Mentoring + supportive accountability = game changer

By Jean Rhodes

The research is clear that goal-oriented approaches to youth mentoring tend to be more effective than non-specific, friendship oriented approaches. But taking a goal-oriented approach has been easier said than done, particularly in large programs that serve youth diverse challenges and goals.  Smaller specialized mentoring programs are well-poised to target specific subgroups (e.g., youth aging out of foster care and un- accompanied refugees), special risks (e.g., depression, anxiety, and peer rejection), and/or specific goals (e.g., STEM training and applying to college) and can often achieve powerful outcomes. But the large, nonspecialized programs that serve most youth in the U.S. rarely have access to the full range of targeted, empirically supported interventions needed for their mentees’ varied needs and goals. Even when such programs do try specialize (perhaps in response to a particular grant), they can only hit the mark with a subset of mentee. And even if they could identify the best approaches to working with every child who walks through their doors, and even if they could provide sufficient training and oversight to their volunteers, the current system of incentives present hurdles:

    • Many volunteer mentors already feel overwhelmed by the task of forging and sustaining a productive bond with their mentees. Asking them to invest additional time into learning and delivering specialized, sequenced skills training programs with fidelity may simply be a bridge too far. This risk of overtaxing volunteers is a particularly salient issue for programs that rely on volunteers, as opposed to mentors who are students, trainees, or otherwise compensated.
    • Most programs have little leverage over their volunteers, who can reschedule or even skip meetings with relative impunity. This, in turn, derails the sequence and momentum of targeted, evidence-based programs.

It is thus understandable that nonspecific programs have defaulted to the common denominator,–lighter-touch friendship models that can essentially be delivered to all youth, irrespective of their particular issues. The problem is that such programs are not nearly as effective as more goal oriented approaches.  

This is where supportive accountability comes in

Rather than actually deliver interventions, mentors can serve as coaches who help boost their mentees’ engagement in interventions that work. This might include  evidence-based training social-emotional, career programs,  or the growing array of technology-delivered interventions (TDI’s) like HeadSpace or Khan Academy. When TDI’s interventions are blended with coaching and support, they can produce outcomes that rival those of face-to-face interventions, often at little or no cost and in ways that are more geographically, financially, and socially acceptable to youth and their caregivers. Moreover, data collected on technology platforms can be used to track and encourage staff and matches. Finally, TDI’s  can readily incorporate new research and practice updates as their fields advance. Despite this promise, most users struggle to remain engaged in self-directed curricula, especially TDI’s, and more than three-quarters don’t complete the recommended number of sessions (> 90% stop using apps after first month). The good news is that mentors are well positioned to help by providing coaching to help youth remain actively engaged .

What’s supportive accountability?

Supportive accountability entails providing encouragement, and nudges to help youth remain engaged in sequenced, evidence-based interventions, and to help address common difficulties that arise. These might include usability (design flaws in the intervention), user engagement (a lack of motivation), fit (the intervention does not address the user’s specific needs), knowledge (incorrectly using the intervention), and implementation (insufficient incorporation of new skills into the user’s daily life).  So, in a nutshell, we have mentoring programs that are in need of targeted, evidence-based interventions, and we have an ever growing array of effective training programs and technology-delivered interventions that are in need of coaching and accountability. 

Future directions

The science of supportive accountability is still new and needs further testing and refinement within mentoring programs.  To advance this science, my colleagues and I founded a non-profit supportive accountability platform and are currently conducting prospective studies on the effects of supplementing mentoring relationships with technology-delivered interventions. Researchers will also need to study their feasibility across different geographical, socioeconomic, age, and racial/ethnic groups. Other issues, including cultural sensitivity, intergenerational technology gaps, privacy, and ethical concerns, will need to be resolved as targeted, technology-delivered interventions are blended with mentoring practice. Mentor training will also need to be updated to incorporate the lessons of supportive accountability.

And finally, a focus on incorporating effective intervention models in no way diminishes the importance of trusting working relationships, which provide the necessary motivation and support for youth’s engagement and learning. But when the relationship is leveraged through technology, it has the potential to provide young people with new tools to thrive.