Profiles in Mentoring: A Conversation with Johanna Greeson on Natural Mentoring and Foster Care

Below is a profile of Professor Johanna Greeson. Johanna’s excellent new book will be out next month! 

by Kate Powers

Introduction: Johanna Greeson is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Greeson received her MSW from Bryn Mawr College in 1999, and then returned to school for a PhD in social work from UNC-Chapel Hill, which she received in 2009. Dr. Greeson aims “to reform child welfare so that no youth leaves without a lifetime connection to a caring adult”. In pursuit of this goal, Greeson has conducted important research on youth aging out of foster care and the ways in which natural mentoring may aid in their transitions.


Chronicle (C): What motivated you to become involved in issues such as child/adolescent trauma, child welfare, and the development of youth in foster care?

Johanna Greeson (JG): My initial interest in older youth in foster came from my very first job after I received my MSW degree from Bryn Mawr College. I worked as an internal evaluator for a private foster care agency. At the time, there was limited acknowledgment of older youth in care as a distinct subpopulation with needs that differed from younger children. I was very struck by the child welfare system’s inability to respond appropriately to these kids. My work with this agency is what propelled me to pursue a PhD in social work so that I could gain the necessary skills to work on improving the services for older youth in care as well as their outcomes following aging out.


C: What would you say has been the most challenging aspect of working and conducting research in your field of interest? How have you gone about navigating or overcoming those challenges?

JG: The most challenging aspect of working and conducting research with older youth in care is their marginalization and vulnerability. It’s deeply touching to know what they’ve been through and overcome. It’s also one of the biggest barriers in terms of research. I’ve learned to be very flexible and adaptable in how I approach the research process and just to take things as they come with these kids. I’ve also learned to think creatively about how to overcome obstacles with them so they can participate in my studies.


C: What kinds of obstacles have you had to creatively overcome?

JG: I expect that despite having youth agree to participate in a study, they may not always show up for the interview. I don’t take it personally … I try to be flexible with times and locations for interviews, as well as providing food, tokens for public transportation, and a gift card incentive. [Additionally], although I have not yet put this into practice, but plan to when I have a longitudinal study underway, there is the ‘5 by 5’ approach (Stefanic, Schaefer-McDaniel, Davis, & Tsemberis, 2004), which has been shown to be successful at increasing study retention rates among vulnerable and highly mobile populations, like foster youth. Following post-intervention, participants are asked to complete a five-minute phone interview each month for which they receive $5. The ‘5 by 5’ ($5 for 5 minutes) confirms participants’ residential information and the contact information of the two friends, family members, and/or service providers. Upon completion of the 5 by 5, participants are sent $5, and a letter that specifies the date of the next interview.


C: Where do you see your research findings having the most impact on the outcomes for at-risk youth?

JG: I see my findings having the most impact on social support outcomes, and then by increasing social support, also impacting life course outcomes, like educational attainment, homelessness, incarceration, use of public assistance, and employment.


C: In what ways do you see your research developing? Are there related or even independent areas, which you would be interested in investigating further?

JG: Once I establish the effectiveness of my natural mentoring intervention for older youth in foster care called C.A.R.E. (Caring Adults ‘R’ Everywhere:, I would love to explore how social interventions, like C.A.R.E., could change underlying brain structures and mechanisms. I’m intrigued by the concept of neural plasticity [definition] as a potential mediator of successful social interventions.


C: Can you tell me a little bit more about what made you consider neural plasticity when thinking about the effect of social interventions?

JG: Davidson and McEwen discuss this possibility in their 2012 article about social influences on neural plasticity. Structural and functional changes in the brain have been observed with cognitive therapy and certain forms of meditation and lead to the suggestion that well-being and other prosocial characteristics might be enhanced through training. I argue that such changes can extend to other forms of social interventions, like natural mentoring among foster youth.

(To read more, see: Davidson, R.J., & McEwen, B.S. (2012). Social influences on neuroplasticity: Stress and interventions to promote well-being. Nature Neuroscience, 15(5), 689-695.)


C: It seems as though you conceptualize natural mentoring as a key component for addressing the gap in support that occurs as youth age out of foster care. How did you decide that natural mentoring, of any possible intervention, was the best to address this issue?

JG: When I was doing my coursework at UNC-Chapel Hill, I took a seminar taught by Glen Elder [in which I read] Emmy Werner’s Journeys from Childhood to Midlife, Risk, Resilience, and Recovery about her 40-year longitudinal study of nearly 700 infants on the Hawaiian island of Kauai – the island’s entire birth cohort for 1955. The study supported conventional wisdom that children exposed to risk factors go on to experience more problems with delinquency, mental and physical health, and family instability than children not exposed to such risk. However, one-third of all the children displayed resilience and developed into caring, competent, and confident adults despite their histories. The difference was a number of protective factors in the lives of these kids that helped to balance out the risk during critical periods of their development, including a strong bond with a nonparental caretaker, like an extended family member, teacher or coach. These folks are natural mentors! Dr. Elder’s influence on my thinking about the protective nature of relationships simultaneously came together with my thinking about what youth who age out of foster care often lack and how they deserve the same support afforded youth in the general population, even if not provided by their caretakers.

Additionally, theoretically and developmentally, natural mentoring may provide a better fit than other forms of mentoring, such as programmatic mentoring. Natural mentoring relationships form organically, and therefore may develop without the pressured social expectation that the mentor and mentee connect with each other. The natural mentor is familiar to the youth, and as a result, the youth is less likely to have difficulty trusting the adult and developing a close bond (Ahrens et al., 2008). Similarly, both the youth and the natural mentor are already in each other’s social networks. Consequently, the chances that the relationship will continue over time are better, and the likelihood of positive outcomes increases (Hamilton et al., 2006). In light of its potential for longevity, natural mentoring also holds the promise of being an alternative to legal permanence for older foster youth. It offers youth the opportunity to establish lifetime relationships with nurturing individuals who can provide the relationship stability needed to help foster youth successfully make the transition to adulthood (Maluccio & Fein, 1983).


C: Thinking ten years ahead, what changes do you hope will have been made to aid the youth population you have studied?

JG: I hope that my intervention C.A.R.E. is the gold-standard for serving older youth in foster care and that the field has fully embraced cultivating interdependence among older youth in care, as opposed to our current focus on independence. Along the same lines, I hope that in 10 years, no young person exits foster care without a lifetime connection to a caring, supportive adult, and that we are helping these kids to thrive, not just survive.


C: Thank you so much for sharing with us!