Mentors can be just as effective as professionals: Here’s how

By Jean Rhodes

Decades of research have shown that, with the right training and support, mentors and other paraprofessionals (defined by Durlak as “non-expert, minimally trained community volunteers, students, and helpers”) can deliver interventions just as effectively as professionals—if not more so—in ways that could help to bridge the substantial gaps in care and support.

Yet, there is a critical caveat: across all the studies comparing professionals to paraprofessionals, paraprofessionals were only effective when there was ongoing training and supervision. Previous studies have found that paraprofessionals are relatively ineffective in helping to redress the difficulties of mentees, whereas carefully supervised mentors achieved successful results that were equal to those of trained professionals. For example, in one meta-analysis, researchers evaluated the results of 150 studies of child and adolescent psychotherapy and found larger overall treatment effects for paraprofessionals (Weisz et al., 1995).  The most common paraprofessionals were parents or teachers who had been trained in targeted, behavioral intervention approaches. Remarkably, paraprofessionals were more effective than either student therapists or fully trained professionals, who did not differ from each other in their level of effectiveness. But the researchers added an important caveat to this finding:

“We must emphasize, however, that the beneficial effects produced by paraprofessionals and students in these studies followed training and supervision provided by professionals who had, in most cases, designed the procedures.” (Weisz et al., 1995).

In our recent  meta-analysis of peer mentoring we found that the effects jumped from .03 to .41 when there was sufficient supervision and training:

Burton et al. (2021) note that:

Consistent with some previous findings (e.g., Durlak, 1979; Herrera et al., 2008), programs with moderate to high levels of adult oversight and supervision had larger effects compared to programs with low levels of adult oversight and supervision. Elements of strong adult oversight and supervision included: mandatory training for mentors; supervision to support intervention delivery; videotaping select mentor‐mentee interactions to monitor intervention quality and provide additional support as needed; and program staff and parent participation in program activities. In contrast, programs with low adult oversight and supervision provided less than two hours of training, with a significant portion of youth mentors reporting receiving no training at all (Herrera et al., 2008).

Adult oversight and supervision may improve treatment fidelity, a construct that has repeatedly been linked to better treatment outcomes. Adult supervision provides opportunities for verifying that mentoring interventions are carried out as intended, while also ensuring appropriate mentor‐mentee interactions and preventing obstacles to program success (e.g., mentors not understanding their role or carrying out their role ineffectively). This oversight may be particularly important for youth mentors, given their developmental stage, maturity level, and the potential for negative peer influence. Additional scaffolding for younger mentors may facilitate clearer expectations of their roles and responsibilities, as well as ensuring adherence to program interventions.

Taken together, these studies suggest that engaging well-trained and supervised volunteers in delivering or supporting evidence-based care could provide the most effective (and cost-effective) way to promote the well-being of today’s youth.

Interested in learning more, see our all-in-one post high school mentoring platform, MentorPRO!