Interviewed by Cyanea Poon
Dr. Aisha Griffith is an Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology at University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research focuses on the development and function of supportive relationships between adolescents and non-parental adults within informal and formal learning contexts. She is particularly interested in the critical role of trust within youth-adult relationships and how these relationships support positive adolescent development.
Chronicle (C): Can you tell our readers a little bit about your background and interests?
Aisha Griffith (AG): My research interests focus on the development and function of supportive relationships between adolescents and non-parental adults within informal and formal learning contexts. I am particularly interested in the critical role of trust within youth-adult relationships and how these relationships support positive adolescent development. My research focus began with an interest in out-of-school time programing, a context in which natural mentoring relationships can develop.
This interest in out-of-school time programming was sparked by my experiences as a middle-school teacher. I taught a self-contained sixth grade class during part of my career. Occasionally, I complemented the standard curriculum with creative activities. I saw my students’ compassion as we read Time for Kids about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for citizens in New Orleans. I saw my students collaborate with peers as they worked in teams on a geometry walk. I saw my students intensely prepare for a mock job interview. And I heard my students speak highly of a lock-in at the Boys and Girls Club. As a result of these experiences and more, I became interested in going to graduate school to focus on out-of-school time programs that provided engaging youth-centered experiences that promoted positive development. However, I did not know what that meant. I contacted numerous people at agencies focused on youth development that eventually led me to people who researched youth programs. I took relevant non-matriculated college courses (e.g., Adolescent Psychology, Nonprofit Budgeting) in which I could focus my final assignment on out-of-school time programs. I also worked as an Americorps VISTA to build the capacity of an organization to establish a mentoring program for children of prisoners. I often referred to resources at MENTOR.
I completed a graduate program in Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and then a postdoctoral research assistantship at University of Virgnia’s Youth-Nex Center and Department of Psychology. I am now an Assistant Professor in a department that has a Masters Program in Youth Development. This position has enabled me to regularly have conversations with current and future practitioners around the intersection between research and practice.
C: I see you have done extensive research on trust in youth-adult relationships, can you tell the Chronicle readers why it is important to know more about this element in youth development research?
AG: Trust is often mentioned by youth as important in how they engage with adults. Practitioners generally recognize an adolescent’s trusting relationship with an adult is important for learning. Trust has also been identified as critical to the power of mentoring relationships. If trust is so key, then it is helpful to have a nuanced understanding of what trust entails. If everyone agrees trust is important and that it is not automatic, then how does it happen? How does low trust turn into high trust? What does high trust mean to youth? What does high trust mean to adults?
I also focus on trust because I enjoy centering the power of relationships in out-of-school and in-school contexts. I appreciate the identification of core competencies in youth development, but I suspect that trusting relationships is a thread that makes embodying core competencies most effective (even if it is not included as a core competency itself). Understanding what trust entails within youth programs and mentoring programs can provide knowledge that can be helpful to formal educational contexts. A teacher may not be able to do the exact activities done in a program, but a teacher can engage in some of the same behaviors that help foster trust. Learning more about trusting relationships in out-of-school time can provide insights for in-school contexts.
C: What has been the biggest takeaway working with afterschool programs? What advice would you give to emerging scholars and students in regards to approaching this kind of work?
AG: Much of my advice comes from my work in graduate school on the Pathways Project, led by Reed Larson and Marcela Raffaeli. First, I would say building relationships is key. Meeting with program leaders ahead of time, presenting to the youth about the project to see if they are willing to participate, and informally hanging out at some of the program’s meetings can be helpful. Once data collection is under way, I would encourage one to find the joy in the work that they are doing even when one is facing challenges in regards to research. There is a reason why you are interested in this context– take a breather to find joy in the program’s work. Other things that would be helpful include:
- Have clear criteria for the programs chosen.
- Be intentional about the ID naming system, especially for qualitative work. We had a letter for each program, a number to represent what time point the interview was in, a number to represent a participant’s gender, a letter to represent the type of informant, and a unique number for the individual.
- Have clear procedures written down for data collection as well as data management.
- Provide a short report for each program that could be helpful to them. Focus only on data that you could quickly analyze and also would be of interest to them. Be clear this report is not an evaluation.
C: In your opinion, where should we go from here with mentoring research?
AG: In the field of natural mentoring, I would like to read more research about the process by which adolescents intentionally create a network of adults to go to for support. What are the strategies youth use to identify adults as someone they can go to for support? What are the different roles each adult plays? I would also be interested in reading research on how, if at all, natural mentoring relationships intersect with learning contexts. For example, if a youth program leader knows that a youth values their aunt’s opinions, do they ask about that aunt or encourage the youth to invite that aunt to an event? If a brother knows that he is looked to for support, how does he leverage this role to support youth in their school-work?
In the field of formal mentoring, I look forward to reading more on youth initiated mentoring. It is an exciting approach to formal mentoring that incorporates the agency of youth found in the formation of natural mentoring relationships. I would also be interested in reading qualitative research focused on mentoring programs that are shown to be most effective in meta-analyses. There is a lot of variability in the effectiveness of mentoring programs. Meta-analyses on mentoring programs can be a starting point to sample programs that can be explored in-depth. More research on the practices that staff engage in to support mentoring relationships in programs identified as most effective compared to those least effective would be valuable.