From good to better: Four strategies for improving the practice of youth mentoring

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by Jean Rhodes

In the coming months, MENTOR will be releasing its 4th Edition of the iconic Elements of Effective Practice. This edition is the culmination of intense work by our core team, led by iRT (led by Janis Kupersmidt and Rebecca Stelter), the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring (led by me and Stella Kanchewa) and MENTOR (led by Michael Garringer). We also benefitted from the wisdom and experiences of our scientific advisors and members of the practice community.

We will be describing the process and contents as we get closer to the rollout. In the meantime, as we finish the rigorous process, thought I’d share some reflections and recommendations. First, I was struck by the enthusiasm for and growth of mentoring programs since the last edition. It speaks volumes about the faith our society places in one-to-one relationships between vulnerable young people and unrelated but caring adults. And with good cause. The success of human services initiatives often rests on the quality of relationships that are forged among participants. By putting relationships at center stage, mentoring programs can deliver this healing in full potency. Moreover, as we were pleased to see, a growing body of research provides an encouraging base of evidence for the benefits of high-quality mentoring relationships and by implication the programs and settings that are able to establish and support these types of relationships. Although much remains to be done to understand the complexities of mentoring relationships and to determine the circumstances under which mentoring programs make a difference in the lives of youths, at this stage, we can safely say that mentoring is, by and large, a modestly effective intervention. In some cases, it can do more harm than good; in others, it can have extraordinarily influential effects. The balance can and should be tipped toward the latter. A deeper understanding of mentoring relationships, combined with an expanding array of high-quality programs, enriched settings, and a better integration of research, practice, and policy has better positioned programs to harness the full potential of youth mentoring.

In the years since it we released the EEP3, there has been an expansion in the ways in which practitioners and researchers collaborate in their efforts to develop high-quality mentoring programs—for example, by developing and empirically testing training manuals. Here we describe more.

Develop and Use Evidence-based Training Protocols

A strong program infrastructure that promotes the development and maturation of close positive relationships between youths and their mentors is  critical to the formation of close relationships and, ultimately, the effectiveness of the newer forms of mentoring. No matter how well a mentoring program is designed and conceptualized, it will not achieve its potential benefits if implementers lack the training and organizational support to carry tem out with fidelity (Durlak & Wells, 1997). Mentoring Central has set the standard for incorporating evidence-based practices into training and replication manuals, which specify the content and sequencing of various components (full disclosure, I was involved in its development). This training is  informed by observations and research, with a particular eye toward what constitutes high-quality mentoring relationships and includes coverage of such topics as the importance of consistency, handling terminations, ethical quandaries, advocacy on behalf the child, gifts and money, working with the child’s family/school, and diversity issues. New trainings are focused on other relevant parties (i.e., parents, mentees) and populations are in the works. Several important considerations, including a well-delineated, guiding conceptual framework, a user-friendly interface, and well-coordinated links to MENTOR’s EEP4 and national-practice networks would help to ensure widespread and consistent utilization of training materials. Along these lines, programs like Mentoring Central are more effectively capitalizing on the web for and ongoing training and evaluation. The flexibility, convenience, and interactive nature of this medium, particularly with a volunteer effort that is inherently decentralized, is finally being more directly realized.  Finally, careful documentation of the implementation will enable practitioners to know what shortcomings to address if interventions fail to achieve desired outcomes, and Mentoring Central’s EQUIP and other systems are paving the way.

Reduce Volunteer Attrition

High rates of volunteer attrition continue to represent a major drain on staff and financial resources in mentoring programs, particularly given the effort involved in recruiting, screening, training, and matching volunteers. Given the evidence of an important moderating effect of relationship duration in the formation of close relationships, efforts should be made to recruit and retain mentors who are willing to stick with their mentees through thick and thin. To reduce attrition, programs should set reasonable goals regarding the number of youths they intend to serve, adhere to fidelity guidelines, and seek out technical assistance when needed. Recruitment efforts should also describe both the benefits a volunteer can expect and the commitment that is required. Program personnel who are sensitive to any circumstances and characteristics that might put volunteers at risk for early termination should carefully screen recruited volunteers.

It might also be helpful to tap into pools of volunteers who are at lower risk for termination. Some programs have recognized the enormous volunteer potential that exists among retired adults. Older adults have more time to devote to this pursuit and are ideally positioned to provide the level of personal attention and emotional support that many youths need (Taylor & Bressler, 2001). At the same time, efforts should be made to facilitate the volunteer efforts of working parents and other adults. It also should not be overlooked that these pools of volunteers may include individuals whose backgrounds and abilities make them well prepared to enhance processes (e.g., role modeling, advocacy) that are discussed in this chapter as mediating positive effects of relationships on outcomes.

Connect Mentoring With Other Youth Settings

As I mentioned in previous columns, after-school programs, summer camps, competitive sports teams, church youth groups, and other positive youth development programs represent rich contexts for the formation of strong intergenerational ties .  With more deliberate planning, such settings could be made more responsive to the needs of youths. Likewise, developing and evaluating strategies that facilitate skillful, intentional mentoring and determining how to encourage youths to recruit adults represent promising new directions for policy with potentially far-reaching implications. We can also learn from the strategies and lessons that have emerged in other youth settings.

Involve and Engage Parents and Families

An assumption of the proposed theoretical model with direct practical application is that the positive effects of mentoring relationships can reverberate back, ultimately drawing adolescents and their parents closer together. Although mentoring programs have not always involved parents and families in a comfortable or coherent manner, program personnel should remain aware of the ways that successful mentoring relationships can improve family dynamics, and they should take steps to capitalize on that possibility. If parents feel involved in—as opposed to shut out by—the process that brings other adults into their children’s lives, they may be more likely to reinforce mentors’ positive influences.

Our work on improving youth practice, but new tools and a clear roadmap of these and other improvements have set the stage for the release of a new set of guidelines and increasing grounds for optimism.