Profiles in Mentoring: A conversation with Levi van Dam

Written by Jelle de Graaf

Levi van Dam is a child psychologist and developer of Youth initiated Mentoring (YIM) in the Netherlands. During his previous work in youth care, Levi has experience directly working with young people in residential homes that experienced multiple challenges like addiction and psychological disorders. Today Levi is working towards his PhD and has been able to look further into the effects of YIM in family settings. He aims to bring YIM to scale, starting nationally in the Netherlands. 


Could you give us an introduction about yourself and your work?

I am Levi van Dam, a child psychologist from the Netherlands. I’ve started my work in youth care and family psychiatry. In 2012 I started working on a new approach to prevent out of home placement. This approach consists out of an interdisciplinary team collaborating with an informal mentor to prevent out of home placement. Also known as the YIM-approach: Youth Initiated Mentoring (YIM) (Schwartz et al, 2014).

Can you tell us more about the Youth Initiated Mentoring (YIM) approach?

The YIM approach focuses on reducing psychological and behavioral problems of youth and family and is meant to increase their resilience. The overall goal is to create sustainable informal pedagogical alliances with enough collective intelligence to cope with new stressful situations and work on productive solutions that respect the family members’ autonomy.

The YIM-approach has implications for the total process of professional care, including diagnostics and treatment. Creating sustainable decision-making partnerships between family and the social network becomes an integral and continuous part of treatment (Walker et al., 2015). The professional uses knowledge and techniques from position theory to realize a positioning of the youth initiated mentor that is viable for all participants (Harre et al., 2009), and from systemic theory to create lasting and healthy informal partnerships (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2007). The professional stimulates the family members’ social resourcefulness, that is, family members’ covert and overt behavior to request and maintain support from others (Rapp et al., 2010). Enhancing social resourcefulness is meant to optimize capacity of the involved adolescents to cope with stressful life events.

Due to differences in quality, intensity and nature of the relationship between the informal mentor and juvenile, professionals need to be flexible and responsive to each unique relationship. The kind of support the YIM offers depends on the capacities, needs and interests of both the mentor and the juvenile, the individual and family problems and type of support the juvenile needs, and the fit between the two persons. In general, the type of support consists of five basic elements: social emotional support (e.g., providing a listening ear), practical support (e.g., support with writing an application letter), guidance and advice (e.g., regarding work or education), role modelling (including normative guidance) and social capital (providing access to a supportive social network) (Spencer et al., 2016).

What questions needed to be answered to gain knowledge about the effectiveness of ‘JIM’?

First, we needed to know more about the process: what is the experience of the family, the informal mentor and professionals in this new collaboration? How do they reach a continues shared decision, making process and what is the right positioning of the informal mentor?

Second, we need to know if the collaboration – also called treatment – results in decrease of social emotional and/or behavioral problems and in the increase of resilience. Does this new collaboration between professional experts and informal experts, results in better collaboration between family and their social network? Because in the end, professional involvement is temporary and family and social network is sustainable.

Third, are the results sustainable? During the period of September 2013 until August 2014 we worked with 78 families, in 90% we offered them solely ambulant treatment instead of the requested/indicated residential treatment. In 80% this was in collaboration with a YIM. Now we are reaching out to those families to hear if the results lasted, very exciting!

What does the process for a mentor, mentee and social worker looks like?

The Youth Initiated Mentoring (YIM) approach in social work

The YIM approach is a systemic treatment approach in which access, mobilization and consultation of informal mentors is a central aspect (Van Dam & Verhulst, 2016). From the start of treatment, the professionals search for collaboration with an informal mentor by stimulating youth to nominate a person they trust from their environment. The YIM approach is characterized by 4 phases. (1) After the nomination, the YIM is informed about the YIM-position and is installed as ‘the YIM’. Agreements are made about privacy, termination and type of support. (2) By means of shared decision making, youth, parents, YIM, and professionals analyze the individual and family problems and describe productive solutions that respects the family members’ autonomy. (3) A plan is made in which the learning goals and efforts to reach those goals are described and acted upon, this plan serves as a monitoring tool. (4) When the alliance between parent(s), youth and YIM is stable, the professional’s involvement ends. A good working alliance between all involved parties is crucial in all four phases of the YIM approach.

Where do you find balance in confidentiality?

During the first phase you make agreements about the confidentiality with the parent(s), juvenile(s), the YIM and professionals. Each situation is unique and it is the task of the professionals to address this matter and facilitate all involved parties to make clear appointments.

What factors, in a mentee-mentor relationship, lead to a positive outcome according to ‘JIM’? 

It is crucial that it is youth initiated, hereby the youth implicitly says: ‘I trust this person and he has influence on me’. It is important that parents mandate this choice. If parents do not agree with the choice of their child for having a mentor, there will be a new problematic situation. This problematic situation can be meaningful in itself, therefore it is ‘important’, not ‘necessary’. And very important: the YIM must be willing to collaborate with professionals. During this collaboration, professionals can learn from the informal expertise from YIM and they can offer him or her guidance and support.

What new questions need to be answered to contribute to further development of ‘JIM’?

Almost every research paper indicates: 80% of youth experienced or are able to nominate a YIM from their own network. In practice we see the other 20% does have a social network, but sometimes youth have ‘good reasons’ not to involve those people form their existing network. For example: they’ve been disappointed by family or relatives or they are afraid this YIM is more competent compared to their parents which results in new conflicts. I think it is important to learn more about those ‘good reasons’ and think about alternatives or solutions.

I’m also interested in the positioning process: an uncle suddenly becomes a YIM, but the other family members do not get this special position. What does this mean for them? And what new rights and duties will come with this new position?

In the Netherlands the YIM-approach aims to offer an alternative for the former residential care.

Where do you see YIM in the future?

Some cultures appoint a godmother of godfather to their newborn, not because the child has any troubles, but because we all can have some extra support. I hope YIM becomes ‘normal’ and in 2020 juveniles tell each other at parties about their YIM as a normal part of their everyday life.