Sneak preview: An excerpt from Older and Wiser!

By Jean Rhodes

Yesterday my new book, “Older and Wiser: New Ideas for Mentoring in the 21st Century,” hit the stands – the culmination of 30 years of research and several years of writing and reflection. Today, I’m thrilled to share with you the introduction. If you’d like to order copies for your staff, please contact Briana Ross at Harvard University Press who can arrange discounts of 40% or more on bulk orders. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this sneak preview.

Introduction: From“Older and Wiser: New Ideas for Mentoring in the 21st Century”

Shawn was just fourteen years old when he had his first police encounter. It was a rainy October afternoon, so he and his friends decided to take brief refuge under a bus shelter as they headed up Washington Avenue in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. Shawn’s gray hoodie was drawn around his cheeks tightly, a strategy he had recently adopted to hide his embarrassing acne flare-ups. Maybe it was the hoodie, maybe it was simply the sight of four black boys messing around in a bus shelter, but it was enough to prompt a patrolling officer to pull up in his squad car and subject the ninth-graders to harsh questioning. As the other boys obliged, answering “yes, sir” and “no, sir,” Shawn could feel a familiar wave of anger wash over him. When asked to remove his hood, he bolted, only to be apprehended a few blocks away. Shawn can still recall the sensation of his inflamed cheek pressed against the wet sidewalk.

For years, Shawn’s mom had implored him to “stop and think” before lashing out or defying authority figures. But a childhood of traumatic stressors, including the violent arrest of his father and a deadly shooting by gang members in his neighborhood, had put his young brain into near-perpetual fight-or-flight mode. Although his mom had devoted herself to raising Shawn and his younger brother to be safe and resilient, her difficult circumstances and unpredictable work hours had limited her capacity to engage in the sort of “concerted cultivation” of her children that characterized families in affluent suburban communities just a few miles north.[1] Instead, much of her parenting time was spent trying to resolve Shawn’s growing behavioral and academic problems.

Noting Shawn’s impulsivity, his high school counselor recommended an evaluation for possible attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But, wary of stigma and medical overreach, his mom opted instead for herbal remedies and a referral for a “positive role model” through a local youth mentoring program. Two months into his freshman year of high school, Shawn began having weekly outings with his mentor, David, a twenty-one-year-old premed student from Boston’s Northeastern University.

In many ways, David was the quintessential American volunteer mentor—white, young, educated, and well-intentioned. Most volunteer mentors in the United States are white (65 percent), while roughly the same proportion (60 percent) of mentees are nonwhite. Nearly 40 percent of the children in formal mentoring programs are black.[2] Additionally, David was volunteering in a typical program—one that tasks its volunteers with forging close, one-on-one relationships through conversations and activities.[3] In a recent study, researchers sampled nearly two thousand mentors from thirty programs, selected to represent a wide range of mentoring approaches across nationally representative geographic regions, program types, and youth served.[4] When asked how they spent time with their mentees, mentors’ most commonly reported activity was “making time to have fun,” followed by discussing important personal issues, going to cultural or other special events, and engaging in creative activities.[5] David explained that, over the course of their five-month relationship, his main goal had been to get to know Shawn and to “be there for him.” Over pizza, video games, and football tosses, the two had established a comfortable, if tenuous, bond. David was wary of pushing Shawn away, and lacking any specialized training in working with at-risk youth, he skirted tough topics, including Shawn’s recent police encounter.

Youth mentoring programs can vary widely, but most seek to create caring relationships between young people (or mentees) and more experienced nonparental adults (mentors). Shawn’s mentoring program was based on the assumption that establishing a close mentor-mentee connection through conversations and fun activities can promote a broad, nonspecific range of positive outcomes while preventing the progression of negative outcomes. This so-called friendship or nonspecific approach, in which the quality of the mentor-mentee relationship is assumed to be the active ingredient, has remained essentially unchanged since the early 1900s.[6] This nonspecific approach grew into Big Brothers Big Sisters, the largest donor- and volunteer-supported mentoring program in the world. Big Brothers Big Sisters now operates in all fifty US states as well as a dozen other countries, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Russia, and South Korea. Although Big Brothers Big Sisters and many similar programs can sometimes make a difference, there is growing evidence that more scientific approaches, which directly target the specific needs and circumstances of the youth they serve, are more effective.[7]

Anthony, a fifteen-year-old black high school student from a low-income Chicago neighborhood, was enrolled in a program that exemplifies this newer, more targeted approach. Like Shawn, Anthony was matched with a mentor during the fall of his freshman year. Like Shawn, Anthony lived with his low-income, single mother, was estranged from his father, and sometimes struggled to control his emotions. Anthony had also suffered the effects of exposure to far too many stressors, including what psychologists call “adverse childhood experiences.” In fact, his life read like a checklist of such experiences. His family faced severe economic hardship. He lived with his mom, who suffered from bouts of anxiety and depression, and an uncle, who had served time in jail. Anthony had also been a victim of violence in his own neighborhood. Black youth such as Anthony are more likely than other American youth to have adverse childhood experiences; 61 percent of American black youth face at least one.[8]

Anthony’s guidance counselor referred him to a youth mentoring program that specializes in boys showing early signs of emotional and behavioral difficulties that put them at risk for gang involvement and dropping out of school. Mentoring programs like Anthony’s typically rely on an initial assessment of a youth’s needs, strengths, and circumstances and then draw on cognitive-behavioral therapy and related techniques (such as cognitive restructuring, applied relaxation, self-compassion, and/or mindfulness) that target the circumstances and processes (such as maladaptive thoughts, behaviors, and feelings) that can progress into more serious outcomes.[9] Anthony was matched with Jason, a thirty-six-year-old mixed-race professional who was warm and patient, but also eager to get things done. Jason built a friendly rapport with Anthony but, unlike David, Jason viewed relationship building as a necessary stepping-stone for the primary task at hand: skills development. Anthony’s program consisted of weekly group sessions that met over the course of two school years and incorporated exercises designed to help mentees identify and label their emotions and learn to react differently to stressors. Over time, Anthony learned to de-escalate emotional arousal through deep breathing exercises and deliberation. Although Anthony initially found these skills to be hard to grasp, Jason helped by role-playing and working with Anthony to apply these skills to his everyday tense encounters.[10]

In the last two decades, formal programs like those serving Shawn and Anthony have multiplied and diversified. There are now over five thousand youth mentoring programs across the United States and a growing global mentoring movement, which together place millions of caring volunteers into one-on-one and group relationships, often with vulnerable youth, each year.[11] Mentoring enjoys strong, bipartisan support, making it one of the few concepts these days on which nearly everyone seems to agree.[12] Yet within the field, there is an ongoing debate over the merits of nonspecific, friendship models versus those that combine the relationship with targeted evidence-based strategies and techniques. There also remains considerable misunderstanding about the scope and effectiveness of youth mentoring programs.

In this book I describe how we’ve gotten to where we are by assessing the state of youth mentoring programs in the United States and beyond. Chapter 1 provides a broad overview of the political and social forces that have shaped how programs have been structured and construed. I then present more than twenty-five years of studies in Chapter 2, evaluating these programs and tracing the overarching patterns that characterize the field. Overall, youth mentoring programs are not nearly as effective as most people assume, particularly when compared to other interventions with youth. Findings from large-scale randomized control trials, meta-analyses, and recent cost-benefit studies present a disappointing bottom line, with relatively weak effects that have not budged in decades. In Chapter 3, I discuss the assumptions and unique history that brought the mentoring field to this point, and detail new developments that position the field for an explosion of innovation.

I then turn to specific strategies for making youth mentoring more effective. As I argue in Chapter 4, there are compelling data to suggest that well-trained paraprofessionals, including volunteer mentors, can be just as effective as highly trained professionals in targeting and addressing many of the mental health and other challenges facing youth. In Chapter 5, I describe specialized mentoring program models, which often deploy carefully trained and supervised mentors to target specific populations and/or outcomes. Many of these programs draw on both cognitive strategies (e.g., self-talk, distraction, and mindfulness) and behavioral strategies (e.g., problem solving, activation, self-monitoring, and relaxation). Specialized models take a targeted mentoring approach and contrast with nonspecific mentoring approaches that emphasize factors that are common to all approaches, such as the quality and intensity of the mentoring bond, mentor and youth motivations, and commitment. Although it is generally the case that specialized programs produce more impressive findings, large, nonspecific programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters struggle to target the widely varied needs of the youth they serve. Moreover, asking the typically uncompensated volunteer in such programs to shoulder the burden of delivering a potentially complicated targeted, evidence-based intervention is as precarious as it is unrealistic. Given these constraints, in Chapter 6, I make the case for two different approaches—embedded and blended models—in which larger programs train and supervise their mentors to support (but not deliver) evidence-based interventions in ways that help mentees remain engaged and master new skills. In embedded mentoring models, programs dispatch trained volunteers to work within broader systems of care (e.g., schools, child protection services, and juvenile courts), where they can reinforce classroom learning or help support and monitor mentees’ engagement in targeted programs through encouragement and practice. Blended models harness the growing number of rigorously developed technology-delivered interventions, particularly those available through mobile apps. Although youth often struggle to stick with technology-delivered interventions on their own, their engagement deepens when it is blended with reminders, coaching, and face-to-face support that a mentor can provide. Blended mentoring models, which Big Brothers Big Sisters of America has already begun to embrace, have the potential to revolutionize how targeted, evidence-based interventions are delivered in large, nonspecific programs. In addition to reducing the risks inherent in a service model that hinges on the regular, ongoing service of volunteers, the embedded and blended approaches reduce costly investments in training programs, enabling large nonspecific mentoring programs to focus on what they do best: recruiting, screening, training, and supervising a helpful volunteer workforce.

In the final chapters, I ask readers to consider formal mentoring within a broader continuum of care and support. Given their limited supply, volunteer mentors should be allocated to those youth whose needs and circumstances require relatively structured support. For all other youth, including those transitioning out of formal mentoring programs, I discuss the value of encouraging youth to recruit teachers, coaches, and other caring adults in their everyday lives (i.e., natural mentors). As described in Chapter 9, natural mentors are far more common (roughly 70 percent of young people can identify at least one) than formal mentors (fewer than 5 percent of young people are ever assigned one), and are linked to an impressive range of positive outcomes.[13] Unfortunately, although marginalized youth stand to gain substantially more than their more privileged peers from the support and advocacy of well-connected, caring adults, they are far less likely to find them.[14] As class-based segregation increases and the top 10 percent of families peel away and consolidate their wealth and connections, this divide in “social capital” (i.e., the set of connections that provides support, motivation, and opportunities) is only widening. Fortunately, a new wave of youth-initiated mentoring models has emerged in recent years that teach young people how to recruit and sustain thriving networks of caring adults who can serve as important bridges to school and work.

 Throughout this book, I hope to shed light on how adults can be most helpful to youth in a society marked by growing inequality. Each year, millions more children and adolescents, through no fault of their own, are born or thrust into poverty, where exposure to toxic levels of stress imperils their capacity to lead healthy and productive lives. If deployed wisely, both formal mentors and natural mentors represent a potentially important form of social capital that can help protect and promote the well-being of youth while galvanizing support for social and economic justice. But let’s start at the beginning, when a generous young man happened to glance out his window and see a boy in need.


[1] A. Lareau, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, 2nd ed., with an update a decade later (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

[2] E. B. Raposa, N. Dietz, and J. E. Rhodes, “Trends in Volunteer Mentoring in the United States: Analysis of a Decade of Census Survey Data,” American Journal of Community Psychology 59, no. 1–2 (2017): 1–12; J. B. Kupersmidt et al., “Predictors of Premature Match Closure in Youth Mentoring Relationships,” American Journal of Community Psychology 59, no. 1–2 (2017): 25–35.

[3] G. R. Jarjoura et al., Evaluation of the Mentoring Enhancement Demonstration Program: Technical Report (Washington, DC: American Institute for Research, 2018); Kupersmidt et al., “Predictors of Premature Match Closure.”

[4] Jarjoura et al., Evaluation of the Mentoring Enhancement Demonstration Program.

[5] Jarjoura et al., Evaluation of the Mentoring Enhancement Demonstration Program, 177.

[6] J. C. Norcross and M. J. Lambert, “The Therapy Relationship,” in Evidence-Based Practices in Mental Health: Debate and Dialogue on the Fundamental Questions American Psychological Association, 2006), 208–218; B. E. Wampold, H.-n. Ahn, and H. L. K. Coleman, “Medical Model as Metaphor: Old Habits Die Hard,” Journal of Counseling Psychology 48, no. 3 (2001): 268–273.

[7] T. A. Cavell and L. C. Elledge, “Mentoring and Prevention Science,” in Handbook of Youth Mentoring, ed. D. L. DuBois and M. J. Karcher (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2015), 29–42.

[8] V. Sacks and D. Murphy, “The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences, Nationally, by State, and by Race and Ethnicity,” Child Trends, 2018,

[9] Cavell and Elledge, “Mentoring and Prevention Science.”

[10] S. B. Heller et al., “Thinking, Fast and Slow? Some Field Experiments to Reduce Crime and Dropout in Chicago,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 132, no. 1 (2017): 1–54.

[11] J. M. Preston, Ò. Prieto-Flores, and J. E. Rhodes, “Mentoring in Context: A Comparative Study of Youth Mentoring Programs in the United States and Continental Europe,” Youth and Society 51, no. 7 (2019): 900–914.

[12] M. Garringer and C. Benning, The Power of Relationships: How and Why American Adults Step Up to Mentor the Nation’s Youth (Boston: MENTOR, 2018); M. Hagler, S. McQuillin, and J. Rhodes, “Ideological Profiles of U.S. Adults and Their Support for Youth Mentoring,” Journal of Community Psychology 48, no. 2 (March 2020): 209–224.

[13] L. Van Dam et al., “Does Natural Mentoring Matter? A Multilevel Meta-analysis on the Association between Natural Mentoring and Youth Outcomes,” American Journal of Community Psychology 62, no. 1–2 (2017): 203–220.

[14] M. A. Hagler and J. E. Rhodes, “The Long-Term Impact of Natural Mentoring Relationships: A Counterfactual Analysis,” American Journal of Community Psychology 62, no. 1–2 (2018): 175–188; M. A. Zimmerman, J. B. Bingenheimer, and D. E. Behrendt, “Natural Mentoring Relationships,” in Handbook of Youth Mentoring, 143–157; E. B. Raposa et al., “How Economic Disadvantage Affects the Availability and Nature of Mentoring Relationships during the Transition to Adulthood,” American Journal of Community Psychology 61, no. 1–2 (2018): 191–203.