Letting youth take the lead: Finding the mentoring “sweet spot”

By: Dr. Edmond Bowers, National Mentoring Resource Center

The field of mentoring has frequently debated the essential ingredient of relationships to promote positive outcomes in mentees. On one hand, some argue that developmental support, mentoring behaviors that build closeness in the match and promote a mentee’s self-concept and emotional development, is key. On the other hand, some see the defining feature of mentoring as instrumental support, mentoring behaviors aimed at helping a mentee reach his or her goals. Recent research by Lyons, McQuillin, and Henderson on school-based mentoring programs indicated that both types of behaviors are essential to maximizing the benefits of mentoring relationships.1 They found correlational evidence that mentee-reported relationship quality and mentor-reported use of goal-setting activities and provision of feedback jointly impacted youth academic, behavioral, and social-emotional outcomes. The authors suggested that a balance of instrumental and developmental activities might be a “sweet-spot” for matches to find.

Programs may then wonder how best to ensure that both types of support are provided in mentoring relationships — that is, how can they hit that “sweet-spot?” Helping youth and mentors to set and work on personalized goals for the mentee is one promising approach since it offers a way of both ensuring mentors are responsive to youths’ interests while at the same working toward tangible goals. Yet, because youth are likely to set quite varied goals across diverse domains, staff and mentors may find it difficult to assess youth progress toward achieving these goals in a systematic way. In addition, many youth may join a program for reasons that do not align with the program’s specified purpose. How then can program leadership and staff identify ways to promote the health and well-being of each mentee? 

As the field pushes for efforts that are data-driven and evidence-informed, how can a program show broad effects to stakeholders while also focusing on the unique needs, strengths, and goals of each individual youth? Recent work by the Research Board of the National Mentoring Resource Center (NMRC) may be helpful in addressing these concerns.

This past year, the Research Board took on the task of selecting the most appropriate measure of youth-centered outcomes for the recently released update of the NMRC’s Measurement Guidance Toolkit. Measures of youth-centered outcomes provide programs with a way to track youth progress toward their individualized goals using a standardized questionnaire format. Youth-centered measures have the potential to capture change better than standardized measures often used in practice. Therefore, through the use of youth-centered outcomes, programs may be able to detect and document meaningful benefits for youth that are not revealed through traditional measures focused on specific outcomes.

In the Toolkit, we included the Goal-Based Outcomes toolOn this tool, youth identify up to three goals for themselves. After youth goals are set and recorded, progress toward each goal can be rated independently by youth or with the assistance of program staff, mentors, and/or parents. This measure is psychometrically sound, has demonstrated ability to detect change in youth, and is applicable across diverse populations and settings. The Goal-Based Outcomes tool can be used with diverse frameworks and approaches that revolve around goal-setting and achievement.

Adapting the recommendations of the tool developers to the mentoring context, one can see how the use of the Goal-Based Outcomes tool can help programs to hit the “sweet-spot” of mentoring relationships. First, it is recommend that goals be established collaboratively between the mentor and mentee as goal-setting promotes shared decision making. Second, programs and mentors should develop a system and structure in which goals are discussed and reviewed within matches. The process of jointly reviewing and tracking goals has been linked to youth health and well-being and satisfaction with the relationship.2 This process also motivates youth, empowers them to take ownership of their progress, and can improve communication between the mentor and youth and parents.3 Third, based on the goal progress ratings, constructive feedback should be provided to mentees to maintain positive progress toward goals, suggest additional activities or resources, and/or consider revision of goals.

Although programs should consider the intentional integration of youth-centered outcomes into their evaluation plans, we provide some caution on use of this tool. Research on youth-centered outcomes has occurred primarily in clinical settings (e.g., youth mental health care), whereas their use within mentoring programs is sparse. It is important to advise mentors and staff that ratings on youth-centered outcomes are subjective, and it should be kept in mind that youth or mentors may be motivated to report positive progress towards goals. To reduce the likelihood of biased reports, mentors should be trained on the appropriate ways to set, monitor, and provide feedback on youth goals. Mentors should also be helped with tempering unrealistic expectations of youth goal attainment and adhering to the program’s feedback system for discussing and reviewing goals. Finally, youth-centered outcomes should also be included within a diverse set of outcome measures with data collected from multiple sources.

The use of youth-centered measures has not yet been well-documented in the mentoring literature; however, these tools hold promise for enhancing beneficial processes in the mentoring relationship to help programs hit the “sweet spot” of relationships more consistently and detect change in meaningful outcomes among youth.  

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