Getting to Carnegie Hall: Why practicing skills is a “best practice” in mentoring

by Jean Rhodes

Chances are you’ve heard about the pedestrian on 57th Street who sees a musician getting out of a cab and asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Without pause, the musician replies “Practice.” Indeed, when it comes to any skill, from music and sports to academics and social-emotional learning, practice makes perfect—and mentors can pay a valuable role in providing opportunities for practice, practice, and more practice. Although instruction alone rarely translates into change, it’s surprisingly difficult for teachers to find time for supervised practice. The problem is that most lesson plans take longer than already cramped school and after-school calendars can accommodate and teachers and other helpers often have to move to the next topic before any kind of mastery is achieved.  This absence of opportunities for practice is also at odds with findings from basic cognitive and behavioral learning sciences. Taylor et al. (2005), for example, found that the capacity to transfer newly learned skills to new contexts was greatest when practice included role-playing scenarios that the trainees themselves had generated. This makes sense, as it is always useful to try something you’re learning in the contexts that are familiar. 

Mentors can help

Unlike teachers, therapists and other instructors who are tasked with teaching often complex skills in compressed time frames, mentors have the time and space for youth to rehearse, practice, and return to earlier concepts. In doing so, mentors can ensure that youth who would otherwise not receive individualized attention have opportunities for practice, positive reinforcement, and mastery. As Conley et al. (2016) note, “support from paraprofessionals or even peers might enhance participant goal setting, expectations, accountability, and motivation, and thus improve intervention engagement, adherence, and outcomes.”   A particularly accessible and common role for mentorsmay be to support social-emotional learning (SEL) classes and curricula. SEL programs are designed to help youth learn and develop skills (e.g., self- and social- awareness, decision making, self-management, relationship skills)  to understand, manage, and express emotions, set goals, develop positive, empathic relationships, and recognize and manage emotions . There is solid evidence that youth can learn these personal and social skills (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) 2005). But a key feature of SEL is that the skills need to be practiced, integrated, and applied to diverse situations so that students use them as part of their daily repertoire of behaviors. Mentors could follow along with the curriculum and then help youth practice and master each new skill.  SEL skills, in turn, can help youth, particularly those who have been exposed to trauma, perform better in school.

Proven model

Although supporting their mentees’ in this way may seem trivial, supervised practice can dramatically improve outcomes.  In fact compared to instruction-only skills modules, programs that provide participants with supervised opportunities to practice skills and receive feedback have yield strikingly larger effects.

 This model of asking mentors to provide opportunities for supervised practice and other supports has been implemented successfully by many programs (Heller et al., 2015). Thread, a Baltimore-based program dispatches student volunteers to work with students who are performing in the bottom 25% of their class. And is, according to the “refreshingly realistic about the capacities of its volunteers and services and the systems-level issues facing their young people.” (Bornstein, 2016). Instead of providing direct services, Thread partners with hundreds of service providers deploying mentors to help connect and engage youth in the services. In other programs, mentors play a vital role in engaging youth in systems of care as they and helping them practice, personalize, and gain mastery of important life skills (Taussig, Culhane, Gerrido, & Knudtson, 2012; Greenan et al., 2014).  Mentors are trained and tasked with practicing skills that young people are learning in therapy and, together, attend skills-based mentoring workshops that incorporate “trauma-informed care.” 

This embedded approach works also well for these more intensive, specialized programs, but it can also work in large, non-specialized mentoring programs. Such programs could partner with and dispatch their volunteers to mental health clinics, juvenile justice systems, classrooms, after-school settings, and other hubs of service to help reinforce and practice what youth are learning. Sacco, Pike, & Bourque (2014) describe a therapeutic mentoring model in which mentors are dispatched to an outpatient mental health center which serves as the clinical hub of service for youth referred by child welfare, juvenile justice, or courts. In this model, mentors are viewed as an “adjunct to therapy and a context to safely practice social and other skills and transfer them to their home and communities,”  

By providing opportunities for supervised practice, mentors become part of a more supportive system of care. Whether they are working in schools, juvenile justice systems, and other hubs can enlist mentors to practice and consolidate what has been learned, increasing motivation, engagement, mastery, and retention. This ensures that youth who would otherwise not receive individualized opportunities to practice and apply new skills at home can reach their dreams (including getting to Carnegie Hall!).