Spencer, R., & Basualdo-Delmonico, A. (2014). Family involvement in the youth mentoring process: A focus group study with program staff. Children and Youth Services Review, 41, 75-82.
Introduction: Formal youth mentoring typically emphasizes the relationship between a mentor and mentee, particularly efforts related to the development and maintenance of this relationship; however, these mentoring relationships do not develop in a vacuum as youth are embedded in multiple social networks including family systems. While programs have traditionally minimally involved parents/guardians, some programs have begun to engage families in more prominent ways. Informed by approaches from other preventative intervention fields serving high-risk youth, and previous research suggesting that family involvement relates to better youth outcomes (e.g., DuBois et al., 2002), this new research by Spencer and colleagues examines program staff’s perceptions of family involvement practices and how these practices influence the mentoring experience/process.
Method: The current study included 39 staff from BBBSA affiliate agencies that had a stated emphasis on family engagement. Staff participated in six, one time focus groups conducted by telephone conference calls. The researchers used a semi-structured guide to facilitate all of the groups. Sample questions from this protocol included, “How is it that you engage families/parents in the mentoring experience?” and “what roles have you observed parents playing in the mentoring process?”
Results: Qualitative analysis of the focus group data was used in order to derive significant themes from program staff’s responses. A central theme conveyed by staff across all of the focus groups was that “a parent can make or break a match,” or that family/parent involvement relates to the quality, endurance and subsequent effectiveness of a mentoring relationship.
In addition, the following three distinct approaches to family involvement practices emerged:
Involving families: This approach is characterized by the notion that “…the onus for parental involvement was considered to rest primarily on the parent…” (pg. 77).
- Parents are informed of program practices and expectations including their role as monitors and reporters of the match’s progress. Parents are also informed about agency-sponsored events.
- Programs establish boundaries around addressing non-match related family needs that might take away from a focus on the mentoring dyad, and instead adhere to practices that connect families to community resources or “helping them to help themselves.”
Engaging and serving families: This approach is characterized by “…active effort on the part of the staff to incorporate parents in the mentoring process in meaningful and productive ways that were attuned to both the strengths possessed by the family and the challenges they faced” (pg. 79).
- Staff engage in practices that serve to strengthen the relationship with parents including home visits to get to know the family system.
- Staff convey value and respect for parents including communicating the value that parent check-ins/reports add, and the understanding that mentors are added support rather than replacements within youth’s existing family system.
- Programs adhere to the philosophy that “healthier families lead to healthier mentor-youth matches” and thus use their community connections to broker access to resources for families when possible.
- Programs create opportunities for families to learn from and support one another (e.g., parent advisory councils and parent only social nights).
Collaborating with families: This approach is characterized by an “…articulation of a team approach to promoting the youth’s development and supporting the mentor-youth dyad, with the parent serving as an equal and significant member of this team” (pg. 79-80).
- Parents are experts of their child’s needs and are enlisted as assets/allies with a voice within the mentoring process.
- Staff engage parents in a respectful and non-judgmental manner in order to facilitate bidirectional communication and perspective taking between parents and mentors.
- Program practices acknowledge parent’s decision-making power (e.g., parent-mentor meeting prior to match initiation).
Of note, staff’s description and perceptions indicated that for some programs, these approaches are not mutually exclusive in day-to-day program practices and often occur in combination.
Conclusion: In this study staff’s perceptions of program/agency approaches to family/parental engagement were examined. While all the agencies included in this study were committed to involving parents and families in some capacity, they varied in their philosophy in terms of the goal of involvement and view of parents/families, which in turn related to three distinct engagement practices (involving, engaging and serving, collaborating).
The findings from this study highlight the importance of a contextual understanding of mentoring relationships, particularly the engagement of parents and families within the mentoring process. For some matches, this sort of understanding may be culturally validating and significantly alter the mentoring experience. More, generally, for all matches, this consideration represents a shift in perceptions regarding the role of parents/families in mentoring from that of potential sabotage to collaboration.
The authors note, “…clarity is needed with regard to what is meant by parental involvement in mentoring and how such efforts are enacted and to what end” (pg. 80). Future studies can further explore parental involvement by considering a greater range of program policies and practices (e.g., agency goals and training), and measuring potential associations between mentoring processes (e.g., relationship quality, endurance) and parental involvement. In addition, given the range of program structures, programs can explore involvement strategies consistent with their stated goals that also meet the particular needs of the youth served.