Teen mentors: The story from Canada

tim_cavell2by Tim Cavell, Ph.D.

Last month I had the good fortune of speaking at Canada’s National Mentoring Symposium in beautiful Banff, Alberta. The event was partly a celebration of BBBS-Canada’s 100th anniversary.

My talk was about a couple of small studies that involved teen mentors in Canada. The studies were open trials, meaning there was no comparison group that was not mentored. We only had data on pre- and post outcomes from the Bigs and the Littles participating in the programs.

In a blog I wrote in February, I discussed some of the issues and questions that currently surround the use of teen mentors. I noted concerns raised after the 2007 BBBSA School-Based Mentoring (SBM) study conducted by Carla Herrera and colleagues. In that study, nearly half of the Bigs were HS students and outcomes for their Littles were far less positive than outcomes for Littles matched with adult Bigs.

What I presented in Banff were findings that examined whether outcomes in teen mentoring programs were related to program structure or program practices. By “outcomes”, I mean outcomes for both Littles and Bigs. That’s important because the presumption is that Teen Mentoring can offer a double benefit for both the teens and their mentees.

I should first note that a recent survey of BBBS agencies in Canada found that over 60% offer a teen mentoring program. The most commonly used program involves one-on-one matches that meet during the school year only. Funding for most of these programs is designed to support SBM generally and not teen mentoring specifically. Our goal in these studies was to identify program structures or program practices that were linked to positive outcomes post-mentoring.

For example, one program was highly structured and yielded encouraging findings but the high level of structure was also a limiting factor. Teen mentors in this program had elected to do a semester of co-op training in one or two elementary schools. This restricted the number of HS Bigs who could participate but each Big could mentor up to eight different Littles (2/day, 4 days/week)! These Bigs were carefully selected, extensively trained (2 weeks), and met with the program coordinator every week. Significant positive changes were found for the teens in the domains of time management and self-esteem. However, we also found a significant decline in teens’ certainty about their career choice, which is not surprising if some began to question the fit of a career involving young children. For Littles, this very structured program was associated with positive changes in teacher ratings of self-esteem and school belonging. We also found that conflict in the relationship (as rated by mentors) was inversely related to Littles’ teacher-rated pro-social behavior (less conflict à more pro-social behavior) but positively related to teacher-rated emotional and behavioral problems.

Other teen mentoring programs we examined were not nearly so structured or intense, resembling the more typical SBM program in which Bigs meet with only one Little each week. But there was still variability across the programs. Key differences had to do with the manner by which Littles were referred as well as the process by which HS Bigs entered the program. In some elementary schools, entire classes of students were referred to the teen mentoring programs; in other schools, teachers referred students based on perceived needs of the student. In some high schools, teens mentored because they were enrolled in a class that had a mandatory service component; in other schools, teens could voluntarily choose to mentor. We found some interesting outcomes that were linked to these program differences.

For HS Bigs, there were no differences between voluntary and mandatory mentors in self-esteem or academic engagement but voluntary mentors reported significantly greater gains in community-minded intentions and diversity experiences. At mid-mentoring, mandatory mentors rated academic goals as more important than did voluntary mentors (which was likely a reflection of the program design itself), whereas voluntary mentors rated the goal of promoting a positive relationship with their mentee as more important than did mandatory mentors.

For Littles, there were gains in global self-worth for children referred individually and as part of a whole classroom. However, children referred by their class show significant declines in teacher-rated pro-social interactions and academic functioning but significant increases in teacher-rated emotional/behavioral problems. Children referred individually reported significant increases in their social competence but this wasn’t true for children referred by class. And once again we found that ratings of relationship conflict predicted key outcomes (child-rated social and academic competence).

Perhaps the most important findings were those that differentiated both type of Little and type of Big. We found teacher-rated gains in academics and pro-social behavior for Littles referred individually matched with voluntary Bigs. We found teacher-rated negative changes in emotional/behavior problems, pro-social interactions, school belonging, and self-esteem for Littles referred as a whole class and matched with voluntary Bigs. For Littles matched with mandatory Bigs, we found no changes in teacher-rated outcomes.

These findings are preliminary but suggest that positive outcomes for both teen mentors and their mentees require careful planning and structure. Simply pairing HS teens and young students for weekly meetings is no guarantee of positive outcomes and in some cases could be associated with negative outcomes. It also appears that the use of mandatory mentors could limit the gains and that referring an entire class of elementary students for teen mentoring should be avoided