Teaching youth to fish: New meta-analysis highlights the value of “youth-initiated” mentoring

By Jean Rhodes

Like so many other valuable resources, well-connected natural mentors, such as caring teachers, coaches, and guidance counselors, are unequally distributed—and those neighborhoods and schools that are already rich in natural mentors are only getting richer. The social fabric is stretched particularly thin in low-income urban communities, where young people are far less likely to report having high-quality ties and mentorships—and the support that they do get tends to be less focused on careers and future dreams (see Hagler & Rhodes, 2018) As Raposa et al. (2018) concluded, the article,  How Economic Disadvantage Affects the Availability and Nature of Mentoring Relationships During the Transition to Adulthood concluded that adolescents from lower income families and/or neighborhoods have less access to natural mentors during this critical period in development. As we conclude, “The natural mentoring relationships they do form tend to be close and supportive bonds with adults in their family or family friend networks, rather than ties with caring adults outside the family, such as teachers or employers. Moreover, their relationships are more likely to focus on practical support around issues such as finances and less likely to be sources of role modeling and career advice.”

Natural mentors may seem like great equalizers, but their distribution naturally bends toward perpetuating, rather than redressing, inequality.

Fortunately, a growing number of innovative youth-initiated mentoring (YIM) programs, a strategy that involves helping youth to identify, recruit, and maintain connections with caring adults.The National Guard Youth Challenge Program (NGYCP), an intensive quasi-military program for adolescents who have dropped out of high school, has successfully deployed the youth-initiated mentoring approach for decades. An evaluation of NGYCP suggested the potential of YIM for improving academic and career outcomes and reducing arrests (Schwartz et al., 2013; Spencer et al., 2016). Compared with traditional formal mentoring programs, the YIM approach resulted in longer lasting relationships, and a three-year follow-up showed that enduring YIM relationships were associated with less erosion of program effects (Schwartz et al., 2013). Importantly, relationships were more enduring when youth (rather than parents or program staff) played a more active role in selecting their own mentors. Since then, this model has been adapted to fit other contexts as well, for example as an indicated prevention approach to support youth with complex needs who are at risk for suicide (King et al., 2019) or out-of-home placements (van Dam et al., 2017) and as a suicide prevention strategy (King et al., 2019). YIM has also been deployed as a universal prevention strategy in educational settings to support first generation college students (Schwartz et al., 2017; Parnes et al., 2020). In Connected Scholars, an extension of this approach  high school and college students are provided with the strategies and skills to cultivate a network of supportive adults, rather than a single mentoring relationship. Compared to incoming college students who were provided only with information, incoming students who were assigned to a four-session intervention in which they learned how to recruit faculty and staff support had stronger ties with faculty members, higher grade-point averages, and less help avoidance at the end of their freshman year. (Schwartz et al., 2018) Other networking approaches help students choose a nonparental adult to attend skill-building workshops with them or help to connect youth who are aging out of (or at risk of entering) the foster care system.Most recently, researchers have shown that suicidal youth who learned to recruit caring adults had lower levels of mortality nearly fifteen years later than their counterparts who did not.

Overall, research suggests that YIM holds considerable promise as a low-cost, ecologically-valid approach to serving youth, particularly more marginalized youth who have less access to the types of mentors (e.g., teachers, employers, and program staff) who can connect them to opportunities (Raposa et al., 2018).

In a recent meta-analysis, my colleagues and I  examined the effectiveness of the YIM approach (van Dam et al., 2020).  The analysis was based on 14 studies with 11 independent samples (N = 3,496). We found an “overall significant small-to-medium effect size (g = 0.30) for YIM, which may be a slight underestimation of the true effect size (g = 0.40).” As the authors note, “The relatively larger effects of the YIM approach relative to meta-analyses of formal mentoring (g = 0.21; Raposa et al., 2019) and natural mentoring (g = 0.22; van Dam et al., 2019) may stem from the fact that most YIM programs have been designed to target specific problems (e.g., violence prevention in a high-violence area, prevention of suicide, and out-of-home placement). This targeted approach contrasts with most formal mentoring programs, including programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters, which tend to take a non-specific, friendship approach as they seek to serve youth with widely varying needs. Recent meta-analyses have shown that programs that target specific youth outcomes based on the population served are far more effective than non-specific programs (g = 0.25 versus g = 0.11; Christensen et al., 2020). Moreover, several of the interventions included in this meta-analysis incorporated professional mental health treatment with the YIM approach, a focus that may have resulted in stronger treatment motivation, more positive adult-youth alliances, and improved goal orientation (van Dam & Schwartz, 2020).”

Overall, this meta-analysis is an important first step towards building an evidence base for YIM. As we conclude, “The findings provide support for the efficacy of YIM, particularly as a relatively low-cost preventive intervention with the potential to redress the limitations of formal mentoring programs. Supporting youth in recruiting their own mentors will enable programs to reach larger groups of youth and may help to reduce the progression of difficulties and consequent need for more intensive treatments or system involvement.”