Four strategies for improving the field of youth mentoring

by Jean Rhodes

Youth mentoring programs sit at the nexus of treatment and prevention science, offering both the structure for creating helping relationships and the apparatus for scaling them to many youth. Thus, they are exceptionally well-positioned to benefit from the lessons and innovations from both fields. Treatment science provides the rationale and resources for developing effective ways to that serve youth. And, as I have discussed in recent columns,  the burgeoning field of mental health apps (MHapps) and other technology-delivered interventions has the potential to provide mentoring programs with access to a growing array of targeted, evidence-based interventions. Prevention science provides a framework for the implementation, evaluation, and dissemination of effective programs across different settings, youth, cultures, and ethnicities. And, to the extent that programs begin to think of volunteers as paraprofessional helpers and begin to harness all that is relevant from treatment and prevention science, they will be better positioned to deliver effective care.

To this end, Harvard psychologist, John Weisz, and his colleagues have provided a roadmap to materialize this vision―one that the field of mentoring would be wise to follow―that involves:

Identifying effective programs that address the most common problems and disorders facing young people, paying careful attention to their effective adoption across different ethnicities and cultures, . . . specifying the conditions under which programs are most effective and, importantly, the “change mechanisms” that underlie these positive effects and . . . testing interventions across various contexts, and, once proven, disseminating them in ways that make them accessible and effective across a broad range of community and practice settings.[1]

Building on these recommendations, as well as recent research across both treatment and prevention science, I believe that the field would benefit from the following four strategies  (for more context and rationale, see Older and wiser: New ideas for mentoring in the 21st Century)

  1. Prioritize mental health and well-being: Although youth mentoring programs should continue to target the full range of issues (such as academic performance, civic engagement, college access, and job skills), mental health and wellness are particularly promising priorities. The basic contours of formal mentoring relationships follow those of professional helping relationships (e.g., often meeting once a week in mostly one-on-one relationships), and many youth mentees present with acute symptoms of anxiety; depression; and social, emotional, and behavioral struggles that impede their academic performance and other long-term goals. Mental health concerns are often what prompt parent and teacher referrals, and mentoring programs are particularly successful in moving the needle on depression in vulnerable youth.[2]  
  2. Shift professional mental health tasks to mentors: Particularly in light of the global shortage of mental health providers and other youth-serving professionals, the length and cost of professional training, the expense and difficulties associated with accessing mental health and wellness services, and the stigma and distrust that professional services carry in many marginalized communities, mentors should be trained and supervised to support and/or deliver evidence-based care, and to more effectively “give psychology away.” As we move in this direction, programs should find ways to directly recognize and credential the work of their volunteers.
  3. Calibrate risk to intervention approach: Programs should determine mentees’ most salient challenges, identify the best, evidence-based approach to employ, and then match them to mentors with the experience necessary to effectively support them. Children who do not have immediate, identifiable challenges may be better served by recreational programs where they can interact informally with multiple adults. Given the limited pool of volunteers, only about 5 percent of US children and adolescents can be served by mentoring programs and not every child needs or wants the level of structure that they provide.[3] Formal mentoring relationships should thus be viewed as an early, nonstigmatizing source of paraprofessional support that is less intensive than professional counseling but more structured than natural mentoring support. Just as youth are not referred to therapists or other specialists simply for companionship, the same should hold true in formal mentoring programs.
  4. Shift mentors’ roles from delivering to supporting interventions: In contrast to specialized mentoring programs, which can target particular issues and populations, large, nonspecific programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters cannot be expected to deliver the full range of targeted, evidence-based services required to effectively address their mentees’ diverse needs. Rather than deliver interventions, mentors in nonspecific programs should be trained to support their mentees’ engagement in targeted, evidence-based interventions delivered by professionals (embedded mentoring) or through technology (blended mentoring).

And, as long as mentors can generalize their concern for their one mentee to a concern for children in similar situations, programs have an important role in both bridging gaps in mental health services and catalyzing authentic action and reform. Even so, there will remain a large gap between the number of youth who could benefit from targeted, evidence-based mentoring and those who have access to it. Many programs have long waitlists and struggle to recruit and retain a sufficient number of volunteers. Given this scarcity, there is wisdom to reserving volunteer mentors for those youth who could benefit from structured approaches. Other youth, such as those in need of more general friendship, recreational opportunities, and support, could be provided with the training and encouragement to identify and recruit caring, prosocial adults from within their extended families, schools, after-school programs, and communities. This will require a more intentional mobilization and recruitment of the many people who are already living, working, worshipping, and retiring in youth’s communities.

So, there you have it. My main argument in a nutshell.

[1] J. R. Weisz et al., “A Proposal to Unite Two Different Worlds of Children’s Mental Health,” American Psychologist 61, no. 6 (2006): 644–645,

[2] C. Herrera, D. L. DuBois, and J. B. Grossman, The Role of Risk: Mentoring Experiences and Outcomes for Youth with Varying Risk Profiles (New York: Public / Private Ventures, 2013).

[3] R. Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015).