth involved in the foster care system. In this study, we investigated the extent to which mentoring interventions promote positive outcomes among youth involved in the foster care system and to systematically explore factors that may moderate the effectiveness of mentoring interventions. Using a multilevel meta-analytic approach, this study estimated the effect size of nine formal mentoring programs in the United States serving youth involved with the foster care system (total n = 55,561). Here’s what we found.

#1 They work!

  • Our results revealed a small-to-medium overall effect of mentoring programs for youth involved with the foster care system (g = 0.342) with no differences in mentoring impact across different types of youth outcomes. These are stronger overall effects than those revealed in recent meta-analytic studies of general youth mentoring programs (i.e., Raposa et al., 2019). This boost may have resulted from these programs having specifically designed activities and program components to address the particular needs and challenges of the youth they serve. For example, in many programs, youth were provided with workshops on employment and exiting foster care (e.g., Blakeslee & Keller, 2018), guest speakers with expertise on mental health and self-care and the college application process (Geenen et al., 2015) and skills groups covering topics such as problem solving, change and loss, and abuse prevention (e.g., Taussig & Culhane, 2010). This possibility is consistent with recent evidence of the effectiveness of more targeted mentoring interventions (Christensen et al., 2020; Lyons et al., 2019), and may suggest that programs should continue to find ways to design activities and goals to match youths’ presenting concerns and identities.

#2 Cross-age peer mentoring is particularly effective

  • The study results also indicated that near-peer mentors are more effective than intergenerational mentors in formal mentoring programs for youth involved with the foster care system. Moderation analyses of program characteristics revealed that near-peer mentors were more than twice as effective as intergenerational mentors (b = 0.359, p = 0.024). Near-peer mentors refer to mentors who are close in age with mentees; these mentors may also have shared experiences as youth currently or formerly involved in the foster care system. As a result, near-peer mentors may act as credible messengers since their guidance is often grounded in shared experience (Austria & Peterson, 2017). It may also be the case that near-peer mentors received relatively more training and supervision than older adult mentors (Burton, 2020). These possibilities are best illustrated through the two studies included in this meta-analysis that used near-peer mentors. Near-peer mentors in the TAKE CHARGE mentoring program were foster care alumni who completed high school and were presently in college or working. They provided their mentees support and infor- mation about their life circumstances and received ongoing support from program staff (Geenen et al., 2013). In the Better Futures program, near-peer mentors had shared experiences with mentees of being in foster care and/or mental health challenges and received weekly individual and group supervision from the intervention manager (Geenen et al., 2015). Notably, both programs intentionally recruited near-peer mentors who had shared experiences of he foster care system, which may have critically con- tributed to the success of the mentoring processes. However, given that this moderation effect was based on only two studies in the current sample, additional studies that explicitly focus on the program implementation and prac- tices are needed. Although more research is needed to help uncover the specific mechanisms through which near-peer mentoring may be effective, mentoring programs for youth involved with the foster care system may consider ways to bring in support from mentors who are close in age and/or have shared experiences that can help support mentees’ positive outcomes and transition out of the system into independent living.

#3 Working with youth who have suffered emotional abuse is particularly challenging

  • Weaker effects were found for studies containing higher proportions of youth with emotional abuse histories (b= 0.512, p = 0.033), but not in other forms of abuse histories such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, and physical neglect.This finding highlights the unique challenges mentors may face when working with such youth. For example, youth who experience significant childhood interpersonal violence often struggle to build trust and rapport in their social connections (Blakemore et al., 2017; Wilson & Scarpa, 2015), including with their mentors. For example, a recent study of the national longitudinal Add Health data found that, among youth with natural mentors, those who had experienced childhood abuse from a caregiver had lower interpersonal closeness, shorter duration, and less frequent contact with their mentors (Weber Ku et al., 2021). Mentoring programs working with youth involved with the foster care system who have experienced emotional abuse should consider training their mentors in trauma-informed approaches and in approaches that incorporate attunement and practical communication strategies (Gilkerson & Pryce, 2020). Trauma-informed care seeks not to treat symptoms directly related to abuse, but instead, provide support in an accessible and responsive way to youth who have experi- enced trauma by being aware of potential triggers and re- traumatization (Buffalo Center for Social Research, 2021). Such trainings could help mentors integrate knowledge about trauma into their practices and implement the five guiding principles of trauma-informed care in their men- toring relationships: safety, choice, collaboration, trust- worthiness, and empowerment (Buffalo Center for Social Research, 2021).

#4 Support to mentors matters!

  • Results also indicated that providing more support to mentors may help promote stronger positive program effects. This finding is consistent with earlier research studies which indicate that mentor support is a crucial element in enhancing mentoring program effectiveness (Herrera et al., 2013). Examples could involve tailored mentor support or supervision around developing self-awareness of mentors’ own relational styles and personal trauma histories. Additionally, professional development workshops and trainings around working effectively with trauma-exposed or trauma-reactive youth and addressing potential burnout could be particularly helpful. Lastly, programs’ intentional selection of mentors may help to improve the effectiveness of mentoring for trauma-exposed foster care youth. Although it was not possible to explore the moderating role of specific mentor characteristics in the current study, programs who enlist mentors in the helping professions (e.g., social work stu- dents), such as Taussig and colleagues’ Fostering Healthy Futures program, may see more positive mentoring experiences for these youth.

#5 Time-limited models may be particularly effective

  • Expected program duration, expected mentoring session length, and expected mentor support collectively moderated the effects of mentoring.This finding suggests that program expectations of duration, session length and mentor support should not be considered in isolation, and a systems approach is needed to clearly examine how program expectations collectively influence outcomes. In particular, when mentor support was held constant, shorter expected program duration and shorter expected mentoring session length were associated with stronger effects. Although counterintuitive, this finding is consistent with results in a recent meta-analysis of general formal mentoring programs (Raposa et al., 2019) which found that programs with expectations for longer meeting times yielded smaller effect sizes. It is possible that mentoring programs with longer session expectations may feel emotionally taxing or burdensome to youth participants or mentors. Lengthy meetings may also reflect infrequent and/ or inconsistent meetings in which matches engage in long sessions episodically or irregularly (Raposa et al., 2019). These types of program models may be particularly ineffective for this population of youth who may take longer to build trust and strong relationships. It is also possible that short-term programs are more targeted and effective than longer, less focused programs (Christensen et al., 2020) and, because they are time-limited, circumvent the potential harmful effects of early termination (Kupersmidt et al., 2017).
  • Although additional research is warranted, these findings suggest that with adequate training and support, mentoring programs may not need to be lengthy as commonly assumed, and that shorter meetings may actually be more effective in promoting positive youth outcomes.

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