The loudest signal in the noise: Acknowledging a remarkably consistent finding in youth mentoring

Jean Rhodes

In case you missed it, a very impressive, very comprehensive report on the effects of mentoring program enhancements was released recently (Jarjoura, Tanyu, Janet Forbush, Herrera, &  Keller, 2018). With funding from OJJDP, the team collected multiple waves of data from 30 programs (N = 2176) across 13 states which were sampled to be representative of the broader field of mentoring. Although the effects of the enhancements were modest, there was one particular finding that fit squarely with a remarkable number of evaluations. In particular, researchers found that  youth derived more benefits when they were paired mentors who had experience in helping roles or professions (e.g., teacher, counselor, social worker, therapist). As they noted: “A number of these outcomes involved skills such as conflict management, help seeking, and problem solving…This same pattern of results, showing the moderator effects of a mentor background as a helping professional, was found for several outcomes: positive affect, emotional symptoms, help seeking, problem solving, and conduct problems.” They also noted: “volunteers with helping backgrounds appear particularly well-suited to translate the enhancements into the target mentor behaviors such that there is a higher likelihood for the desired outcomes for the mentees.”

Similar findings have emerged across multiple meta-analyses and evaluations. Collectively, these studies encompass literally hundreds of programs and thousands of youth and mentors.

Here’s a sampling of these effects reported in meta-analyses, dating back more than 15 years:

DuBois et al. (2002). “Utilization of mentors with a background in a helping role or profession (e.g., teacher), however, was a significant moderator of effect size …Evaluations of programs that used these types of mentors reported larger effect sizes (d = .26) than those for which utilization of such mentors was not indicated (d = .09).”  

DuBois et al. (2011) “Stronger effects were found when there was “a relatively strong fit between mentor educational/occupational backgrounds and program goals.”

Van Dam et al. (2018) “The percentage of mentors with a helping profession background significantly moderated the relation between the presence of a natural mentor and youth outcomes… (e.g., teacher, guidance counselor, minister/priest/rabbi, religious leader, doctor/ therapist), which may reflect the particular salience of caring teachers or guidance counselors in educational and community settings.”

Raposa et al. (2018) “Consistent with previous studies, programs with a greater percentage of mentors who worked in helping professions showed larger effect sizes for youth outcomes.

Fortunately, many volunteer mentors actually have helping backgrounds. Jarjoura et al. (2018) noted that a third of the volunteers in their evaluation report “having a job or role for 10 or more hours a week in a “helping profession,” in which they helped others directly (e.g., tutoring, nursing, counseling, teaching, coaching).” Such findings should not be taken to suggest that only those with specialized experience or helping backgrounds can be effective mentoring.  Indeed, programs that provide volunteers with in-depth training have produced laudable effects (e.g., McQuillan et al., 2017). But the findings highlight the benefits of recruiting volunteers from helping pools and the importance of adequate training to increase mentors’ exposure to typical problems and confidence in their ability to work effectively with youth.

There are also implications for matching. More seasoned volunteers may be better able to cope with the challenges posed by at-risk youth, such as exposure to high levels of stress at home and/or show elevated rates of problem behavior. Based on their experiences, such adults may hold a more nuanced understanding of youth who are coping with difficulties and feel a stronger sense of efficacy, a variable that has been consistently associated with better match outcomes (DuBois & Neville, 1997; Karcher, Nakkula, & Harris, 2005). For example, one recent study found that volunteer mentors with greater self-efficacy and more previous involvement with youth in their communities were more successful in working with youth from high-stress backgrounds, as compared to mentors with less efficacy and less previous work (Raposa, Rhodes, & Herrera, 2016).

In summary, this finding–that mentors with helping backgrounds are more effective–is one of the clearest signals to emerge in our field. Let’s listen to it–and actively recruit such volunteers while taking helping backgrounds into account when making matches.