The impact of natural mentors on developing youth in foster care

Greeson, J. K. P., Weiler, L. M., Thompson, A. E., Taussig, H. N. (2016). A First Look At Natural Mentoring Among Preadolescent Foster Children. Journal of Communit Psychology. DOI: 10.1002/jcop.21788

Summarized by Karina DeAndrade and Harry Bayly

Notes of Interest:

  • This study focused on the effects of natural mentors and their impact on preadolescent foster children.
  • The authors analyzed cross-sectional data from 263 foster children and their caregivers.
  • Findings indicate that having a natural mentor is associated with better attachment to friends and stronger peer relationships.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

This study describes natural mentoring among preadolescent children placed in out-of-home care and examines the association between natural mentoring and demographic, maltreatment, placement, and psychosocial characteristics. Cross-sectional data from a sample of 263 children and their out-of-home caregivers were analyzed. Caregivers rated children’s social skills, and children reported on their perceived opportunities and attachment to peers and adults, including natural mentors. About half the sample endorsed having natural mentors, with school personnel being the most common type of mentor. Children with natural mentors were older more likely to be living in congregate care, and had stronger attachment to friends. Marginally significant findings suggested that children with natural mentors had been in out-of-home care for fewer months, and children who were sexually abused were less likely to have natural mentors with whom they had current contact. Future research is needed that examines the longitudinal course of natural mentoring among this population.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The current study provides a first look at natural mentor relationships among preadolescent foster children. Despite a dearth of literature on the prevalence of natural mentorship among foster youth during preadolescence, the findings appear to reflect trends observed in foster care populations during late adolescence and emerging adulthood. For instance, consistent with studies of older youth and former foster youth (Ahrens et al., 2008; Greeson et al., 2010; Munson & McMillen, 2008), this study found that about half of the participants (54%) endorsed having a natural mentor, and of those children, about 75% reported current contact with him or her. Children also rated their relationships with their mentors quite highly. The categories of natural mentors most frequently reported in the current study included school personnel, extended family, and social service professionals; this is also consistent with past literature.

Consistent with several past positive youth development studies of natural mentoring in preadolescents, the current study found that the presence of a natural mentor was associated with better attachment to friends. For example, Bierman and Furman (1984) found that coaching relationships improved social competencies in fifth- and sixth-grade students. Similarly, Franco and Levitt (1998) found that fifth-grade students who reported having relationships with nonparental adult family members were better able to navigate peer conflicts and more likely to have supportive, close friendships. Studies of formal or programmatic mentoring, like Big Brothers/Big Sisters, have found that foster youth who had a formal mentor showed improvements in their peer prosocial support over time, while all foster youth in a nonmentored control group showed decrements in peer support over time (Rhodes, Haight, & Briggs, 1999). Mentors, whether natural or formal, may provide youth in out-of-home care with a model of relationships involving trust, support, and care that generalizes to their peer relationships. Alternatively, it may be that youth who have better peer relationships are more likely to find and engage natural mentors.

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