The Promises and Pitfalls of Youth Mentoring Programs

Youth mentoring is a popular, cost-effective intervention, and we need to be realistic about what it can and can’t do.

Youth mentoring relationships are formed between young people and caring, non-parent adults. Enthusiasm for mentoring – from researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and the general public alike – has exploded over the past two decades, resulting in a rapid expansion in the size and number of mentoring programs. These programs, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, typically seek to match adult volunteers with a young person (often designated as “at risk”) who needs a positive adult role model. At a given time, mentoring programs are serving an estimated 4.5 million children and adolescents in the U.S.

Mentoring is broadly appealing because it is a cost-effective intervention that has the potential to impact several different aspects of youth development (academic, socioemotional, behavioral). That’s the idea, anyway, but does mentoring live up to the hype? At first, that was a difficult question to answer because the expansion of mentoring programs vastly outpaced mentoring research. For years, programs were implemented and expanded without being formally evaluated. Fortunately, researchers, practitioners, and policy makers have realized the need for evidence-based practice, and mentoring research has made progress. It’s worth taking stock of what that research has told us.

Studies suggest that mentoring can have a positive effect across several domains. On average, youth who participate in mentoring programs tend to experience improvements in academic engagement, peer and parental relationships, and self-esteem, while experiencing decreases in behavioral problems. It is impressive for an intervention to have such multifaceted effects. However, meta-analysis, which pull together results from multiple studies, have found that the actual effect sizes of mentoring programs are quite small. Effect sizes are a statistical representation of the practical significance of finding – whether or not that finding matters in the grand scheme of things. Using grade point average as an example, a difference between a 2.0 one semester and a 2.3 would likely yield a small effect size. There’s a difference, but the student still has a low C. However, a change from a 2.0 to a 3.0 might yield a medium to large effect size. This is a full change in letter grade and may have a significant impact on a student’s academic trajectory.

The small effect sizes found in meta-analyses suggest that mentoring confers some benefits, but that these benefits might be fairly minor in terms of practical significance. However, it should be noted that these effect sizes are derived from taking a large number of mentoring studies and calculating an average. Averages can be deceptive, and follow-up analyses have reveal that there is wide variability in the impact of mentoring relationships. In other words, sometimes mentoring relationships can confer medium to large effects that have a tangible impact on young people’s lives. Other times, mentoring relationships can have a very small effect or even a negligible effect on young people.

What accounts for these differences in effects? Among the most important ingredients of effective mentoring is deceivingly simple: time. Longer-lasting mentoring relationships have much stronger effects than those that end early. Unfortunately, it is perhaps not surprising that the durability and effectiveness of mentoring relationships are lowest for youth with the largest amounts of individual and environmental risk factors, such as behavioral problems, poverty, and family conflict. In fact, some studies have suggested that matches that end early for these high-risk youth can actually enact harm, perhaps because they exacerbate existing sensitivity to rejection.

Of course, that does not mean we should exclude higher-risk youth from mentoring programs. Rather, we need to make mentoring programs work for them by preventing early match closures and building more durable bonds. It takes time for young people, particularly those with difficult or traumatic interpersonal histories, to open up to a new adult. Relationships must get past this trust-building phase to enact change.

Fortunately, studies have highlighted some ways for programs to create higher quality mentoring relationships for at-risk youth. For example, mentors with a strong sense of self-efficacy and those with prior experience working with young people are have longer and more effective relationships with higher-risk mentees. Therefore, programs should prioritize recruiting mentors from service sectors and strategically match them with higher risk mentees mentees. Further, programs that provide high quality and frequent supervision and match support from social workers or other specialists demonstrate better outcomes for high-risk mentees. In the past, programs have prioritized quantity over quality, giving their caseworkers increasingly large caseloads that are impossible to manage effectively. Mentors need ready access to consultation and supervision while helping youth with complex needs.

In addition to working to increase the effectiveness of mentoring, we should also recognize its limitations. Mentoring is not a panacea, and it should not be viewed as a replacement for psychotherapy for youth with significant mental health challenges. Mentoring also should not be viewed as supplanting the need for policy-level changes to address the societal issues, such as poverty, community violence, and the opioid crisis, that are leading to a large number of “at-risk” youth in need of positive adult relationships. Mentoring is only a piece of the puzzle, but it is a promising intervention under the right conditions.

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Matthew Hagler is currently studying clinical psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston with Dr. Jean Rhodes. His research focuses on adult-youth relationships and youth mentoring interventions.