New study highlights the top 3 reasons for long waitlists in mentoring programs

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DeWitt, D. J., Lipman, E. L., Da Costa, J., Graham, K., Larose, S., Pepler, D., Coyle, J., DuBois, D., Manzano-Munguia, M, & Ferro, A. (2016). Predictors of early versus late match relationship beginnings in Big Brothers Big Sisters community programs. Children and Youth Services Review. doi: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2016.01.004

Summarized by Jessica Cunningham, UMB Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring

From the Abstract

Background: Evidence suggests that mentored youth enrolled in community-based mentoring programs experience greater health and social benefits compared to non-mentored youth, but it is often the case that these youth are put on waitlists for long periods of time before they are matched. There are a number of concerns associated with long wait times for a match; declines in mentees’ mental health, the risk that parents and mentees will lose hope and drop their relationship with the organization before a match is found, and the risk that older youth will age out of the program before they are matched.

The current study examines a variety of factors that may influence wait-time for matches by using a longitudinal sample of families enrolled in Canadian BBBS programs.

Nine hundred ninety seven (out of 1,281 recruited by BBBS staff) newly admitted families from 20 mid to large-sized agencies across Canada participated in the study. A subsample of 845 6-17 year old youth was included in the study; 683 (80.8%) of the youth had been paired with an adult mentor while 162 (19.1%) were still waiting for a match.

Families received an in-home baseline assessment prior to a match to a mentor that consisted of a 40 minute parent self-administered questionnaire and a two hour youth face-to-face interview conducted in a private room by a trained interviewer. In-home family follow-up assessments were conducted every 6 months for 30 months post-baseline. Variables for youth included age, gender, ethnic minority status, learning disability status, mental health and/or social service seeking status, whether they lived in a city or rural area, child-reported emotional support from parent(s), and parent-reported desire for their child to have a mentor.

At each follow-up, matched families answered additional questions on the match determination process, parent and agency support of the match, and characteristics of the match relationship.

Youth who had been matched within 6 months of baseline were considered to have experienced an “early” match, those who waited for 6 months or more were considered to have experienced a “late” match.

  • Age, ethnic minority status, learning disability, and seeking mental health or social services, were not significantly related to odds of being matched.
  • Emotionally supportive parent/child relationships and parent-expressed need for an adult role model in their child’ life were associated with an increase in the odds of experiencing either kind of match, as opposed to never being matched.
  • Compared to girls, boys had 70% lower odds of experiencing an early match.
  • Rural area youth experienced 68% lower odds of an early match in comparison to youth living in the city.

Conclusions and Implications:

The authors speculated “that many adult mentors are reluctant to become involved in the lives of at risk youth because they do not identify with their marginal status or feel unprepared in dealing effectively with their problems.” But, given that youth who met one or more of these criteria were no less likely than their counterparts to be matched, it seems that the BBBS sites in this study were adequately meeting the needs of these youth.  As the authors note,  “Youth perceptions of emotional support from parents/caregivers significantly increased the chance of early and late match beginnings. Although speculative, one explanation for this finding is that youth who have formed strong emotional bonds with parents have developed the social skills and confidence to initiate mentoring relationships with adult mentors.”

The finding that boys were less likely to be matched than girls, and that they waited nearly three times as long as girls to be matched is “alarming”, and reflects the shortage of adult male mentors occurring at many mentoring agencies. In order to meet program goals of matching youth with mentors in a timely manner, organizations may need to develop new ways of reducing the wait-time that male youths experience. They can potentially accomplish this by making more committed efforts to recruiting male mentors, or opening the door to cross-gender mentoring relationships.

Rural youth may be at a disadvantage in forming a new match relationship with an adult mentor possibly because rural communities offer volunteers fewer youth friendly venues for mentoring activities. In addition, distance may also be a factor, with urban mentors being less willing to make regular long-distance travel to rural youth. Similarly, organizations need to find better ways to serve these youth, by incentivizing travel to the city for mentors or mentees, and by taking advantage of the venues that do exist in rural areas.

This study highlights the importance of examining  demographic factors that may be contributing wait-lists, and emphasizes the need for mentoring organizations to strategize ways to boost these youths’ odds of being matched within the first six months of their initial assessment.