A new study looks at the successes and failures of mentoring programs that have tried to use the power of positive role models to support kids’ socioemotional and cognitive development.
The report, found in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, reviews the research that has accumulated over the last decade and identifies the aspects of mentoring programs that seem to help — or hinder — kids’ development across many domains.
While no one disagrees that kids who are at risk for poor performance in school, for engaging in risky behaviors, or for negative health outcomes stand to benefit the most from a mentoring relationship – populations vary greatly, requiring programs that are tailored to specific individual and environmental needs.
In the research, Dr. David DuBois, a professor of Community Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and co-authors reviewed over 70 existing evaluations of mentoring programs.
They discovered that in general, mentoring programs seem to improve kids’ outcomes across behavioral, social, emotional, and academic domains, and they can help improve outcomes in several of these areas at the same time.
Moreover, research suggests that it’s never too late to establish an effective mentoring relationship, as mentoring programs seem to make a difference for youth of all ages.
DuBois said that these results “speak to the universal importance of caring relationships for us as social animals, whatever our age.”
Nevertheless, researchers discovered the overall improvements in youth outcomes tend to be modest and it is not clear how well such gains hold up over time.
Furthermore, while mentoring does seem to help boost kids’ academic test scores, there’s little rigorous research on whether it contributes to other policy-relevant outcomes, such as overall educational attainment, juvenile offending, substance use, or obesity prevention.
Mentoring programs appear to be most effective for youth who have some pre-existing difficulties or who are exposed to heightened levels of environmental risk, but most programs probably can’t handle the demands of youth with really serious difficulties.
Matching mentors and mentees according to their interests helps to produce greater benefits for kids, probably because this kind of matching helps kids and mentors connect and find activities that they enjoy doing together.
The research also finds that kids benefit more when programs help mentors to provide useful guidance and act as an advocate on kids’ behalf.
DuBois notes that there are real risks of youth experiencing a mentor as “one more adult telling them what to do” and of mentors “crossing boundaries and become over-involved in a youth’s life.”
He adds, though, that many mentoring programs clearly have developed “effective ways to navigate these concerns so that mentors can share their knowledge and life experience and be powerful allies for vulnerable young people.”
In an era of potential resource scarcity, the authors call for modeling the mentoring practices that are the most effective.
In order to achieve the biggest return on investment, DuBois and his co-authors urge policymakers to support the use of evidence-based practices, like mentor screening and training.
According to DuBois, finding out what works in mentoring programs is especially important during these tough economic times.
Mentoring programs allow communities to make strategic use of their own human capital (i.e., through people volunteering their time), thereby amplifying the reach of community programs and supports for your people.
“Because of this potential,” said DuBois, “mentoring programs represent a particularly exciting direction for maintaining strong investments in the future of our nation’s youth despite the economic challenges that are currently facing the country.”