A pyramid scheme for mentoring programs: Well, not exactly

Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.

John F. Kennedy

by Jean Rhodes

Although most youth interventions are developed in response to particular needs or goals, mentoring programs were conceived more broadly as an extension of informal helping relationships. For nearly a century, most volunteer mentors were tasked simply with building friendships with disadvantaged youth. Many programs still adhere to this template, and their volunteers are relatively unconstrained—other than to be genuinely responsive and open to the needs and interests of their mentees.

This “friendship model” has gradually ceded ground to more focused, skills-based programming that are aligned with the broader field of prevention science (Cavell & Ellridge, 2015). Some programs even take a quasi-therapeutic approach, in which paraprofessionals or trained mentors help youth with early-stage mental health, behavioral, or other difficulties. This shift is consistent with the field of psychotherapy, which has moved from more open-ended, intuitive, relational approaches to cognitive-behavioral and other more active forms of treatment. But in the absence of a clearly articulated strategy, our goal of defining the purpose of mentoring remains complicated.

One way to the clarify is to consider the designations established for public health interventions, i.e., universal, selective, or indicated, which specify both the target population and required level of intervention (Gordon, 1983). These are often depicted as a pyramid–which encompass everything from the large-scale, population-based universal preventive approaches that reach many to selective prevention approaches that target those who are at risk for possible poor outcomes all the way through to indicated prevention approaches for those who showing early symptoms or difficulties.

Universal mentoring interventions might be those offered to all young people in a given classroom, school, or community, irrespective of risk. This could include a peer mentoring program that helps ease the transition to high school amongst  all 8th graders in a school district. More commonly, however, mentoring programs fall within the selective prevention realm, targeting subpopulations that are at elevated risk by virtue of their personal, demographic or socioeconomic circumstances (e.g., children living in low-income neighborhoods, immigrants or refugees, children of incarcerated parents, first-generation college students). Mentors can help strengthen their coping skills, etc. in ways that prevent problems and foster positive developmental outcomes. Those serving the smallest subsample of youth in indicated mentoring prevention are delivered to youth who are already experiencing early signs difficulty, but are not yet diagnosable (e.g., disruptive kindergartners , trauma-exposed youth in foster care). 

Such distinctions enable programs to set boundaries around their service models, to better target recruitment efforts, and to draw on evidence-based practices that are specific to the goals and populations they are serving. They also lead to a better calibration of the skills and experiences of volunteers with youth’s needs. But, because many mentoring programs have not historically drawn such distinction, they have sometimes struggled to match the needs of the mentees with the competencies and experiences of the volunteers.

Well-intentioned volunteers with little or no previous experience are best placed in universal or selective prevention programs whereas more seasoned mentors are best reserved for selective or indicated programs or approaches. Indeed, one of the most robust findings to have emerged from the youth mentoring literature over the past 20 years is that volunteers with experiences in the helping professions tend to be more committed and effective.  Regrettably, seasoned volunteers are often placed with youth who are at lower risk, while everyday volunteers are sometimes thrown into the deep end with youth who are struggling with emotional, behavioral, or other difficulties. As I discussed in my previous column, this leads to high rates of early terminations (see Figure 2). 

In addition to better placement of volunteers, the pyramid framework enables us to more effectively place youth into programs that will address their needs. Youth who are already experiencing symptoms may need more than a typical mentoring program has to offer, and may be better served by an indicated (i.e., quasi-treatment) program or even more intensive professional treatment. Indeed, youth mentoring program evaluations suggest that mentoring is not as effective (DuBois, Holloway, Valentine, & Cooper, 2002), enduring (Raposa, Kupersmidt), or satisfying (Herrera et al. 2003) among youth who demonstrate more serious individual risk factors (such as academic, behavioral, or relationship difficulties).

With a more purposeful calibration and clearer direction, we can better harness the efforts and courage of our volunteer mentors. Thoughts?




Posted in: Editors Blog

4 Comments on "A pyramid scheme for mentoring programs: Well, not exactly"

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  1. Rey Carr says:

    The pyramid model is a good way to predict the failure of a mentoring relationship. If we were to draw an upward facing arrow on the right side of the pyramid that goes from the bottom to the top of the pyramid, and we labelled the lower end of the arrow “mentoring” and the top end of the arrow “miracle”, then we’d have a better predictor of how likely such a relationship will be successful, have longevity or create false expectations of positive results.

  2. Karrie Craig says:

    As Daniel said, we have also tried different ways of sharing this concept. At one point, we asked the mentors themselves to rate where they thought they were along the continuum of helper, but found that well-intentioned, but less experience people over estimated their skills.

    Our challenge is that our volunteers who are most qualified for more challenging or complex situations, that paraprofessional and sometimes professional, are burned out on helping and see mentoring as a step back from the therapeutic role they may have in their typical job.

    What recruitment strategies, mentor training, or other things might we consider to find and keep mentors for the upper tier of the pyramid?

    Thank you.

  3. The pyramid is one way to visualize the support system needed. I’ve used a different set of graphics, including geographic maps that show indicators pf a need for organized non-school, volunteer-based tutoring, mentoring and learning programs. These indicators include poverty, poorly performing or underfunded schools, health disparities, crime, etc. When viewed on a map it’s easy to see what areas in a city have the greatest need for organized programs.

    Other types of graphics show that while all kids need different forms of extra support, kids in high poverty areas don’t have the same resources for getting those supports as do kids in more affluent areas.

    In addition, some kids have special needs, ranging from health and social/emotional support to efforts to prevent them from getting involved in the juvenile justice system, or to help them come out of incarceration with a support system that helps them back into the mainstream.

    As your pyramid demonstrates, most volunteers are not well prepared to provide the types of intensive support that these kids need.

    I created a PDF presentation in the early 2000s that I titled “Defining Terms: Tutoring – Mentoring” which I feel would be useful to those trying to determine what types of supports and program design are needed for different youth. https://www.scribd.com/document/69631464/Defining-Terms-Tutoring-Mentoring

    I’m on Twitter @tutormentorteam and hope to connect with people in the mentoring, tutoring and youth development fields who are trying to build and sustain needed support systems for kids living in high poverty areas.

  4. Elise Alpen says:

    Wow! Great. This pyramid model is most interesting and useful in understanding our space, our target population and meeting expectations, with the right level of intensity: every student, typical volunteers, universal level. Very good to know! It also helps us sharpen our communication outward towards the general public. Thank for this!

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