In recent decades, youth mentoring programs have grown exponentially in popularity and have received increasing support from both private and public sources of funding. These programs have helped ensure that more youth have access to a close relationship with a caring adult, which can provide a wide array of benefits, including improved relationships with parents, teachers and peers, greater school engagement, reduced depression and fewer instances of delinquent or aggressive behavior.
Yet, despite this generally positive influence of mentoring on youth development, placement in a mentoring relationship is not universally helpful for all youth. In fact, research shows that the effects of mentoring relationships appear to vary widely across youth, with some benefitting little. For example, youth who enter mentoring programs with more stressors in their home environments, such as family conflict, parental incarceration and poverty, and youth who show more behavioral risk factors, like social difficulties or academic problems, tend to have shorter and lower-quality mentoring relationships than other youth (Schwartz et al., 2011).
This means that often these higher-risk youth are not reaping the same benefits across development from mentoring relationships as other youth. Even more concerning, some youth might actually be doing worse after taking part in a mentoring program, since mentoring relationships that end prematurely can lead to poorer functioning among youth. So youth who enter mentoring programs with high levels of stress or behavioral problems, expecting to find help from a nonparental adult, might in reality struggle to connect with a mentor and end up more depressed or disengaged at school when yet another relationship falls through.
The good news is that certain mentors appear capable of offsetting the risks associated with working with a youth who has been identified as having a challenging background or problem behavior. Some programs have been designed specifically to pair committed mentors with children facing extraordinary risks.
Confidence, experience, training work
For example, Friends of the Children successfully recruits and trains salaried mentors to work with children deemed to be at the highest risk nationwide. This program, and others like it, have tailored their mentor training and support to ensure that mentors are capable of trouble-shooting difficulties when forming a rapport with their mentees, and that these mentors are also motivated to form consistent, long-term relationships that typically last multiple years.
Even among volunteer mentors, there appear to be certain characteristics that signal a greater likelihood of the mentor’s ability to foster and maintain a mentoring relationship in the face of youth risk. One recent study assessed mentors and youth as they entered Big Brothers and Big Sisters programs to explore which mentors worked best with higher-risk youth. In these programs, youth from higher-stress family backgrounds showed a typical pattern of difficulties with forming successful relationships and tended to leave the program earlier than other youth.
However, youth who had mentors who began the program with higher self-efficacy (i.e., greater confidence in their ability to handle challenges within the mentoring relationship) and/or more previous involvement with youth in their communities through activities like academic tutoring or Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts did not show this pattern. For these youth, their mentors’ confidence or previous experience working with children offset the risk associated with the challenges of dealing with stressors at home.
Given these findings, it is essential for programs to begin accounting for the context and functioning of children as they enter mentoring programs. Using brief assessment tools, programs can identify youth who might be more likely to struggle in the program due to stress at home or behavioral difficulties at school. For these youth, it can be especially worthwhile to use evidence-based approaches to matching, in order to ensure that they are placed with a mentor who is capable of resolving relationship-based difficulties and providing consistent support even in the face of substantial challenges.
Only when we begin to attend closely to contextual factors and mentor-youth match, with help from research findings on these topics, will we be able to make certain that our programs are, first and foremost, doing no harm, and in turn maximize the potential benefits of mentoring programs for all youth.
Elizabeth Raposa, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at William and Mary. She studies the effects of stress on development, as well as the impact of youth mentoring interventions on psychosocial and academic outcomes for youth living in high-stress environments.