Questions for Dr. Rebecca L. Stelter: A randomized controlled trial of enhanced mentoring program practices for children of incarcerated caregivers

Interviewed By Saniya Soni

1. Several meta-analyses have found that targeted mentoring programs have better outcomes. Your recent paper looked at a targeted mentoring approach for COIP and found that it was indeed more effective for COIP. Why do you think programs are hesitant to become more targeted when the research clearly points to better outcomes?

The approach we evaluated in our recent study asked mentoring programs to purposefully integrate a positive youth development approach into many of their existing program practices for children who have experienced parental incarceration. This intervention included things like asking parents and mentees about the child’s strengths and assets during the screening process, and discussing those topics with mentors, mentees, and parents during the first match meeting. Integrating these targeted practices into the standard operating procedures of the participating programs took a considerable amount of work by frontline program staff, as well as training and ongoing technical assistance from an external TTA partner, Youth Collaboratory. Designing and implementing a more targeted approach to mentoring requires significant resources and expertise that many mentoring programs do not have access to and I think that is a major barrier for mentoring programs.

There is also a lack of specificity in the research regarding what tailored mentoring practices are most important for youth from a particular population. The practices evaluated in our study applied the positive youth development framework for children who have experienced parental incarceration and the enhanced practices did have some short-term benefits for this group of youth. However, we do not know if these practices would have similar benefits for other populations or if there are other specific practices that would have been more beneficial than others.

2. The PYD framework you and your colleagues evaluated seems to emphasize empowering their mentors, both in educating them about the impacts of incarceration on children and making them feel equipped to support their COIP mentees, but also in learning how their own assets can serve as a connector for their mentees. Why do you think this works?

Individuals often volunteer to mentor because they want to make a difference in the life of a child, but their role can be somewhat limited due to the brief amounts of time they spend with their mentee, and constraints on what they can and cannot do during their time together. I think that the PYD approach that was integrated into mentoring for children impacted by parental incarceration gives mentors more direction in terms of what kinds of conversations to have with their mentee and what types of activities they might do together, both of which were to be informed by the mentee’s individual interests and strengths. Mentors also received a lot of support from their mentoring program staff through the strengths-based supervision enhancement to enable them to think about and enact these ideas. I think that when staff are well-supported by their supervisors, have professional development opportunities, and are guided by a coherent conceptual approach to mentoring, it further helps mentors to feel like they are getting the guidance and support they need to be effective.

3. How important is it to involve parents of mentees in the mentoring process? How do ACEs, and in this case parental incarceration, impact that importance?

Parents are a key partner in helping the mentoring program and mentor learn about the mentee, and facilitating the mentoring relationship. In our project, the parent or guardian enrolling the child in the program was asked about the mentee’s strengths and interests at the beginning of the mentoring relationship, which provided valuable information to the program staff and mentor that could help guide their interactions and support of the mentee. Parents were also contacted on a regular basis to discuss the mentoring relationship, providing additional insights for the program and mentors about how things were going and what more they could be doing together.

Youth who have experienced negative life events such as parental incarceration are at higher risk for negative life outcomes and, depending upon the circumstances, may have fewer supportive adults in their life or more tenuous relationships with the adults in their life. Involving the parent or guardian, who has primary responsibility for the mentee, in the mentoring relationship can help strengthen the mentee’s relationship with their parents and gives the parent a clear role, which is to help provide information, support, and feedback to the mentoring program and mentor.

4. The increase in positive self-cognition and decrease in internalizing behavior found in the Enhanced mentoring group descend on a trend of returning close to baseline after the 12-month assessment. How can we increase the length of impact and carry-over effects when match length is a significant obstacle?

The implementation of the enhanced mentoring program practices evaluated in our study ended after the match reached the 12-month mark. For participating matches, that meant that they did not have any specific activities they were required to engage in, such as community or civic events; they also did not continue to receive enhanced match support. To sustain the impact of the enhanced mentoring program practices, it is important for mentoring programs to maintain the level of support that the match has come to expect from the program.

5. Why might there be a significant difference between match length of the BAU & Enhanced mentorship relationships?

The match length was not different for business as usual and enhanced mentoring group at the 12-month mark, but at 24-months more enhanced matches had ended compared to the business-as-usual matches. We speculated that this was due to the change in match support practices that the enhancement group likely experienced as implementation of the more intense match support enhancement ended after 12 months. The enhancement matches may have also been a bit overwhelmed by the additional things they were asked to do as participants in this research project, which may have contributed to earlier closure rates.

6. Do you think that this study supports employing PYD approaches for mentees with other ACEs? What are other considerations to take into account when supporting mentees with ACEs (besides parental/custodial incarceration)?

The findings from this study do support the value of integrating the PYD framework into the day-to-day practices of mentoring programs serving children who have experienced significant negative life events, such as parental incarceration, and I think these practices could benefit mentees who have experienced other negative life events, especially those that can carry some stigma. Mentoring program staff and mentors supporting mentees who have experienced adverse events must be careful to not reinforce the stigma that goes along with many of the adverse experiences of childhood such as parental incarceration, parental substance misuse, or divorce. Fostering a culture and practices within a mentoring program that are child-centered, and emphasize the strengths and assets of the child should benefit all mentees, but perhaps especially those who have experienced shame and stigma, and need an adult who is focused primarily on their strengths, rather than their risk factors. One thing we learned early on in our research is that some children might not be aware of their status as a child of an incarcerated parent and it is possible that mentees who have experienced other types of adverse events in childhood are not aware of those experiences. Mentoring programs must be able to handle this situation and determine if, and when, they disclose this information to the mentor. Based on the findings from our research project, we would advocate for the integration of the PYD framework into all aspects of the mentoring experience, from recruitment of mentees and mentors through the closure of the mentoring relationship. Mentoring program staff and mentors need reinforcement of this way of thinking about the mentees served by the program to avoid falling back into the deficit view of youth.