Triumphs and Trials in Formal Youth Mentoring: Unpacking Findings From AJCP Research

Reference: Hagler, M. A., Jones, K. V., Anderson, A. J., McQuillin, S. D., Weiler, L. M., & Sánchez, B. (2023). Striving for safety, impact, and equity: A critical consideration of AJCP publications on formal youth mentoring programs. American Journal of Community Psychology.

Summarized By: Ariel Ervin

About the Study

Over the past thirty years, the landscape of American mentoring programs has blossomed due to philanthropic and governmental investments. This surge in funding corresponds with the growth of evaluations and research that transformed mentoring from a niche research interest into a dynamic, interdisciplinary area of study. Community psychologists, in particular, are well-represented. This virtual special issue (VSI) reviews twenty-two articles previously published in the American Journal of Community Psychology (AJCP),  a well-known source of mentoring research, to assess the progress and ongoing challenges in the mentoring field while accounting for the authors’ positionality. It starts by providing a historical context of the modern mentoring movement and how related scholarship and practices evolved. It then discusses two works from the 2002 AJCP special issue (DuBois et al., 2002; Grossman & Rhodes, 2002) that have significantly influenced the mentoring field. Lastly, the researchers utilized the following themes and areas of inquiry to examine the current AJCP literature: the importance of mentorship quality & relationship duration, youth traits associated with different program outcomes, and practices that foster meaningful relationships. Recommendations and insights about future directions are discussed at the end.

Main Findings: 

  • AJCP’s 2002 special issue on mentoring showcased two influential works (DuBois et al., 2002; Grossman & Rhodes, 2002) that demonstrated that youth mentorships are effective under specific conditions and that programs can produce detrimental effects if they aren’t run properly. Both studies highlight ethical concerns and emphasize the need for further research on establishing safe mentoring practices.
  • The Importance of Relationship Quality and Length: Both studies from the AJCP 2002 special issue underscore the importance of developing high-quality mentorships; subsequent AJCP studies expanded on this. Overall, studies from this VSI demonstrate how relationship quality is multidimensional (includes perceptions/experiences, frequency of contact, relationship duration, match structure & activities, etc.,) and that indicators from multiple domains (affective and behavioral) and perspectives (youth, mentor, and parent) have unique associations with program outcomes. While more research is needed to explore the nuances, it’s clear that mentoring programs need to focus on facilitating long-lasting, meaningful relationships while acknowledging how a) it takes more than simply making matches to sustain these connections and b) the closeness & trust take time to develop. Mentorships that prematurely end can have detrimental effects on youth.
  • Youth Presenting Problems, Relationship Characteristics, and Program Outcomes: Although evidence indicates that youth experiencing behavioral difficulties or environmental stressors face hurdles in developing mentoring relationships, due to unmet needs and structural disadvantages, it also suggests they can benefit the most from them. The findings of this review demonstrate how complicated the role of risk is in mentoring programs and that research on this subject is still in its early stages. Researchers need to a) explore how risk should be conceptualized & measured and b) uncover the nuances of these mixed findings across different populations and program contexts. Regardless, it’s evident that youth experiencing hardship can benefit the most from mentoring when programs and mentors have the proper training to understand and meet their needs.
  • Program Practices Leading to Stronger and More Impactful Matches: Mentoring experts need to understand how mentor and program-related factors can promote high-quality relationships and better outcomes (not just mentee-related factors). Two findings from the included studies show that a) mentors with prior helping role experiences have a more positive impact on youth outcomes and b) mentors with prior youth mentoring experiences have longer relationships. However, because of how infeasible it can be for mentoring programs to only select mentors with prior experience, evidence suggests that ongoing training, support, and structured activities can help compensate for having less relevant work experience. Other research underscores the importance of developing mentoring programs that provide targeted interventions for specific youth populations or specialized programs that combine mentoring with skill-building curricula. Building strong partnerships and engagement with youths’ families/caregivers are a bonus since they can help ensure that mentees receive regular, coordinated support across settings.

Implications for Mentoring:

This AJCP VSI offers a nuanced perspective on formal youth mentoring programs’ scope, progress, and prevailing themes. Overall, this comprehensive review demonstrates that mentoring programs can provide sustainable, meaningful, and accessible for youth under the right conditions and highlights the intricate nature of cultivating high-quality relationships The findings also have implications for mentoring researchers and practitioners. Results show that conducting rigorous screenings & training and providing ongoing monitoring, support, and structure for mentors can help programs ensure high-quality relationships. Developing meaningful connections with caregivers and being intentional about program goals further contribute to this. Findings also show how researchers tend to emphasize theories and practices that overly localize interventions and issues at the individual level without accounting for the role of oppressive societal structures. To truly uphold equity and justice, mentoring experts need to develop meaningful partnerships with underrepresented youth & communities, make genuine efforts to recruit mentors from underrepresented backgrounds and provide culturally responsive training, curricula, & services.

To read the full study, click here.