About three million children and youth are in structured mentoring programs, according to Mentor, a nonprofit mentoring organization. For the children and youth enrolled, successful mentoring relationships can lead to academic, social-emotional, and health benefits. Given the millions of kids enrolled and the adult volunteers who contribute their time, it is important to understand how best to achieve positive outcomes.
Child Trends’ recent brief on mentoring evaluated 19 mentoring programs to determine what works and what doesn’t. Based on this research, we offer three tips for building successful mentoring programs:
Focus efforts on building trusting relationships between the mentors and children or youth;
Work to retain mentors to form longer-term relationships between the mentors and children or youth;
Invest in quality training programs to equip mentors to handle challenging situations that may arise.
Building Trust. Many of the children and youth in mentoring programs have already faced difficult home situations. When a new adult is introduced into their life, it can take time for the child or adult to feel comfortable with and trust their mentor. Without the foundation of a trusting relationship, it can be challenging for mentors working with older children or ones with behavioral problems to get these children to engage, especially on mature topics, such as reproductive health. When trust is established between the child or youth and the adult mentor over time, it is more likely that these relationships will be successful.
Retaining Mentors. Our research found some evidence that the duration of mentoring programs made a difference in the program’s effectiveness. However, this finding is based on the amount of time the mentee participated in the program, and not how long the youth had the same mentor. For example, a child may have participated in a mentoring program for two years, but could have had several different mentors during that period. Although we were not able to analyze length of the mentee-mentor relationship, it is likely that this would contribute to even greater impacts. A mentoring relationship is based on trust, and this is hard to establish unless there is consistency. For mentoring programs, it can be hard to retain mentors for an extended period of time. Even when mentors are dedicated to the program and the child they have been paired with, many volunteers find it challenging to maintain such a high level of commitment over many months and even years. Mentor programs may want to recruit volunteers who have an interest and ability to stay in a mentoring program for longer periods of time.
Providing Training. Mentoring can be a difficult job, particularly with high-risk youth who need mentoring the most. Therefore, it is important to train and prepare mentors for situations that may arise prior to beginning a mentoring relationship, and to provide ongoing support after the relationship is established. We found that programs that provide training or support are more likely to work than ones that don’t. Good training programs offer instruction on how to effectively engage the youth, especially youth from different backgrounds, how to support a child with behavior problems, and how to approach topics that come up with older youth, such as reproductive health. Good training programs also help the volunteers recognize and deal with situations when the child requires more professional care or counseling, such as children who have suffered emotional or physical trauma.
Mentoring programs can be a great approach to helping children who need additional support outside of the home and school. However, as with any intervention, program implementation affects success. For the programs we reviewed and many more, it is important that they build on their strengths and address those areas that require improvement. The nearly three million children and youth in these programs deserve nothing less.
Liz Lawner, Senior Research Assistant
Martha Beltz, Research Assistant