Raising the bar: Levering the science of relationships to improve youth outcomes

Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 8.51.06 AMby Jean Rhodes 

This past week, Mentoring Central and Big Brothers Big Sisters announced an important collaboration that is likely to send ripples throughout the entire mentoring community.  BBBSA will adopt a customized version of Mentoring Central’s online mentor training program for use with up to 100,000 mentoring volunteers. The user-friendly course allows for “on-demand” interactive multimedia learning with opportunities for practice, personal application, and testing of new knowledge.  I have been working with Mentoring Central for over six years on this training and, to our knowledge, it is the  only web-based mentor training available that is completely research-based, interactive, and field-tested. 

So, given all the priorities in the field of youth mentoring, why did we spend so many years focused on developing an evidence-based training program? Because training mentors to successfully work with youth is perhaps the single most important for obtaining positive child outcomes, and for preventing the potential harm that can result from unsuccessful mentoring relationships. Ineffective mentoring relationships, which include poor quality and early prematurely terminating matches, have been implicated in a range of negative youth outcomes. Indeed, in two, large random assignment studies, youth in prematurely terminating mentoring relationships showed increases in problem behaviors (such as increases in alcohol consumption) relative to randomly assigned control groups and a recent qualitative study by Renee Spencer described the profound disappointment reported by youth abandoned by their mentors.  By contrast, children and adolescents who are “effectively mentored” (as measured by the quality and length of the relationship) have better outcomes than those who are not mentored.

Research in related fields also underscores the vital importance of training. A large meta-analysis of the effectiveness of afterschool programs indicated that empirically-based skills programs involving teacher training had a more positive effect on child outcomes than afterschool programs that provided no training or skills training for children that did not have a research basis (Durlak & Weissberg, 2007). Another study found that afterschool staff members in community–based programs had a stronger intent to continue working in the youth development field when they received professional development training, learned aspects of their job from more experienced staff, and had adequate supervision and support (Hartje, Evans, Killian, & Brown, 2008). Likewise, meta-analyses of the effectiveness of psychotherapy have underscored the importance of therapist training as a means of advancing their understanding of the change process, developing of clinical skills, and improving the mental health outcomes of clients (Joyce, Wolfarrdt, Sribney, & Aylwin, 2006). Taken together, these findings suggest that programs need to reliably, consistently, and competently implement evidence-based training methods.

Of course, ongoing training is  just one form of support programs must provide to their mentors. Supervision through onsite and match-specific case management and crisis intervention also is also essential. But programs that rely predominantly on volunteers’ natural skills may miss important opportunities for improving program effectiveness. 

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