Profiles in Mentoring: Dr. Bernadine Brady on her path to—and the power of—mentoring

This week, we’re pleased to bring you a short exchange we were fortunate to have with Dr. Bernadine Brady, author of the new book “Mentoring for Young People in Care and Leaving Care: Theory, Policy and Practice”. Dr. Brady is a Lecturer at the School of Political Science & Sociology, NUI, Galway and a Senior Researcher with the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre. Dr. Brady is a mixed methods researcher with a focus on social ecology and young people’s wellbeing, exploring how community, school, family and service provision influence outcomes for young people. She was kind enough to answer some of our questions about her career, work, and recent findings. You can read our exchange below.  

Chronicle (C): What drew you to mentoring research personally, and how has learning more about mentoring changed your behavior either in terms of mentoring people or in terms of your understanding of the world and social systems? What has been most rewarding to you in conducting research and learning about mentoring?

Dr. Bernadine Brady (BB): I came to mentoring research almost 15 years ago when I started a job as a researcher with the UNESCO Child & Family Research Centre at NUI, Galway in Ireland which was just starting at that time.  One of my first projects was an evaluation of the BBBS program in Ireland, with Professor Pat Dolan, which had just started by the national youth organization Foróige in 2001. We don’t have a history or tradition of formal mentoring in Ireland and initially I was quite skeptical about the idea of mentoring but that study really opened by eyes to its benefits.  I came to see how a one to one relationship with an unrelated adult could really ‘shake things up’ for the young person, helping them to grow in confidence and deal with difficulties and challenges in their lives. I was impressed that the program could tap into a pool of incredible mentors and really bring out the best in the great young people taking part. It also made me aware of the important role that caseworkers play –  I came to see that they really understood the young person and that the intervention was about a lot more than the one to one relationship – they connected the young person in with a lot of resources that would benefit them. 

For me, the most rewarding thing about conducting research on mentoring is getting access to people’s stories, how they allow you into their lives, share their concerns and challenges and hearing them talk about the difference mentoring has made.  That is a real privilege. It has made me more aware of how individual relationships can impact on people, the need to take a strengths perspective, to offer encouragement, to be positive, to be there for people. I have learned a lot from Foróige staff, such as Sean Campbell and Mary Lynch, who have an incredible respect for young people and an openness to learning and innovation.  I have really valued working with them on a range of studies over the past 15 years. 

In terms of social systems, our most recent study on mentoring for children in care: I did in-depth, one to one, qualitative interviews with 13 young people who were or currently are in the care system (foster or residential care) but who had a formal mentor.  It really opened my eyes to the complexity of the lives of young people who are involved in the care system. They have so many professionals in their lives and are dealing with past traumas. These young people really valued having an authentic relationship with a mentor to help them to process their experiences.  It helped them to cope better. For example, their frustrations might have shown through disruptive behavior or conflictual relationships at school or at home but when they felt understood and listened to, those behaviors started to fall away. We theorized their experiences in terms of theory of coping – mentoring helped the young people to move from non-productive to productive coping strategies.  It also built their resources (such as pastimes, new social connections, better relationships) to support better coping in the longer term. 

C:  What’s the most important difference between formal mentoring and natural mentoring? What are their respective benefits? Do we see findings in the research where one relationship might be more effective/appropriate to address a problem?

BB: I guess the most important differences are that natural mentoring is more organic, requires less of a potentially awkward lead in time for the relationship to develop and is more sustainable.  I think that where there is a natural mentor, its great but formal mentoring can be valuable where young people don’t have natural mentors in their lives. Youth initiated mentoring is an interesting ‘in-between’ approach whereby youth are supported to identify natural mentors in their lives. 

To date, most of our research has been on formal mentoring but that is about to change. Foróige are planning to pilot YIM in Ireland over the coming year and we are planning a formative evaluation so it will be exciting to see how that unfolds.  I also have a Phd student, Barbara Mircovic who is doing a study of natural mentors in the lives of Irish and Croatian youth. Most of the research on natural mentoring has been done in the USA to it will be interesting to have a European perspective on it. 

C: What can you tell me about the Youth Advocate Program? What is the main problem that this program is trying to address and how is it trying to do that? 

BB: YAP is a strengths based, needs led program that provides an advocate to a young person for a six month period.  The advocate works intensively with the young person and his or her family. It is similar to mentoring in that a compatible match is made and there is a strong focus on relationship building but it is different in that the advocates are paid, the intervention is for 6 months, and it is much more intensive.  It is aimed at young people who are at risk of going into care. We have seen in our research that young people and families really value the one to one focus, the strengths based approach, and the wraparound support. 

The profile of the advocate emerged as really important.  As with mentoring, young people and families value that they are like them or ‘normal’ and not ‘professional’.  This helps them to open up and build trust. Once again, it underlines the importance of power and relational dynamics in helping relationships. 

C:  What methodologies do you prefer to use for mentoring research, and are there any that are underutilized that you’d like to see used more?

BB: I have used both quantitative and qualitative and think both are very important.  I have a personal leaning towards qualitative because I think that the stories people tell give very powerful insights into people’s experiences and perceptions.  I think there is scope for more innovation in qualitative methodologies – for example using grounded theory or more bottom up theorizing. 

I also would like to see more quantitative measures used that focus on coping and resilience.  These concepts have become apparent to me through qualitative research and I think it would be useful to investigate them on a broader level through quantitative approaches.

Another concept we are interested in, is the ‘Presence approach’, developed by Andries Baart in The Netherlands.  This is a perspective from pastoral care and nursing that gets at the importance of presence, a non directive, non-judgemental approach with people who are vulnerable.  While the focus is not to problem solving, problem solving may occur. Myself and Pat Dolan have written a chapter for a new book by Oscar Prieto Flores and Jordi Feu exploring the applicability of this approach to youth mentoring. I think it’s an area could be explored and theorized more in the future. 

C: What’s a misconception about mentoring that you’d like to clear up?

BB: A common misconception about mentoring and its one that I would have had myself at the beginning is that it’s an individualized way of working, about a one to one relationship.  From my research, I have really observed the fact that it can have a considerable impact on social and community integration for young people. Many young people are lacking confidence, and are shy, bored, lonely or socially isolated.  Mentoring can work in a gentle way to help them to come into the world a little more, to find things they enjoy and to develop social connections. In a way, it’s like a stepping stone or a bridge. 

When I came across Relational cultural theory, it really resonated with me.  Good mentoring relationships are growth promoting, helping young people to have a better zest for life, to be more energetic and to be better able to form relationships.

Dr. Brady’s book is out now. You can click here to buy it.