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How Youth Mentoring Programs Can Become More Effective

Traditional youth mentoring programs yield meager results.

This post is a review of the book, Older and Wiser: New Ideas for Youth Mentoring in the 21st Century.

Before Odysseus departed to fight the Trojan War, Homer tells us, he asked Mentor, his friend, to watch over his household and Telemachus, his son. Centuries later, the term “mentor” began to be used to describe an older, wise, and nurturing adult. That said, in The Odyssey, Mentor allows suitors to take over his household, bully Telemachus, and harass Penelope.

In Older and Wiser, Jean Rhodes, a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring at the University of Massachusetts Boston, draws on empirical research to provide a searching and sobering assessment of youth mentoring programs. Her book should command the attention of scholars, students, parents, practitioners, clinicians, and caregivers.

Mentoring programs come in many shapes and sizes. About 70% of young people have “natural mentors,” including relatives, religious leaders, employers, coaches, and teachers. Having a teacher as a mentor, Rhodes indicates, is associated with higher rates of graduation from high school, enrollment in college, and completion of degrees. Unfortunately, these mentees are far more likely to be affluent and attend better schools. Economically disadvantaged youth have far less access to after-school programs, summer camps, varsity athletics, and other opportunities that might connect them with mentors.

Traditional programs, like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, are built on the assumption that forging bonds through conversations and shared experiences will improve academic, behavioral, and psychosocial adjustment. Celebrated by advocates as a “proven strategy,” decades of research, Rhodes reveals, demonstrates that intuitive, usual care, “friendship approaches,” which provide little or no training of mentors, experience a high attrition rate, often end before the stipulated closure date, and yield meager results. Universal prevention services, she writes, are essentially “the equivalent of putting fluoride in the public water supply.”

According to Rhodes, preliminary evidence (albeit using relatively small sample sizes) suggests that more focused mentoring programs that take into account the risk factors facing the target population (such as poverty, an incarcerated parent, refugee status, a tendency towards depression, peer rejection, bullying, challenges related to race or gender), have a more substantial and enduring impact.

These programs incorporate goal-setting and between-session homework. They use mentors, who might even be embedded in classrooms to provide supportive accountability and supervise practice, who are trained to teach social skills, perspective-taking, and cognitive-behavioral techniques. The programs match mentors to mentees, allow for recreational, relationship-building activities, and encourage (or require) contact with parents, teachers, and therapists.

To ensure they stay the course, mentors are held accountable through course credit, clinical hour requirements, or compensation. Some programs are beginning to use smartphone apps (supplemented by text messages, phone calls, and person-to-person meetings to help youth who struggle to engage self-administered technologies) on, for example, mental health, STEM subjects, and college applications.

Rhodes recognizes that the “evidence-based” programs she supports face daunting challenges. They are costly, complicated, and difficult to administer. The supply of mentors is almost certain to fall far short of the demand. Most important, Rhodes writes, mentoring programs cannot address the fundamental problems of poverty and inequality — housing, healthcare, schools with inadequate resources, unsafe neighborhoods.

While some argue that mentoring programs divert attention from these underlying issues, Rhodes emphasizes, mentors can provide mental health, emotional regulation, discipline, academic and critical-thinking skills, and other services to individuals who desperately need them, enabling them to marshal defenses when stress arises. As she puts it, “In our increasingly segregated world,” mentoring programs can provide channels for “unlikely connections across widely diverse ethnic, cultural, and economic lines” — and help counter a tendency to “dehumanize and blame young people for their struggles.”

Either way, it seems clear that much remains to be done.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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