“There’s an App for that!”: How technology-delivered interventions could revolutionize mentoring

by Jean Rhodes

In an influential chapter, mentoring researchers Timothy Cavell and Chris Elledge (2014) argued that the field of youth mentoring needs to move from the common “relationship as intervention” model (i.e., the friendship model where the primary goal is form a close bond) to a “relationship as a context for intervention” model. In this latter model, mentors and mentees work together on targeted activities and experiences in the context of a helping relationship  As proof of concept, they discuss a school-based mentoring program for highly aggressive children. Building on principles of behavioral psychology, mentors, or “lunch buddies,” helped children decrease their hurtful or deviant behavior and deflect harmful statements directed towards them (Elledge, Cavell, Ogle, & Newgent, 2010). Evidence for the logic of this approach is growing. Mentoring researcher Sam McQuillin and colleagues, for example, have developed, evaluated, and refined a brief but highly effective program in which they adapted several existing evidence-based (EB) programs into a curriculum that is completed in one semester, the Academic Mentoring Program for Education and Development (AMPED) ( (McQuillin, Strait, Smith, & Ingram, 2015)

The most successful “relationship as context” programs often share several features in common. They are developed and tested by researchers in collaboration with practitioners, and implemented under controlled conditions to ensure that their various components are implemented with fidelity. The mentors often have some level of accountability (i.e., course credit, clinical hours, compensation) that provide supervisors with leverage and ensure an adequate level of mentor engagement and retention.  This is all very promising for youth in the program, but what happens when the stars don’t align and youth don’t have access to a specialized program to meet their needs and goals?  Likewise, large, less specialized programs can’t possibly be expected to implement a wide range of EB programs.

One solution is for mentors to support mentees’ use of effective technology delivered interventions (TDI’s), which are becoming increasingly available online and through smartphone apps. In the context of a good working relationship, mentors could work through the app-based training together, with the mentor helping to encourage and motivate engagement and then providing customized feedback, nudges and other forms of support that help youth master new skills (Barak et al. 2008). Although supporting mentees’ in this way may seem trivial, it can promote better adherence, prevent youth from quitting, and improve outcomes. How an intervention is implemented matters and when someone is there to help monitor, practice and provide what researchers call “supportive accountability,” the effects improve (Gottfredson et al. 2015). Psychologist Colleen Conley and her colleagues (2016) conducted a meta-analysis on TDI’s for preventive services in college students. First, consistent with a recurrent theme in the Chronicle, skill-training TDI’s showed a stronger pattern of effects than approaches that did not focus on skills. But, importantly, they also found that those whose use was supported showed more gains than those who self-administered their TDI’s.  As the authors note, “support from paraprofessionals or even peers might enhance participant goal setting, expectations, accountability, and motivation, and thus improve intervention engagement, adherence, and outcomes  Conley, 2016, p. 17).  Mentors thus have a vitally important role to play in providing this sort of supportive accountability.  Mentors also can help mentees sustain what they have learned long after completing the training, preventing an erosion of gains and allowing for continued progress.

Helpful resources are already at our fingertips. For example, psychologist Bethany Teachman (2018) and colleagues have developed the EB MindTrails, a free framework for helping those suffering from anxiety to break out of negative thought patterns and to practice thinking in more flexible ways. Each session takes just about 10-20 minutes, leaving time for the mentor and youth to role-play, personalize, and practice the skills on their own. This could be particularly helpful given the high rates of stress and anxiety in our nation’s teens as noted in a new study by Pew Research CenterOnline mentor training is available through Mentoring Central (Kupersmidt et al., 2018).

Likewise, our smart phones have given us easy access to a growing number of EB health, academic, and mental health skills-based programming for youth. Psycberguide provides a useful reference to many health- and mental health-related apps (sometimes called mHealth apps), some of which have shown promising outcomes (Mewton, Smith, Rossouw & Andrews, 2014). In their review article, “There’s an App for that!” psychologist Michael Van Ameringen and his colleagues (2016) highlighted the potential benefits of using apps. Their recommendations (and warnings) have clear implications for use in large with mentoring programs. For instance, Apps can equip less experienced program staff with assessment tools that enable them to better pinpoint youth needs, providing parents, youth, and mentors with a stronger rationale for setting goals. And, if youth and their parents are willing to share the information, mentors can even sign onto apps to track effort and recognize  improvements.  Apps might also reduce the number and duration of face-to-face meetings, helping to reach rural youth or those with physical disabilities. It an also reduce waitlists in overburdened programs. Apps may hold particular appeal for underserved and marginalized groups who often rely on their smartphones more heavily than their more privileged counterparts (Smith, 2015) and often have fewer resources to cover transportation, et. (Newman, Szkodny, Llera, & Przeworski, 2011). At the same time, Van Ameringen et al. (2016) noted that the universe of apps is in constant flux and can be difficult to navigate. There are also security and privacy concerns, and not everyone has access to the internet or smartphones. Finally, they warn that most apps have not been empirically tested. Eventually it will be helpful to develop a central rating system, through  the Cochrane Review for health care and/or review by the National Mentoring Resource Center or the Society for Research on Child Development.

Teachman, a leading proponent of EB skills-training, sees the possibility that TDI’s, while not the only tool in our toolkits, could dramatically redress unmet needs. “Using technology to deliver evidence-based services can be one key part of the solution (Teachman, 2014). The ubiquity of access to the internet and mobile phones (Anderson, 2015), combined with the reduction in barriers that follow from using this delivery method, including reduced cost, no need to access a human provider, and ability to access care on your own schedule from the privacy of your own home, raise the prospect that technology can revolutionize how we disseminate evidence-based care.”

And mentors have an important role to play in providing youth with the “supportive accountability” that could help make that happen. Thoughts?