A conversation with UVA Professor Patrick Tolan


Professor Patrick Tolan - The Chronicles of Evidence-Based Mentoring

Editor’s Note: We are honored to feature University of Virginia’s Professor Patrick Tolan.  Professor Tolan is an internationally recognized authority on youth violence and prevention. He is author or co-author of more than 160 books, monographs, chapters, articles and technical reports on topics related to children’s mental health, prevention and intervention, and the development of urban children and families.

JR:Your work has been described as taking a developmental-ecological approach to prediction and prevention. What does this mean?

PT: This refers to taking into account a person’s age when trying to understand their behavior, attitudes, emotions, and self-concept. It also means considering where one lives and how that affects the opportunities, challenges, and resources that in turn may affect development and functioning.  Therefore, we look at micro-systems such as family, community, school, and larger systems such as culture and political structure.  For example, how would unfavorable neighborhood conditions affect how families protect their children while they simultaneously teach them to be open to exploration and growth?  Another example would be the way in which a mentoring relationship may impact a child more if he/she otherwise lacked adult role models and caregivers.

JR: What findings and lessons from your research can be applied to the field of youth mentoring?

PT: We found, in line with other reviews, that mentoring is one of the most proven methods for helping youth at risk for delinquency.  We also found that drug abuse was prevented and that school functioning improved.  Our study also focused on the “inside” of mentoring; to explore how difference in mentoring activities and what mentors do affects how beneficial the experience is.

JR: How is your meta-analysis different from previous meta-analytic reviews in the field? Were you surprised by any of the findings in particular? What do you think accounts for the persistently modest program effect sizes in mentoring?

PT:  This is the first meta-analysis that looks at the processes inside mentoring and which seeks to understand how much difference these processes make.  This adds to the important findings about relationship quality, match quality, and length of the relationship in helping to understand why mentoring is beneficial and what best practices might be.  For 20 years we have known that mentoring can be beneficial, yet we still do not know much about the specifics of what causes these benefits.  Our review increases understanding by looking at four processes—modeling, teaching, emotional support, and advocacy.  We found bigger effects when mentoring emphasized emotional support and advocacy.  We also showed how mentor motivation and training can affect impact.

JR: You conclude with the recommendation that greater specificity is needed in program designs and underlying processes. Why does this matter? 

PT: We have this powerful approach, mentoring, that clearly is beneficial to many youth and the research also proves this to be true.  Nevertheless, not all mentoring is helpful and some mentoring is much better than others.  So, we want to find out what specifically helps and what does not.  At the same time, we have almost no understanding about the reasons for this difference in benefits. That means we cannot tell what is best practice.  With more specificity of what mentors in a given program are expected to do and more specific measurement of how interpersonal processes like emotional support or modeling affect how mentoring works, we can improve our training during mentoring, and I think make mentoring even more effective.