Mentoring Programs Need to Experiment With What Works Best for Foster Youth

Mentoring: 2 boys, 1 girl seated at table playing with vehicles with wires attached; man in glasses, open shirt over T-shirt bends over to point at paper on table.

If you work with youth in foster care, you know that every child is unique with specific needs, strengths and opportunities. It shouldn’t be surprising, therefore, that the impact of mentoring for youth in foster care varies greatly.

Mentoring: Lindsey Weiler (headshot), assistant professor in Department of Family Social Science at University of Minnesota; smiling woman with long light brown hair in dark-framed glasses.

Lindsey Weiler

Most people would agree that a relationship with a positive, caring adult is necessary for positive development, yet the process by which we achieve this is a giant black box. And, honestly, I’m not convinced that the process is the same for every child. Mentoring, by nature, can be individualized and it is why youth are connected to mentoring programs in the first place, but how do we know which program is right for which child?

The answer is: We don’t yet know.

Even the most rigorously developed, tested and refined interventions in youth mentoring have shown variable impact. That is, not all youth in foster care benefit and not all benefit in the same way. Some show dramatic decreases in post-traumatic stress symptoms, while others experience fewer placement changes. The factors that distinguish who will benefit in what way have yet to be identified.

There is even less known about who has access to quality mentors and how trauma exposure affects the relationship. We might assume that traumatized children in foster care have limited support from existing social networks and difficulty trusting others, but our day-to-day experiences are filled with exceptions to this perceived norm.

One-size-fits-all doesn’t

Despite clear acknowledgment that youth vary in needs, risks and protective factors, we (including myself as a youth mentoring researcher) continue to force a “one-size-fits-all” approach. We assume that a close, enduring relationship with an adult mentor will be sufficient to affect change in any domain. We assume that once there is trust, respect and closeness, anything is possible. We assume that if the child is not showing change, the relationship just needs more time. We place all our eggs in the familiar basket of mentor-mentee relationship quality and duration.

Yet again, research and experience continue to demonstrate exceptions to this rule (e.g., relationships of less than a year have been associated with positive outcomes). Think about your own experiences. I bet each one of us can think of a casual or temporary relationship with a mentor that had a profound impact on our lives despite its haphazardness or brevity.

Although I am not proposing we completely abandon our focus on relationship quality and consistency, I am challenging us to consider the possibility that part of the reason why some youth in foster care do not glean benefits from mentoring is because we have blind spots to the other factors that matter.

Interestingly, in a recent review of mentoring for youth in foster care, most of the interventions that showed positive effects were multicomponent. In other words, they were not purely one-to-one mentoring. Some utilized complementary components, such as skills groups, while others combined one-to-one and group mentoring strategies. No study in the review actually tested the direct impact of these factors, but they are suggestive of the potential role of structured activities and program format.

To the extent that we can identify various factors that matter in youth mentoring, we may be in a better position to find the right program for every child. For some, a close, enduring relationship may be key. For others, it may be the combination of structured activities in a group mentoring environment.

There is precedent for this type of approach to intervention. Known as adaptive interventions, they change based on what is best for the individual at that time. They are designed to respond to the child’s engagement with, and response to, the program components.  If a child is not responding as expected to component A, component B is employed. If the child is responding, they may continue in component A. In other words, it involves checking youths’ response and progress along the way and responding appropriately based on that information. Youth mentoring practice could stand to benefit from this type of approach and it is one I hope to use in the future.  

Lindsey Weiler, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota. She is a youth mentoring researcher and member of the Research Board for the National Mentoring Resource Center.


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