Three ways that mentoring programs will be forever changed by COVID-19

By Jean Rhodes

The end of the pandemic may be on the horizon, but its impact on mentoring program practices will be felt well into the future. Sadly, many relationships were disrupted just when youth needed them most. The loss of face-to-face contact was particularly painful as youth struggled with the isolation and anxiety.  A hidden “fourth wave” of the pandemic, an epidemic of child mental health problems and educational slides, is underway, the effects of which researchers are only beginning to document. Particularly given the shortage of counselors and other caring professionals in schools and communities, mentors will have a vitally important role to play in the years ahead. Done right–they could help to narrow the service gaps and provide targeted care that makes a difference.  Fortunately, some of the practices that emerged out of necessity may help to improve the practice of mentoring.  In addition to removing barriers to conversations, the embrace of technology has opened new opportunities that are enabling programs to provide more targeted, evidence-based care. So, here are my predictions:

Remote mentoring is here to stay!

Although many programs scrambled at first to provide effective remote mentoring, and it is no substitute for face-to-face connection, it can be an effective adjunct to the meetings, extending the mentoring processes throughout the week with targeted learning and mental health “homework” and services. Indeed even before the pandemic, mentoring programs were exploring ways to leverage effective interventions such as the video courses offered by Khan Academy, or the meditation programs on Headspace, a popular app, as a low-cost, scalable means of providing targeted care. When used consistently, these and other technology-delivered tools offer user-friendly resources that can boost achievement, learn English, and reduce depression anxiety, insomnia, and other struggles that get in the way of learning. Many draw on rigorous prevention and clinical science and offer interactive lessons, quizzes, videos, games, and virtual rewards. By making tutoring and therapy more accessible, these tools are helping to close service gaps and shifting tasks from a limited pool of highly-trained professionals to the many caring adults who are eager to help.

In newer, post-pandemic mentoring models, volunteers are trained to increase  students’ engagement with their online assignments and with effective apps and other tools by providing what behavioral scientists refer to as “supportive accountability”—that is, regular check-ins, monitoring, troubleshooting, and opportunities for practice. Supportive accountability is critical, because, as we have seen this year, the enormous and proven potential of technology to bridge gaps in educational and mental health services has been hampered by low engagement.  Once they start, as many students disengage from online learning and as many as three-quarters of students fail to complete the recommended number of app sessions. When blended with supportive accountability, however, online tools produce significant gains in mental health and learning. To address this need for accountability, Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy recently called on teachers to make cold calls to students and for parents to track usage data to ensure students stay on track. Mentors, perhaps more readily than overwhelmed teachers and parents, can provide this individualized supportive accountability. The millions of caring adults who generously volunteer withBig Brothers Big Sisters and other programs can play this role, holding students accountable and supporting them with tailored learning and mental health tools as they make their way through  this difficult school year.

Professionalized mentoring will help close mental health gap

In a sense, the pandemic has become a global experiment on the lasting effects of childhood social isolation and anxiety. And, in her exceptionally well-researched New York Magazine article, Lisa Miller, suggests that initial results are not looking good. She describes a host of  direct effects  (children are extremely worried and cut off from their peers) and indirect effects (the pandemic  is affecting the mental health of parents and caregivers) that are going to increase mental health problems. Programs will increasingly struggle to address the emotional needs of these “children of quarantine.”  As Farhad Manjoo wrote, “The picture is bleak. Even before the pandemic, the United States had too few mental health professionals to meet the nation’s needs. The shortage is most dire in rural areas and in urban communities that are home to marginalized groups. Demand for treatment has skyrocketed, but supply has not. “It takes eight months to explode demand,” Duckworth told me, but several years to make a social worker.”

The problem is that mental health workers typically earn graduate degrees and professional licenses that require several years of study and certification and their specialized services are in high demand. Many youth-serving mental health facilities are at capacity and have long waiting lists, and annual rates of staff turnover in the child- and adolescent-serving mental health workforce exceed 50 percent. These shortages, as well as both attitudinal issues (e.g., concerns about stigma, cultural insensitivity, and low treatment effectiveness) and structural issues (e.g., cost, transportation, time, and access) have created overwhelming barriers for many parents who are seeking professional care for their children. Yet, left untreated, many of the early social, emotional, behavioral, and academic struggles that emerge in childhood and adolescence, and have been exacerbated this past year, grow more complicated and difficult to resolve.

The idea of asking mentors and other lay helpers to support, extend, or even replace professional helpers is not new. A solid base of research points to both the positive outcomes and economic benefits of doing so. Moreover, as mentors take on more paraprofessional roles and partner with more advanced supervisors, programs will find ways to more explicitly recognize and credential volunteer service.  As any teacher or therapist knows, deriving educational or professional benefits from service does not diminish the sense of pride and joy that comes with feeling genuinely helpful to someone. To the extent that programs recognize the inherently transactional nature of volunteer mentoring, they can more directly reap the full benefits of a truly engaged volunteer workforce. This will require mentor and program staff access to more highly trained, professional supervisors.

Hybrid mentoring models will flourish

Even with additional recruitment and retention efforts, and more limited, defined, and effective mentor involvement, there will never be enough volunteer mentors to go around (only an estimated 4% of U.S. youth will ever be assigned a volunteer mentor). As such, the limited pool of volunteers must be reserved for those who need this more focused, dedicated assistance. Given what is likely to be an exploding demand for service, programs will increasingly need to think of formal mentoring as being on a continuum of care, falling somewhere between more intensive professional care and the informal support of a special teacher, aunt, or other natural mentor. As such, strategies that help youth to cultivate informal networks of support will be a staple of all mentoring programs—as an alternative to or transition from more intensive formal support. Fortunately, a new meta-analysis points to the effectiveness of “youth-initiated” mentoring approaches.  This will help to instill in youth the sense that they are entitled to the same mentoring opportunities as their more privileged peers, and that the skills for accessing and maintaining supportive networks can be learned and mastered. Indeed, it would be a mistake to be anything less than vigilant in supporting youth’s access to the full continuum of effective relationships with caring adults.