Thompson, A. E., Greeson, J. K. P., & Brunsink, A. M. (2016). Natural mentoring among older youth in and aging out of foster care: A systematic review. Children and Youth Services Review, 61, 40-50.
Summarized by Jessica Cunningham, B.A. Lab Manager, Center of Evidence-Based Mentoring
Typically when people think of foster care youth, the image in their mind’s eye is decidedly not the epitome of positive youth development. Being shuttled from home to home and being forced to re-start one’s life with the frequency that is common for these youth does not do wonders for their developing minds and psyches, but the alternative is, in most cases, far worse for their overall well-being. Researchers are particularly interested in studying youth and young adults who have been in foster care in order to make improvements to the system and to help identify the causes of negative outcomes in the hopes of stopping or at least buffering them. Since mentoring relationships have had a profoundly positive impact on other at-risk youth populations, researchers have begun analyzing the role of mentoring relationships within the foster care population. Yet again, despite their lack of fanfare, natural mentors play a key role in the positive development of youth within this population.
Youth aging out of foster care are a uniquely marginalized group at risk for a multitude of negative well-being outcomes. Mentoring relationships have been shown to improve well-being outcomes for other youth, and while youth aging out of foster care may have a more difficult time forming bonds with adults due to their experiences, having a mentor may act as a protective factor against the negative outcomes typically associated with having been in foster care. Previous research has shown that natural mentoring relationships, in particular, are associated with more positive outcomes as these tend have stronger bonds and last longer than agency-based matches.
The researchers in this study chose to investigate the impact of natural mentors on older foster care youth by conducting a meta-analysis, or review of the existing literature on the topic. The researchers used seven academic databases to find studies related to this topic, and analyzed the results of 38 papers. In order to be included in the analysis, the paper had to study natural mentoring in adolescents or emerging adults (ages 13-25), involved in foster care or with a history of foster care involvement. The bulk (61%) of papers were articles from peer-reviewed journals, 13% were from doctoral dissertations, and the remainder were from non-peer-reviewed sources, such as policy reports or magazine articles. Nine articles used quantitative methods, 3 used mixed methods, 13 were qualitative, and the remainder were theory or conceptual work.
The quantitative studies indicated that there was a high association between natural mentoring and improved adjustment among foster youth during their transition to adulthood. Mentees were more likely to complete high school or receive a GED, improved psychological functioning, avoid vulnerability as an adult, and to have increased resilience.
The findings of the qualitative studies indicated that having a mentor was important or vital to foster youth during their transition to adulthood. The longevity or consistency of relationships were considered to be important, as well as mentors seeming caring or like a parent to youth.
The conceptual papers assert that natural mentoring may be associated with improved adult functioning for former foster care youth. The authors of these papers believed that natural mentoring may help with promoting healthy behaviors, self-esteem, educational success, and the development of resilience, along with acting as a buffer against mental health symptomology.
Discussion & Conclusions:
This review is the first of its kind, but the studying natural mentoring among older foster care youth is a rapidly growing field. However, this review was not able to generalize findings, as most of the studies included used small, non-nationally representative samples. Nor is it able to determine causality, as the bulk of studies included were cross-sectional, so the researchers cannot say for certain that natural mentoring caused these outcomes for these youth. In addition, there is no standardized definition of natural mentoring, so differences in each study’s definition may influence their results.
The researchers suggest adopting a universal definition of a natural mentor in order to avoid further confusion in the literature, along with measuring “natural mentoring as a unique construct within studies investigating social support” – studies were excluded from their analyses because natural mentors were grouped with other types of social support from parents or peers. They also suggest using more rigorous methods to better investigate the role of natural mentors; “large scale, longitudinal entry cohort studies would allow researchers to better understand how individual-level characteristics… and contextual factors… influence the development of natural mentoring relationships as well as…how natural mentoring relationships influence individual outcomes…”
Despite the need for more research, the researchers were able to determine that there is “a positive association between natural mentoring among youth in foster care and improved psychosocial, behavioral, and academic outcomes”.