by Jean Rhodes
I recently worked with a talented team at the MacArthur Foundation Connected Learning Research Network to develop an infographic on youth mentoring (below). In essence, I argue that the number of Americans willing to serve as volunteer mentors has remained remarkably stable over the past decade — between 2 million and 2.5 million, or around 1% of the adult population (Raposa et al., 2016). Given this stable but modest rate, we should ensure that volunteer mentors are well equipped to handle the needs of youth exposed to increasingly high levels of stress. This means moving from more free wheeling, one-size-fits-all approaches to evidence-based approaches that are designed to meet the differing needs and circumstances of different populations of youth. Just as you wouldn’t go to the same physician for your allergies as for your back pain, you shouldn’t think of a volunteer mentors as a jack of all trades. Instead, we need to extract more out of the men and women who are willing to give up their precious time in the service of strangers—and we can only do this by training them to better meet the particular needs of their mentees.
In addition, however, we must explore avenues for supporting youth in building healthy social networks with the caring adults in their everyday lives. Youth who can identify at least one supportive adult within their social networks have been shown to have better outcomes across a range of important academic, behavioral, and health domains. Fortunately, natural mentoring relationships are relatively common. Indeed, about 75% of youth say they have a mentor. On the face of it, this high percentage seems to suggest that young people are perfectly adept at enlisting support from non-parental adults. Yet, with classroom overcrowding, class-based segregation, and diminishing public support for extracurricular programs and enrichment activities, opportunities for extended interaction between youth and caring adults have diminished, and it is the youth in the bottom income sectors who suffer the most. While wealthier families have been able to compensate for these changes with private sources of support and enrichment, poorer families have fewer resources to invest. Although they often stand to gain the most, youth from the lowest SES quartile are least likely to endorse having a natural mentor. This unequal distribution of natural mentoring relationships serves to compound socioeconomic disadvantage (Raposa, Erickson, Hagler, & Rhodes, 2017).
If we are serious about redressing social inequality, we need to do more to connect low-income youth with a range of caring adults who can help them invent and achieve a promising future. Mentoring initiatives should be broadened to scaffold young people’s ability to recruit caring adults, and new approaches are showing promise. In the Youth-Initiated Mentoring (YIM) approach, youth nominate adults to serve as their mentors, selecting from among the adults who are already in their social networks (Schwartz et al., 2013). In an extension of this approach, typically used with high school and college students, the Connected Scholars Program actively supports students in cultivating a network of supportive adults, rather than a single mentoring relationship (Schwartz, et al., 2015). Likewise, Intentional Mentoring (IM) approaches seek to increase the availability of caring adults who serve as mentors for all youth.