By February 15, 2018 5 Comments Read More →

Tipping points and a path to more effective mentoring

By Jean Rhodes

In a recent JAMA psychiatry paper, Boston University researchers described a very effective strategy for helping depressed, overwhelmed low-income young women engage in active problem solving. In just six 45 minute one-on-one sessions, the women learned how to discuss the daily “sticky points” in their lives and then, as the lead author described, “go through a step-by-step process that involves taking big problems and boiling them down to little problems.” In a randomized study, the women who had learned these active problem solving strategies experienced a 40% reduction in symptoms of depression, including feeling less sad and experiencing fewer sleep problems. And, as the problem-solving strategies were learned and practiced, they became self-reinforcing and were applied to new situations. In another example, those assigned to Connected Scholars, an intervention that targets first-generation’s students’ tendency to avoid help seeking, evidenced better end-of-year grades and indicators of social engagement than those assigned to a regular academic program (Schwartz et al., 2017). Importantly, because these and other interventions target the actual processes that lead to difficulties, the skills can be practiced, reinforced, and applied to new situations (i.e., they are recursive) (Walton, 2014).

This notion of a recursive processes has implications for the more common experience of being paired with a mentor. The traditional “friendship” model mentoring introduces youth to supportive adults who offer new experiences, companionship, and fun. But the model is not designed to target the specific, problematic psychological and social processes that give rise to problems and, since it is built around time-limited experiences, there is the risk of disappointment and loss when it ends (Grossman et al., 2012). In a qualitative study of the traditional friendship model (Dolan et al., 2010), a project director described how  “the emphasis is on spending time together, having fun. I think if you kept using the word ‘mentor’ to a young person, the fun would be sucked right out of it and they’d look at it as an after-school program or something that they have to do. We really try and put the emphasis, even though it is mentoring, on fun and friendship, and that it’s a natural friendship.”

Fair enough, and there is nothing inherently wrong with being a friendly and responsive companion to a young person. Such relationships are nice while they last, but do they really change the underlying circumstances that led youth to be referred to the intervention? Implicit in this approach is the notion that the caring bond itself will lead to a range of positive developmental outcomes. This may be the case for a subset of youth—such as those who needed additional friends or whose lives are so bereft of enjoyable activities that they are depressed. If the former is the case, why not train the volunteer to also provide evidence-based social skills training while hanging out so the youth can continue to develop friendships long after mentoring program is over? If it’s a question of being withdrawn, then encouraging and carefully tracking fun activities and moods (not just with the mentor but between meetings), might be just the thing. Indeed, behavioral activation is a very effective treatment for depression (Jacobson et al, 1996; Lejuez, et al., 2011). But, for everyone else in the program, this friendship approach may miss the mark. Some may be resistant to the friendship itself– rejecting all overtures of the mentor due to past experiences of trauma or neglect. Such youth may benefit from a slower, more intentionally therapeutic “corrective experience,” that lays the foundation for trust that can be transferred to other relationships over time. Still others may simply need preparation for college admissions or summer employment and would benefit from help with the application process and engaging in evidence-based mock interviews  (Hirsch, 2009). The point is that with better upfront assessment  and targeting of the underlying drivers of change, mentoring programs can make a bigger difference.

We may look back on this era of less targeted, intuitive approaches to mentoring with regret that we held so fast to models and practices that were not well supported by the data. Malcolm Gladwell describes a tipping point as a “magic moment” when an idea, trend, or approach “crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” The evidence for more targeted, evidence-based approaches has been piling up. Eventually it will tip scales in that direction.

5 Comments on "Tipping points and a path to more effective mentoring"

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  1. Bernadette Sanchez says:

    I truly enjoy reading your blogs, even though I don’t always respond. I love that you can read about intervention work or research in different fields and then analyze how it applies to mentoring. There is so much for the mentoring field to learn from other areas of research.

  2. Tim Cavell says:

    Nice piece, Jean.

    In our 2013 chapter in the Handbook of Youth Mentoring, Chris Elledge and I offered the following:

    “We encourage practitioners to view mentoring as a context for providing prevention-focused activities and experiences. A close, enduring relationship is the ‘holy grail’ of youth mentoring, but the reality is that a significant proportion of matches will not meet that goal (e.g., Rhodes et al., 2002). A proactive response to that reality is to design mentoring programs that are not wholly dependent on the relationship capacities of mentors and mentees (e.g., Schwartz et al., 2011). These programs might be more limited in scope, more structured in their delivery, and briefer in duration, but such programs already exist and growing evidence supports their use.”

    As such, I appreciated questions raised by Robert and Arundhuti. It is imperative that in our effort to push for stronger outcomes we don’t lose sight of the broader context in which youth mentoring programs exist. These programs are almost always situated in non-profit organizations that operate with a constrained budget and too few staff. Therefore, the challenge is to design targeted programs that can be effective without (as Robert notes) the added heft of “bells and whistles and skills and prescribed activities”.

  3. Robert Kiedinger says:

    These notions of intensive training, detailed assessments, targeted mentor-mentee activities, etc., in the heavier spaces of the mentoring literature have led me to one question. When does a mentor program with all the bells and whistles and skills and prescribed activities and the like become a treatment program? If any particular “mentor” program can achieve that heavy a lift, well and good, and maybe it is a mentor program or maybe it is an ersatz treatment program conducted by volunteers. In the meantime, while that heavy-lift model is trying to be achieved by whomever and while those with a better handle than I do decide whether that max model is treatment or not, I’d like to offer an alternative conceptualization. At least for those traditional mentor programs, their major impact could instead be conceptualized as providing treatment readiness, or readiness to change, or motivation to change (think Prochaska & Di Clemente’s Stages of Change Theory). Instead of having the expectation that mentoring will result in full blown treatment effects such as decreased school dropout or substance abuse, maybe as a result of having a mentor the mentee would be more willing to engage in activities that would ensure that he or she remain in relationship with her or his mentor, i.e., take on some of the beliefs and values of the mentor. In my understanding, J. David Hawkins and colleague’s social development model (which I am a strong believer in) would be supportive of that conceptualization at least indirectly. And speaking personally, that was my experience with the mentors in my young life- I very much took on some of their attitudes and values, even when they were not providing me skills or targeted interventions, which led to decisions and choices based on those values and beliefs. But in this new age of mentoring, I fear that with the heavy lift max model being held up as the standard, three things may happen. 1) The traditional mentoring program will receive decreasing appreciation, especially in it’s potential as a treatment readiness/motivation to change program. 2) People who might give mentoring a try as a mentor or as a program developer may shy away due to the heavy lift. 3) The trend will even accelerate, with mentoring programs becoming even more akin to a treatment program or a vocational class or a social skills class, to the point that the mentor is called upon to be the teacher, the moral compass, the boundary provider, the stand-in parent, the vocational guide, the targeted activities provider, etc., etc. This begins to sound to me not unlike the expectations that many schools have tried to live up to over the last 50 years, with very mixed results.

  4. Arundhuti says:

    Hi Jean, does this focus on mentorship targetting more specific skills or underlying behavioural processes also imply the need for more skilled mentors? Mentors who are different from the traditional volunteer who signs up, and is maybe more specifically recruited looking at their skills and training. Do you think that was a differentiating factor in the model of the JAMA program and Connected Scholars?

  5. Robin Cox says:

    Great article!! For the past almost 20 years I have held to the belief that the key to effective mentoring of adolescents is to have an excellent Mentor Training Program and I have seen and heard of the positive results when this has occurred. Mentors have a deeper understanding about young people and all their challenges, upskill for the mentoring journey and understand what building community and creating meaningful relationships means in reality. I’d add one further point which is well-known through the youth mentoring global research ie, make sure mentors are encouraged and supported throughout the mentoring journey 🙂

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