Research identifies key program features to support success for youth with disabilities

quotes-729173_1280Lindsay, S., Hartman, L. R., & Fellin, M. (2016). A systematic review of mentorship programs to facilitate transition to post-secondary education and employment for youth and young adults with disabilities. Disability & Rehabilitation, 38(14), 1329-1340.
Summarized by Jessica Cunningham
Background: Youth with disabilities encounter barriers when attempting to gain access to higher education and the labor market. Youth with disabilities are less likely to go to college and less likely to be employed, if their disability does not prevent them from working, than able-bodied youth their age. By attending college, youth with disabilities improve their odds of becoming employed. Mentoring interventions have emerged as a way to support youths’ likelihood of overcoming these barriers. However, mentoring youth with disabilities is a small but growing field, so the authors of this study chose to create a meta-analysis of existing studies in order to come up with a set of best practices for mentoring youth with disabilities, along with identifying areas that need further research.

Method: The researchers looked for articles that met the following criteria; studies had to report on an intentional mentoring intervention that targets youth/young adults aged 14-30, reported a sample wherein at least 50% had some type of disability, and the studies had to statistically measure an outcome of the intervention, such as school or employment related. In addition, studies had to be published in an English peer-review journal from 1980-2014. Initially the researchers had a pool of 5,068 articles but narrowed it down to 22 for this meta-analysis. The researchers also included studies evaluating the qualitative experiences of youth with disabilities.

Results: Several different types of mentorship interventions were found, including school-based interventions, community-based interventions, work-based, family employment awareness training, online, multi-component (e.g. one-to-one and group mentoring), and other mentorship interventions.

Interventions varied greatly in delivery format, length, overall duration, and number of sessions. Sessions ranged in number from one to 130 over a period of two days or up to two years. Seven of the reported interventions were delivered by a person with a disability, two by peers without a disability, two by a researcher and parent leaders, and six by several people. Six interventions were group based, seven were one-on-one, and four were a combination of both. Nine interventions were standardized, eight were individualized, and two had both standardized and custom components. Seven interventions involved parents/family, and one included teachers.

In terms of qualitative results, mentees spoke about improvements in their self-confidence, self-esteem, social skills, and communication skills. Social and emotional support from mentors was seen as helpful by youth, and mentors served as role models as well as guides to navigating the road to employment or higher education.

Facilitators for implementing mentoring programs included; regular contact between mentor and mentees (either online or face-to-face), having a structured program with trained mentors as well as paid support staff, and giving youth internship or co-op experiences helped them to gain skills they needed in order to pursue employment or higher education. Barriers to implementation included: limited time with mentors, lack of accommodations/accessibility, lack of available, trained mentors, lack of transitional support, and issues with matching.

Most of the articles in this meta-analysis used non-standardized measures. Nevertheless, seven articles reported significant improvements in self-determination, empowerment, self-confidence, self-advocacy, or self-efficacy in peer mentoring settings. The studies also reported significant improvements in decision-making, self-regulation, social skills, problem-solving, and perceived independence. Four articles showed significant improvements in knowledge of and planning for the transition to employment and college, goal-setting, and preparedness.

Conclusions & Discussion: Although the studies in this meta-analysis varied widely in what outcomes they measured and how they measured them, seven articles reported at least one significant outcome of interest, and these findings are in line with what has been found in mentoring literature on typically developing youth. However, studies on typically developing youth often talk about safety, feasibility, efficacy, and acceptability to participants, but in this review, few studies mentioned these factors. The authors note that future studies should take care to examine these areas more closely.

The authors found that “mentorship programs that showed significant outcomes were longer in duration (more than six months)…were structured and often entailed a planned curriculum and paid program coordinator who trained the mentors and provided continued oversight of the program.” These findings are also consistent with other research on mentoring interventions for typically developing youth. Longer duration may allow stronger bonds to form between mentors and their mentees. Few studies mentioned parental involvement, and the authors suggest that future interventions incorporate this component in order to achieve the best outcomes for youth.

Given that “youth with disabilities are an often overlooked and vulnerable population with unique social, educational, and vocational needs,” the authors urge the importance of continuing research on mentoring interventions as a means of helping these youth to pursue higher education and employment.