Important new study of mentoring for higher-risk youth

Important new study of mentoring for higher-risk youthMentoring Experiences and Outcomes for Youth with Varying Risk Profiles

by Carla Herrera, David L. DuBois, Jean Baldwin Grossman

reprinted from MDRC

More and more, mentoring programs are being asked to serve young people who are considered “higher risk.” While mentoring has a strong research base generally, relatively little is known about mentoring programs’ capacities to serve and produce benefits for higher-risk youth. This report presents results from the first large-scale evaluation to examine how the levels and types of risk youth face may influence their mentoring relationships and the benefits they derive from mentoring programs. The study looked closely at the backgrounds of participating youth and their mentors, the mentoring relationships that formed, the program supports that were offered, and the benefits youth received — and assessed how these varied for youth with differing “profiles” of  risk.

A Public/Private Ventures project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and distributed by MDRC, the study involved more than 1,300 youth, drawn from seven programs serving young people in Washington State. Oversight and support for the project were provided by Washington State Mentors.

Key findings include:

  • Programs were able to reach and serve youth facing a wide range of challenges, without substantial effort beyond their normal outreach strategies, suggesting that programs were already serving many youth with significant risk factors.
  • Youth with differing risk profiles (that is, levels and types of risk) had mentoring relationships of similar strength and duration and derived similar benefits from program participation.
  • However, the challenges and training needs reported by mentors and the reasons matches ended differed as a function of the risk profiles of youth.
  • The strongest program benefit, and most consistent across risk groups, was a reduction in depressive symptoms—which is particularly noteworthy given that almost one in four youth reported worrisome levels of these symptoms at baseline (and that past research has linked depression to a host of other short- and long-term problems for youth).
  • The study’s findings also point to gains in social acceptance, academic attitudes and grades. Youth did not appear to benefit in their relationships with parents or behavior toward peers or to show reduced misconduct.
  • In addition to benefits in specific domains, mentored youth also experienced gains in a greater number of outcomes than youth in the comparison group.
  • Mentors who received early-match training and consistent program support met more frequently and had longer-lasting relationships with their mentees. Youth whose mentors received training also reported higher-quality relationships.

These findings have a number of important implications for practitioners and funders. Overall, the study’s results suggest that mentoring programs can be beneficial for youth with a broad range of backgrounds and characteristics. Tailoring the training and support that is available to matches based on the specific risks youth face has the potential to produce even stronger benefits.

Full Document 

Executive Summary



2 Comments on "Important new study of mentoring for higher-risk youth"

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  1. David DuBois says:

    Thanks Dan. I’m very glad that you found information of value in the report.

    Another finding which I personally see as important and, as far as I know, ground-breaking is that we were able to demonstrate that mentoring was able to increase the likelihood that individual youth would demonstrate improvements on multiple outcomes (past research has shown gains on multiple outcomes at the level of entire sample, but it has been unclear whether specific youth are showing such “multiple outcome” gains). Related to this, we also found that mentored were more likely to show improvement on at least one outcome than non-mentored youth, even though the specific outcome involved differed across youth. These analyses were motivated in large part by practitioner wisdom that a) mentoring is a distinctive intervention, in part, because unlike some of its most noteworthy alternatives (e.g., tutoring, social skills training), it has a strong potential, as a more holistic/broad-based approach to supporting youth, to benefit them in multiple areas of their development and b) mentoring’s benefits are likely to be quite variable across different youth based on their unique needs and characteristics (not to mention the variable of who their mentors are), such that benefits of program participation may be overlooked or underestimated if effect sizes and the like are based on benefits that accrue for all youth in different specific areas.

    —–Original Message—–
    From: Daniel Bassill []
    Sent: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 11:44 AM
    Subject: Re: New Mentoring Study Report

    Thanks for sharing this David. I had received the notice earlier today from MENTOR and read the executive summary.

    I’m concerned that the “average match length was only 9.6 total months” and that “only about 60% of the participants were in an active match at follow-up.”

    Is there information showing what percent of matches lasted 2 years or longer? Is there research being done to determine what sort of program structures in higher risk youth environments support longer youth involvement than other types of structures.

    The report confirms information we’ve heard over and over, that volunteers and youth who are well-supported tend to stay connected longer. As you and others become involved on the Boards of Mentoring Partnerships and/or have public speaking opportunities, I hope that you’ll look for more ways to build year-round marketing and advocacy strategies that enlist more consistent business and philanthropic support of mentor-based programs in all areas where youth are at “higher risk” and that this can build a broader base of programs to draw upon for future research showing what the nation needs to do to build and sustain mentor-rich programs supporting youth as they grow up in areas with many environmental risk factors.

    It would be great to see this research repeated in Chicago, New York, Houston or other cities with youth populations of 100,000 or larger where the concentrations of poverty and risk factors are much larger than in most other parts of the country. I suspect the mentors of mentors and structured mentor-rich programs could be as great or greater, while the challenges of making programs available to youth in these areas would also be much larger.

    Daniel F. Bassill, D.H.L.
    Tutor/Mentor Connection
    Tutor/Mentor Institute, LLC

  2. David DuBois says:

    One of the noteworthy findings, I think, is the pattern of differences that
    was evident in the experiences of mentors (e.g., perceived training needs,
    reasons for match closure) as a function of the risk profile of the youth
    with whom they were matched. Seemingly, programs could use this kind of
    information – both the general findings of the study and information they
    collect about the risk profiles of the youth they serve – to work to tailor
    (at a program level and possibly also at a match level) the mentor training
    and support that is provided to be aligned with the backgrounds of the
    youth who are being mentored. I’m hopeful, too, that the brief risk
    checklist utilized in the study, and associated cut points, could be a
    useful tool for programs and researchers. If we could begin to build a
    knowledge base for practice and research that is grounded on a common
    approach to assessing and characterizing risk, I think this would be of
    significant value to the field.

    Another noteworthy finding in my view is the evidence that was found for
    beneficial program effects on youths’ symptoms of depression. This finding
    fits with my fairly long-standing belief that mental health outcomes have
    been under-appreciated/examined on both the practice and research sides of
    the field relative to behavioral and academic outcomes. Yet, arguably,
    mentoring is “tailor made” to make inroads in an area like depressive
    symptoms. Illustratively, “pleasant activity scheduling” is a standard part
    of evidence-based treatment packages for depression. Yet, isn’t this what
    mentors are typically both encouraged/trained and well-suited naturally to
    do-that is, spend time with youth in activities that youth find fun and
    enjoyable? Especially with mental health services receiving increased
    attention in recent months in relation to violence prevention strategies,
    mentoring seems well-positioned to make a strong argument that it can be an
    important part of a comprehensive approach in this area.

    A final note is that this research includes the first multi-agency (in this
    case two) randomized controlled evaluation of the Big Brothers Big Sisters
    of America community-based mentoring program since the landmark PPV study of
    the 1990s.


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