Editors Note: We are very fortunate to have the opportunity to learn more about the work of Dr. Edmond Bowers, Assistant Research Professor at Tufts University’s Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development. For the past few years, Ed has been developing and testing tools to increase the capacity of mentors in youth-serving organizations to assist young people in the growth of goal-management behaviors. Ed received both B.S. and M.Ed. degrees from the University of Notre Dame and a Ph.D. in Applied Developmental and Educational Psychology from Boston College. In this interview, Dr. Adar Ben-Eliyahu asked Ed a range of questions about his work in youth mentoring. Jean Rhodes
Adar: In your work, you focus on both youth development programs and non-parental adults. Do you view these as connected or separate supports for youth?
Ed: Definitely connected. First, non-parental adults can be found working at the positive youth development (PYD) programs in which youth participate. These are often the mentors, counselors, ministers, or coaches who engage young people in these contexts. Programs that provide training and ongoing support to the adult s in these programs would be expected to enhance the influence of the relationship. Second, even if young people are involved in a youth development program such as 4-H or scouting, they may identify a relative, teacher, or other non-parental adult from another context as a significant part of their lives.
Adar: Were you involved in youth development programs?
Ed: I did not participate in youth development programs per se, but I grew up with 7 siblings, and we were all very involved with sports as our primary out-of-school time activity. This engagement included youth-organized games in the neighborhood as well as adult-organized Catholic Youth Organization sports (basketball and soccer) and Little League. In high school and college, I rowed competitively and also took part in a number of other after school activities. I taught for several years and served as grade school girls’ basketball coach. I have also served as an activities coordinator at a residential treatment center for adjudicated young men. I just recently signed on to help a college preparation program in Lawrence, MA run through the University of Notre Dame. Go Irish!
Adar: Do you think that adults can support the development of self-regulation? Why? How?
Ed: Yes. A sense of personal future becomes important to youth as they begin to develop their identities during adolescence and set goals that are aligned with these developing identities. These choices must be made within a multitude of changes occurring both within and around youth during this period. Intentional self regulation describes how people select goals, plan actions that are appropriate to reach their goals, and regulate the execution of these actions within this dynamic system. To exhibit such long-term self regulation, the young person must control impulses and direct effort over longer periods of time, which may involve substantial planning.
Adults may affect the development of self regulation in two ways. First, adults provide a key context in which adolescent self regulation develops. In contrast to arousal-generating conflicted and nonsupportive relationships that undermine a young person’s ability to self-regulate, organized, structured, and predictable environments and emotionally positive relationships provide a context that allows for the development of self-regulatory competencies. Second, adults often serve as instructors or models of behavior in the lives of youth. Adults can provide the example, guidance, and safety net that young people need to practice self-regulatory skills such as selecting a goal, making a plan, persevering when things get touch. When plans do not always work out, adults can also serve as a source of support when youth fail and motivation for youth to try out other goals and plans. Adults can also provide youth with the contextual guidance to give them direction and a sense of purpose.
Adar: How might parents/guardians differ from non-parental adults in their mentoring role?
EB: As youth go through adolescence, they may pick up interests, activities, and hobbies that may be of little interest to parents or parents may be interested, but not know how to help. Non-parental adults provide the resources needed to promote PYD in these domains.
Our work has shown that the family-processes linked to self regulation and PYD among adolescents were parental school involvement (this effect decreased as youth grew older), warmth, and monitoring, and the number of family meals per week. Perhaps, these findings suggest that young people just need to know that their parents are there as that proverbial “safety net.”
When turning to important non-parental adults, emotional closeness was the most significant predictor of youth outcomes. Youth who reported sharing problems and issues of a private nature with an important non-parental adult reported more positive outcomes. This finding may suggest that the deeper bonds that come with time and a level of sensitivity on the part of the adult are important for positive youth outcomes.
However, our recent work has shown that higher PYD outcomes were most likely when youth reported having positive relationships with both their parents and an important non-parental adult. These findings suggest that youth need both for success.
Adar: Are there any implications of your findings for formal mentoring programs/training of mentors?
Ed: Mentoring programs might promote self-regulation skills by placing youth with a mentor who has attained a goal in the youth’s area of interest. The key is not only the match, but also the care and time needed for the pair to develop an emotionally close bond. As the relationship develops and trust develops, the experience and model provided by the mentor may encourage adolescents to transfer these strategies to their own lives.
Mentors and mentoring programs who wish to encourage self regulation skills in young people should work to incorporate goal-directed activities into their interactions. For example, they could focus on the following:
- Goal Selection. Mentors can help youth identify positive goals and prioritize the ones most important to them. Mentors can discuss how youth might not be able to do everything they want, and help youth select manageable yet challenging goals.
- Goal Pursuit. Mentors can discuss the resources youth can use to help them reach their goals. For example, mentors can help youth identify, or even introduce youth to, people and organizations that might be able to help the youth. Our work has shown that the quantity of positive relationships youth have with adults promotes positive youth outcomes.
- Keeping on Track. Mentors can help youth develop contingency plans in case goals are blocked or the original plan does not work. Mentors can share times that they have struggled with meeting a goal they set for themselves.
Adar: Are there any important non-parental adults in your life?
Ed: My sister Kathleen has been an important influence in my life. She is my godmother and being from such a large family, she sort of took me on as her responsibility too. She has always been generous with her time, support, and advice. I always like to tell people she even filled out my Notre Dame application for me because I have terrible penmanship, and I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize my application. I was also fortunate to have a rowing coach and a few older guys take in an interest in me when I got to high school. That camaraderie and concern kept me motivated to stay in a sport that is very arduous and painful.
During my time as a novice teacher in Mobile, AL, my mentor teacher and principal provided me a lot of guidance and an open ear when things got overwhelming. Finally, several of my professors in my teaching program motivated and directed me to the world of academia.
I’ve also been very lucky to have extremely supportive academic mentors in my life (Jackie and Rich Lerner, Marina Vasilyeva). However, I think as you get older, these important non-parental adults become more like colleagues and friends. They still serve similar functions as important non-parental adults do in the lives of young people. They serve as advocates on my behalf, guides and models for my research, and connections that promote my professional success.