The Weiler Research Lab is directed by Lindsey M. Weiler, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota. The lab develop, test, and optimize preventive interventions for youth and families. The goal of this research is to identify effective strategies for fostering healthy development among marginalized and vulnerable populations. Most of our work focuses on leveraging adult-youth mentoring relationships and the alliance between caregivers and other caring adults to promote positive outcomes.
SK Your research has focused on vulnerable youth including those in foster care and those at risk for entering the juvenile justice system/first-time offenders. What are some important factors within the experiences of these youth that can inform mentoring practices and enhance the quality of mentoring relationships?
LD: In my work, I have found that most youth are open to, and even looking for, positive relationships with caring adults. Although each youth’s experiences are different, I think it is important to be aware that many youth within these populations have been exposed to a number of adverse experiences, such as relationship injuries, abuse, neglect, chronic instability, exposure to domestic and community violence, and parental criminality and substance abuse. These adversities place children at risk for poor outcomes, such as insecure attachment, mental illness, delinquency, and substance use. I think it is important, therefore, that mentors are trained and supported in trauma-informed care, so that quality relationships can be built. Equally important is a thoughtful ending to the relationship. Providing an opportunity for a meaningful, healthy goodbye is essential for youth in foster care and those involved in delinquency.
SK: Your most recent study, Understanding the Experience of Mentor Families in Therapeutic Youth Mentoring (Weiler, Zimmerman, Haddock & Krafchick, 2014), focuses on a model of mentoring in which mentors and their mentees are embedded within families or groups comprised of other mentoring pairs. Can you describe the model and the program?
LW: Mentor Families include four mentor-mentee matches of similarly aged youth and their mentors who engage in weekly activities together. The Mentor Family is embedded in a larger mentoring community supervised by family therapists which includes six to eight other families. The model is theorized to promote prosocial peer and adult connections that will result in positive outcomes beyond the benefits of the primary mentoring relationship. The model was developed within the Campus Corps program, a time-limited, after-school mentoring program for 10-18 year old youth at risk of offending or re-offending. Serving approximately 260-300 youth per year, Campus Corps brings together youth and service-learning college students on campus for 48 hours of mentoring over 12 weeks. Each match and Mentor Family participates in one 4-hour evening per week in which they 1) take a walk on the university campus to get exercise, build relationships, and explore possibilities of higher education; 2) engage in one hour of individualized academic activities designed to help youth increase academic self-efficacy, improve grades and attendance, and build healthy attitudes toward education; 3) eat a family-style dinner; and 4) participate in pro-social activities designed to provide healthy alternatives to substance use and delinquency while promoting positive peer and adult relationships. The goals of Campus Corps are to promote the resilience and life success of at-risk youth through strengthening social bonds, increasing academic engagement and performance, decreasing substance use and delinquency, and improving sense of self. It also aims to prepare university students to become highly skilled, civically-engaged human service professionals and community leaders. For more information on the Campus Corps program, please see: http://www.hdfs.chhs.colostate.edu/students/undergraduate/campuscorps/.
SK: In the study described above, you and your colleagues found that both mentors and mentees reported that mentor families provided them with a “place”, particularly a safe, emotional space in which they felt a sense of belongingness, and within which their relationship could develop and endure. What do you think are the key factors that facilitated this sense of connection among mentoring pairs within mentor families? What are some of the ways in which the structure of mentor families is conducive to relationship quality and endurance?
LW: In addition to quality mentoring practices, the model is based on positive youth development and social settings theories. Within these frameworks, we hypothesize that youth feel safe and connected as a result of (a) engaging in multiple supportive relationships (peer and adult), (b) feeling a sense of belonging and mattering within the setting (i.e., people notice and like it when I’m here; I have decision-making power), (c) having opportunities to build self-efficacy through skill-building activities, (d) building a sense of autonomy and identify away from delinquency, and (e) having a close relationship with a primary mentor within the small group. We are in the early stages of understanding how Mentor Families promote relationship quality, but one way it appears to benefit the relationship is by way of the mentor. Mentor Families provide a structure that allows mentors to easily access real-time support from one another in connecting with mentees while overcoming common barriers (e.g., feeling overwhelmed by mentee experiences or behavior). Through this support, mentors may have a greater sense of efficacy and skill to facilitate companionship, authenticity, mutuality, and empathic expression with their mentees.
SK: Related to the previous question, can you discuss the role of therapists or therapists in training as supervisors and support staff within each mentor family? How is this role different from that of support staff within traditional mentoring programs?
LW: I would say in a lot of ways they are very similar to support staff within traditional programs. The therapists provide supervision with the goal of promoting safety within an impactful mentoring relationship. For example, they might conduct a suicide assessment or brainstorm study skills to help a youth succeed academically. Within this model, however, therapists are providing this support in-the-moment and often with the youth present. Additionally, because the therapist is present, he or she can directly observe the mentoring relationship and offer an invaluable third perspective. Within the Mentor Family model, group processes are critically important. Therapists provide a sort of meta-supervision of these processes by constantly being attuned to them while promoting processes that enhance the experience of participants (e.g., sharing feelings, maintaining healthy boundaries, avoiding deviancy training).
SK: Can you discuss the implications of your findings within existing program practices?
LW: The findings speak to the possibility of alternative models of mentoring for youth at risk of offending or re-offending. We know from the literature that positive peer and adult relationships are important for desistance from crime. If we can provide both types of relationships in one setting, then it appears to be a win-win situation. On the other hand, this model may not be beneficial for all youth. Indeed, our findings highlight that for a small portion of youth, the Mentor Family experience distracted from the development of the primary mentoring relationship. As with all models of mentoring, we should be evaluating for whom they are most effective and equally as important, for whom they are not effective. Then the challenge will be to streamline efforts to enroll youth in their best-fitting program.
SK: Are there plans for a follow-up study that builds upon these findings? If so, what are key question(s) that this study will address?
LW: Yes, although we hypothesize that this model is key to the success of Campus Corps, it remains unknown. We hope to conduct a study in which the Mentor Family model can be experimentally manipulated, such that we randomly assign participants to Campus Corps with the Mentor Family model and to Campus Corps without the Mentor Family model.
SK: Do you have a mentor family tree in terms of mentors who have been influential in your own academic and career trajectory?
LW: Of course – but it is probably too big to give it justice here. I completed my doctoral degree in Applied Developmental Science at Colorado State University and had the fortune of being mentored by Toni Zimmerman, Shelley Haddock, Jen Krafchick, Kim Henry, and Lise Youngblade. Since graduate school, I have been working as a postdoctoral fellow with Heather Taussig at the Kempe Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect and the University of Colorado. With thanks to these mentors and many more, I will be starting as an Assistant Professor of Family Social Science/Couple and Family Therapy at the University of Minnesota this fall. In this position, I hope to contribute to the growing science of youth mentoring with the continued support of my mentors and with new collaborations to come.