Embedded mentoring: An idea whose time has come

by Jean Rhodes

Imagine if students were told to pack up their bags and drop out of school whenever their teachers decided to move, retire, or take medical leave? As they emptied their desks, some might be disappointed and wonder what they and their classmates had done to drive their dear teacher away. Fortunately, most schools are robust systems that can absorb the loss of any given teacher.

Mentees are typically not so lucky. Because, in many cases, the mentoring relationship is the intervention, the day’s goals and plans are put on hold. And when a mentor drops the ball altogether, the youth’s involvement in the program comes to an end. Unless the program assigns a new volunteer, a practice of questionable value (Grossman et al., 2012), the mentee’s involvement in the program is curtailed. This happens all too often. Even in today’s climate, when many volunteers are tasked simply with showing up and befriending a youth, early terminations hover around 40%, with rates up to 70% for youth facing more risks (Kupersmidt et al., 2017). And many mentoring programs have very little leverage over their volunteers. If a mentor fails to show up for the appointed meeting or withdraws from the program altogether, the program is rarely in the position to withhold pay, course credit, etc.

One program, Boston Partners in Education (BPE), has effectively addressed this situation by partnering with schools and engaging volunteers in the mentees’ ongoing lessons and activities. For decades, BPE has been recruiting, screening,  training and then dispatching mentors to schools to work with struggling students. Rather than pull them from class to talk, play games, etc, mentors sit through class alongside their mentees where they follow the lesson and learn what their mentees are struggling to learn. Then, during group work, the mentor works with the student to break down and reinforce what was just taught. As Peter Darling, program director described, “I can’t teach mentors’ math in a two hour training, but I can teach them the skills to build strong relationships and then to work effectively with students who are struggling.”  This basic model has also been applied to youth receiving services for emotional, behavioral and learning challenges. It can also work for more seasoned volunteers who can be dispatched to clinical settings to support evidence-based intervention (e.g., trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy).

In this model, mentoring programs do what they do best (e.g., recruit, screen, and train in relationships-building skills) but are relieved of the burden of having to develop evidence-based programs to address the often widely diverse needs of the mentees. Likewise, mentors are relieved of having to come up with activities to fill the time, or of shouldering the entire burden of the intervention. If mentors miss a day or two, or drop out altogether, the class or intervention continue. But when they do show up, they can observe and tweak performance, diagnose sticking points, offer encouragement, and provide a range of assistance.

One BPE mentor, Marc, described how he was able to help 4th grader, Shawn, who was slipping behind in reading. As they worked individually, Marc noticed that Shawn actually understood 80% of what was being taught. “But that 20% he didn’t understand was taking him off the rails, and he was acting out instead of paying attention. ”  This same model could work for social emotional learning or other interventions. Role playing of new skills and related “behavioral rehearsal” strategies with the mentor providing support in a cycle of practice, feedback, and eventual  mastery (Durlak,1997). Mentoring programs that partner in this way have the satisfaction of making referrals to schools, settings, and specialized programs that are finely tuned and well-aligned with mentees’ needs.

Helping youth learn, practice, and apply new skills may seem like a relatively narrow role for mentors, but the impact of this role is powerful.  Skills-training programs that include a supervised practice component have been found to be dramatically more effective overall (Hedge’s g= .45) compared to skill training programs without supervised practice (.11) or to other non-skill programs (i.e., information only) programs (.13; Conley et al., 2015).  The gains achieved by supervised skill-training interventions are not only significantly higher across every outcome, but that difference in gains occurs at between two and six times the magnitude. Importantly, supervised practice is particularly helpful to students of color, whereas other approach have struggled to produce positive effects in underrepresented student populations. It may be the case that the practice component, which enables students to role play and consider applications to contexts that are more like their own is particularly effective

Supervised practice also has strong theoretical support. Personalizing skills and information to everyday contexts is one of the most important ways that they are internalized because it affects motivation, engagement, mastery, and retention (Elliott et al., 2015). Taylor et al. (2005) found that the capacity to transfer newly learned skills to new contexts was greatest when practice included scenarios that youth themselves had generated. This makes sense, as it is always useful to try something you are learning in the contexts in which you intend to use it. We rarely improve new skills in ways that translate into behavioral change, be it art, math, athletics, meditation, writing, or anything else, simply through instruction. Learning also requires hands-on forms of engaging with the material and receiving feedback on performance.

That is why Boston Partner’s in Education effective and this is why, I predict, more mentors will be dispatched to schools and other youth services where they will make an important difference in young lives.