What are program staff’s perspectives on youth-initiated mentoring for systems-involved youth? New study has answers

Spencer, R., Drew, A. L., & Horn, J. P. (2021). Program staff perspectives on implementing youth-initiated mentoring with systems-involved youth. Journal of Community Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1002/jcop.22514

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Youth-initiated mentoring (YIM) programs not only provide mentees with more autonomy in the mentoring selection process but also amends some of the major drawbacks of formal mentoring programs that negatively impact systems-involved youths (i.e. long waiting lists and high volunteer attrition rates).
  • Transitioning to YIM match practices will require a significant shift in mentoring practices.
  • This study explores how YIM is implemented at an organizational level to get a better sense of how feasible it would be to transition to YIM match practices.
  • Many of the program staff members interviewed thought that YIM has the potential to promote positive, supportive relationships with systems-involved youths.
  • Some staff members are hesitant to transition away from current mentoring practices due to concerns that youths might have a hard time finding a good mentor within their social networks.
    • Because of this, some staff members referred youth to traditional mentoring programs if they had a hard time finding a mentor for themselves.
  • YIM programs had to significantly change their approaches to recruitment and interacting with parents/guardians and mentors.
  • YIM programs need to have the appropriate structure for youths to identify their mentors that meet program eligibility requirements.
  • Future research studies on this subject need to explore how to program policies and procedures discussed here affect youth outcomes.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Youth-initiated mentoring (YIM) is an approach to mentor recruitment that represents a significant departure from how formal mentoring typically has been conceptualized and carried out, most notably by having youth identify their own mentors. Despite enthusiasm for YIM, implementation can require significant shifts in program practices. Given the limited resources with which most mentoring programs have to work, it is important to discern staff investment in YIM and what it takes for programs to implement this approach. This study explored YIM implementation at the organizational level through interviews with mentoring program staff (n = 11) and addressed motivations of mentoring program staff to implement YIM, how their programs implemented this approach, and their perceptions of the facilitators and barriers to successful YIM implementation.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

While there is a growing body of literature documenting the experiences of mentors and youth in YIM matches (van Dam et al., 2019; Schwartz et al., 2013; Spencer et al., 2018; Spencer, Gowdy, et al., 2019), this study is among the first to examine the perspectives and experiences of mentoring program staff implementing the YIM model. The results address why programs value the YIM model as well as how YIM departs from traditional mentoring policies and procedures. The facilitators and challenges these programs face when implementing YIM suggest a number of practices other mentoring programs should consider when adopting YIM.

Staff from established and piloting YIM programs had positive regard for the YIM model as a better way to serve systems-involved adolescents, for whom traditional matches may be more difficult to make and maintain (Kupersmidt et al., 2017; Taussig & Weiler, 2017). As has been noted in research with a mentor and youth participants in YIM (Spencer et al., 2018; Spencer, Gowdy, et al., 2019), program staff described features of these relationships akin to those found in naturally occurring mentoring relationships between youth and adults and saw this as appealing and beneficial, particularly for systems-involved youth. Aligning with social justice and empowerment approaches to working with marginalized youth (Albright et al., 2017; Liang et al., 2013; Schwartz & Rhodes, 2016), staff also hoped that more youth voice and choice would be appealing to these older youth, who may be more hesitant to start a relationship with a new adult who does not know their history and who might judge them. At the same time, staff expected that the adults identified by these youth would be more committed to the mentoring relationship because of their previous relationship. Staff expected YIM matches to start strong and continue for a long time, even after the formal program ended, based on the previously established relationship between the youth and mentor. Overall, these expectations were met as staff reported these YIM matches were strong and rarely ended prematurely, consistent with reports by YIM mentors and youth (Spencer et al., 2018; Spencer, Gowdy, et al., 2019).

Unfortunately, both established and piloting YIM programs faced substantial challenges in recruiting and matching youth in their programs. The program staff were concerned that they saw many youths who were eligible for YIM opt not to pursue the option because of a belief that they could not identify a supportive adult in their life with whom they wanted to be matched. Program staff seemed daunted by this challenge, which they, unfortunately, tended to interpret to be a result of the environments in which these youth grew up (e.g., less access to extracurricular programs that are typically rich in adults) as well as the instability of adults in these youths’ lives, especially for youth in the foster care system. As a result, the staff were often quick to refer youth to traditional mentoring if they did not easily identify a mentor, and some youth received no mentoring services at all. If a youth was willing to engage in YIM, programs needed structure in place to help the youth identify a list of mentors who met program eligibility requirements. The established mentoring programs stocked the pond by encouraging youth to choose a mentor from amongst their program staff. Piloting mentoring programs created tools including worksheets and eco-mapping and talked with families to help them think of options.

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