How a large program in India thinks about mentee risk

Mentor Together Photo 2

Written by Justin Preston


An organization providing one-to-one mentoring support to over 1,300 at-risk and underserved Indian youth and young adults, Mentor Together has years of experience working in five cities across India and online. Their efforts are aimed at providing empowering relationships to help adolescents and young adults achieve their goals and aspirations. Different programs offered by Mentor Together have helped adolescent children transition through high school, developed relational skills among young engineering students and provided technology platforms to youth who would otherwise not have access to mentorship.

However, during the course of their work Shivani Arun, Evaluation Manager at Mentor Together, says, “We faced an important question,” with regards to the role of risk in the lives of their mentees. Was it a matter of problem behaviors enacted by their mentees? “Should we classify a youth as not being at risk simply by observing the lack of problem behavior?”

In a recently published report, Arun and the Mentor Together team have sought to address the question of risk by rigorously evaluating the levels and types of risks facing their constituents. The research in the field has indicated that risk is a concept that exists on a spectrum, and is not a single, isolated factor. Taking this understanding into account, the Mentor Together team set about determining the manner in which they would quantify the risks facing their mentees. As Arun states, “Quantifying risk was a challenge as it is not possible to capture all dimensions of risk in domains such as education, health, economic status, adolescent problem behavior, societal and familial constraints, etc. Moreover, it is not possible to predict how a young person would behave when exposed to such diverse stimuli in their lives. Past experience has shown that months of intervention have been reversed due to a sudden exposure to an exogenous stimulus like separation of parents in the family.”

Grounding their effort in the research and their experience, Mentor Together broke the concept of risk down into two distinct, but potentially overlapping, categories: individual risk and environmental risk. According to Arun, “Mentorship programs are designed to influence individual risk to a larger extent as compared to environmental risk and are generally most successful with youth exposed to low to moderate levels of environmental risk.” To better grasp the nature of the risk types facing their mentees, Mentor Together surveyed the families of approximately 350 students studying in four government high schools in South Bangalore. Using this survey information, they then created individualized risk profiles for each student.

As part of this survey assessment, Mentor Together utilized three broad categories within the “individual and environmental” spectrum to describe their risk factors. The first, individual risk, includes factors such as “child has to work because of financial constraints” and “problem behavior such as alcohol/drug abuse, bullying, involvement in illegal activities, etc.” Environmental risk was broken down into family and economic risk. Family risk includes concepts such as caste status, religion, and parental educational status. The third grouping, economic risk, addresses concepts such as the occupation of the parents, monthly income, and home ownership.

This meticulous attempt at understanding individual risk ran into trouble, however, when differences arose between the survey responses and the findings from Mentor Together’s interviews with the participants. According to Arun, “[We found that] some of these responses were under-revealed.” Participants tended to answer the survey with responses that were in line with social expectations/desirability. For example, 0% of the parents endorsed their child participating in bullying, drug abuse, or any illegal activity. As Arun states, “[This is] a very sensitive question in our tight knit Indian society.”

Mentor Together had more success in measuring environmental risk, in some ways a more readily quantifiable construct. They found that the average household in their sample primarily rents their home and experience high levels of wage and job insecurity. Mentor Together also found high rates of maternal illiteracy, a fact which, when looking at the previous literature, can impact a child’s behavior and educational performance, as well as the likelihood that the child will have to repeat a grade.

Overall, while the process was a challenging one, Arun says that, “We found that risk assessment helped us understand factors that go beyond the immediate needs of a young person…We got a glimpse of the interplay between individual and environmental risk in a person’s life.”


To see the full report, please click here.