Mentoring Innovations: The Power of Groups

Source: National Mentoring Resource Center

By Nancy Deutsch & Gabe Kuperminc, UVA Curry Youth – NEX

Highlights:

  • Group mentoring programs can be effective in fostering at least short- term improvements in a broad range of youth outcomes.
  • The multiple types of relationships between and amongst peers and mentors in group mentoring programs contributes to youth’s experiences in, and outcomes from, group mentoring.
  • Limiting the size of the mentoring group (i.e., the ratio of mentors to mentees) and incorporating practices that foster peer support among the mentors can support program quality.

January is National Mentoring Month. When you think about mentoring, you probably picture an adult who has volunteered to take an active and supportive role in a young person’s life. If you’ve heard of programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters, you’re probably familiar with the one-on-one approach to mentoring. But whereas one-on-one mentoring programs are widespread, did you know that group mentoring programs actually now serve more youth than one-on-one programs?[i] Group programs come in various shapes and sizes but are differentiated from one-on-one programs in that one or more adults work with multiple youth.

This may sound like a lot of settings you see every day, like after-school clubs, sports teams, or arts programs. Indeed, the basic ingredients for group mentoring exist in many places where multiple youth and one or more adults interact together over time.

But what makes group mentoring different from other programs that involve adults and youth is that it must include intentional mentoring activity and group processes, including meaningful, two-way interactions between one or more mentors and at least two mentees.

Formal programs that match mentors with groups of youth are very popular, with estimates that 35% of youth mentoring programs use a group format and an additional 12% use a combination of one-on-one and group mentoring.[ii] In other group settings, like after-school programs, sports teams, and classrooms, specific efforts may be needed to systematically foster mentoring relationships between the adults and youth.[iii]

In a recent review of group mentoring for the National Mentoring Resource Center, we found three main types of programs:

  1. The first type includes programs in which all activities occur in a group or team-like setting. An example of the first type is a program in San Francisco, CA called Project Arrive, where groups of six to eight students who are vulnerable to dropping out of school meet with mentors each week throughout their 9th grade year to build a sense of belonging in school and a supportive peer network.
  2. The second type of group program blends the popular one-on-one approach to mentoring with group activities. An example of this second type is the Young Women Leaders Program based here at UVA.
  3. The third type of program occurs in existing youth programs, like sports or arts organizations; these programs incorporate intentional elements of mentoring into existing youth programs, and usually include specific training of the adult leaders in topics related to youth development and mentoring and time during the program for explicit mentoring activities.

As group mentoring grows in popularity it is important for researchers and practitioners alike to be attuned to both the potentials of this program format for supporting young people, and also the recommendations that have been identified by the field so far for best practices (see, for example, the recently published supplement to the Elements of Effective Practice for Group Mentoring). In terms of the potential of such programs to have a positive impact on young people, our review uncovered evidence that group mentoring programs can be effective in fostering at least short- term improvements in a broad range of youth outcomes, including those in the behavioral, academic, emotional, and attitudinal/motivational domains. Evidence of longer-term effects is still limited. It should also be noted that there is limited evidence on incorporated programs, as most research has focused on conventional or blended group mentoring programs.

In terms of who benefits the most from group mentoring, our review found some isolated evidence suggesting that group mentoring is particularly effective for youth exposed to higher risk, but group mentoring appears to be potentially effective for youth from a variety of backgrounds.

Program effectiveness may be influenced by the socioemotional and relationship skills and histories that mentors bring to the program, and group facilitation skills is an important additional skill for mentors in group programs. Two features of programs that appear to be important for program quality include limiting the size of the mentoring group, or the ratio of mentors to mentees, and incorporating practices that foster peer support among the mentors.

Group mentoring shares many features of more traditional mentoring programs, but what makes group programs unique is the presence of peers and, often, multiple mentors. This allows for multiple types of relationships between and among mentors and peers that can contribute to youth’s experiences in, and outcomes from, group mentoring. In addition, attributes of the group, such as cohesion and belonging, mutual help, and a sense of group identity, may also contribute to youth outcomes. Researchers and practitioners are often concerned with the potential for negative outcomes, or “negative contagion effects,” particularly when youth exposed to significant risk are grouped together. Our review found that the potential for negative contagion in group mentoring programs does exist, but the presence of strong group facilitators and training for mentors in group programs, as well as intentional planning of assignment of mentees to groups, helps guard against negative consequences. Overall, group mentoring appears to be a promising approach to extend the reach of mentoring to a larger number of youth (and maybe even at a lower cost) than one-on-one mentoring, and to open up new avenues for promoting important skills and social connections that young people need.

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