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Commentary: Do Youth Mentoring Programs Work? A Review of the Empirical Literature
Adam K. Matz
American Probation and Parole Association, Council of State Governments, Lexington, Kentucky
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Adam K. Matz, American Probation and Parole Association, Council of State Governments, 2760 Research Park Drive, Lexington, KY 40578. E-mail: email@example.com
Acknowledgments: Special thanks to Dr. Alida V. Merlo for review and comments on a former draft of this manuscript.
Keywords: mentoring programs, parental incarceration, intervention programs, prevention programs
Mentoring programs represent one of the oldest forms of community-based interventions for at-risk youth, dating back to the progressive era of the first juvenile court at the turn of the 19th century (Blakeslee & Keller, 2012; Tanenhaus, 2004). While programs such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBS) have existed for nearly a century (Blakeslee & Keller, 2012) others, such as Amachi, were developed at the turn of the 20th century (Bruster & Foreman, 2012). This article reviews the empirical literature on youth mentoring. The literature reveals, despite the championing of BBBS as an evidence-based program, youth mentoring programs have varying outcomes but overall tend to show a positive, yet weak, impact on educational outcomes and delinquency (Jolliffe & Farrington, 2007). International comparisons are similarly mixed, with educational outcomes and developmental perceptions more commonly studied and cited than delinquency outcomes. Best practices in program administration, mentoring, and evaluation are highlighted.
Mentoring relationships represent one of the oldest community-based youth interventions, dating back to the genesis of the first juvenile court in Chicago during the late 1800s when probation officers provided guidance and supervision to youthful offenders in lieu of more damaging alternatives such as institutionalization (Blakeslee & Keller, 2012; Tanenhaus, 2004). Indeed, such formal interventions were rooted in the progressive era as a response to increased poverty at the hands of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization. The highly renowned Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBS) mentoring program, for example, began in 1904 in New York City and today consists of over 375 agencies serving more than 210,000 youth across the United States (Blakeslee & Keller, 2012). However, not until the past two decades has a growing body of empirical literature begun to develop and mature from which to better understand the goals, operations, and outcomes of youth mentoring programs. This article summarizes the literature, beginning with a brief overview of relevant theories, followed by a summary of mentoring programs’ effectiveness as derived from the empirical literature. The article continues with a short examination of vulnerable populations, problems of connecting at-risk youth with mentors, guidance for future program evaluations, best practices for mentoring programs, guidance for mentors, and an international comparison of effectiveness. The article concludes with advice pertinent to researchers, program administrators, and funding organizations. This article is designed to introduce the many complexities of youth mentoring. Readers are encouraged to seek out the various sources contained throughout for more detailed information on a given subject area.
Youth mentoring programs did not originate within a theoretical framework of an academic philosophy, but rather from the philanthropic aims of community advocates and social work practitioners (Dubois, Doolittle, Yates, Silverthorn, & Tebes, 2006). Youth mentoring literature over the past two decades makes these origins clear. Nonetheless, attempts have been made to retroactively apply theoretical models and constructs, such as those described below, to mentoring programs to aid in our understanding of their underlying assumptions, purposes, and structures. Keeping in mind that a theory is a proposed connection between variables and their relatedness, what follows is a brief introduction to the core tenets of attachment theory, acceptance-rejection theory, social support theory, host provocation theory, oppression theory, sociomotivational theory, relevant criminological theories, and how they relate to mentoring relationships.
Attachment theoryrefers to the impact that close interactions and caring behaviors of caregivers can have on the quality of youths’ future social relationships and behaviors (Britner, Balcazar, Blechman, Blinn-Pike, & Larose, 2006). Poor attachment and bonding with parents can lead to a variety of behavioral problems and reluctance to trust adults. Some studies have shown positive mentoring relationships can improve parent-child relationships (e.g., Rhodes, 2002; as cited in Britner et al., 2006).
Acceptance-rejection theory posits many behavioral outcomes of youth are the product of their parents’ initial acceptance or rejection. Rejection, as found in various self-report studies, is associated with developmental, behavioral, and psychological problems in children, youth, and adults that may include substance abuse and delinquency (Britner et al., 2006). Acceptance, on the other hand, is associated with greater generosity, empathy, and helpfulness toward others. As such, individuals who feel accepted by their parents are more likely to have positive peer relations, higher perceptions of life satisfaction, and less psychological stress than those who perceive themselves to be rejected (Britner et al., 2006; Rohner & Britner, 2002).
Social support theory emphasizes the cumulative advantages that are realized when at-risk youth are connected to social relationships capable of providing material and interpersonal resources not otherwise accessible (Britner et al., 2006). Examples of valuable resources include specific vocational skills, educational support (e.g., helping with homework, completing applications for college admission and financial aid), and practical resources (e.g., transportation).
Host provocation theory contends the basis for juvenile delinquency is rooted in a variety of provocative and negative living conditions of youth (Blechman, Fishman, & Fishman, 2004; as cited in Britner et al., 2006). These conditions include impoverished living conditions, dilapidated housing, exposure to delinquent peers, low self-control (i.e., poor internal controls), and lack of parental supervision or informal community controls (i.e., poor external controls). It is argued such conditions contribute to the onset, prevalence, and persistence of delinquency. As such, effective parenting, along with positive mentors and role models, can protect at-risk youth by providing greater supervision and shielding them from association with delinquent peers or other negative influences (see also Day, 2006).
Oppression theory concerns the impact of poverty on youth, but is applied specifically to those youth who possess minority status and mental or physical disabilities in combination with abject poverty (Block, Balcazar, & Keys, 2002; Britner et al., 2006). This theory highlights the distinct cumulative disadvantage of this population. These individuals are more likely to suffer from feelings of helplessness and have a poor outlook on future prospects. In such cases, mentors who share similar characteristics can prove to be positive powerful role models.
Sociomotivational theory presents three core facets of mentoring relationships as the necessary prerequisite for positive prosocial change among youth (Britner et al., 2006; Larose & Tarabulsy, 2005): relatedness, autonomy, and competence as relevant to the educational or community setting. In other words, youth are reliant on mentors to provide guidance, but also autonomy. The mentor provides an opportunity for youth to engage with their community through informed decision-making. Ideally, this improved autonomous awareness will encourage youth to seek out other community services. At its core, the mentor must provide structure (i.e., transfer knowledge) and guidance while involving and allowing the mentee to make his or her own decisions. Furthermore, the ability of a mentor to engage a mentee is contingent on the emotional attachment, trust, and bond formed between the two individuals. When the bond is strong and the mentor provides encouragement and support consistently, it is hypothesized the youth will experience positive outcomes and become more amenable and trusting of other community resources.
Clearly, the theories applied herein have been referenced predominantly by the social work and child welfare literature. However, several of these theories are also complemented by a variety of criminological theories (see Cullen & Agnew, 2006; Kubrin, Stucky, & Krohn, 2009; Mutchnick, Martin, & Austin, 2009; Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002; Williams & McShane, 2004). Host provocation theory, for example, makes essentially the same assertion as that of general strain theory (Agnew, 2006). Namely, the presence of noxious stimuli can induce stress and frustration, which may manifest itself as an increased propensity for delinquency. In addition, the lack of internal and external controls correlates well with control theories, such as self-control (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 2006) and social bond (Hirschi, 2006), while differential association is clearly relevant to the concept of delinquent peers (Sutherland & Cressey, 2006). The theory of social disorganization complements host provocation and oppression theories (Sampson & Wilson, 2006; Shaw & McKay, 2006).
These theories provide a framework to help us understand the basis, rationale, and operation of youth mentoring programs. They also serve as the basis for empirical examination. It is expected that providing youth with positive mentoring opportunities will improve a variety of outcomes, including better social relationships (i.e., attachment theory) and parental connectedness (i.e., acceptance-rejection). Ideally, mentors will expose youth to prosocial social networks that can lead to a variety of positive opportunities (i.e., social support theory). Sociomotivational theory supports the need for mentors to nurture the cognitive development, independence, and emotional needs of the mentee. Theories such as host provocation, oppression, strain, self-control, social bond, differential association, and social disorganization represent barriers mentors may face and need to address as they interact with youth. The following sections will explore the experiences, operations, and outcomes of specific mentoring programs in greater depth.
Review of Youth Mentoring Programs and Evaluations
Youth mentoring, at its core, is designed to be a corrective experience for at-risk youth who have experienced poor relations with parents or other caregivers (Grossman, Chan, Schwarts, & Rhodes, 2012). Defined more broadly, mentoring programs are designed to improve child well-being in terms of three overarching domains: cognitive development, health and safety, and social and emotional stability (Herrera, DuBois, & Grossman, 2013; Jekielek, Moore, & Hair, 2002). Specifically, mentors can help youth better understand, express, and regulate their emotions. Such improvements enable more prosocial interactions with caregivers, peers, and other adults.
A variety of mentoring programs exist, including BBBS, Amachi, Cincinnati Youth Collaborative (CYC), and Mentoring Children of Prisoners (MCP) (Broussard, Mosley-Howard, & Roychoudhury, 2006; Bruster & Foreman, 2012; Grossman et al., 2012; Lemmon & Verrechia, 2009; Mihalic, Irwin, Elliott, Fagan, & Hansen, 2001). The National Mentoring Partnership’s (a.k.a., MENTOR) database recognizes more than 5,000 mentoring programs serving approximately three million youth (Blakeslee & Keller, 2012). Some programs have existed for nearly a century (e.g., BBBS) while others (e.g., Amachi, CYC) have been around for less than two decades.
BBBS has been the most extensively examined mentoring program to date (Grossman et al., 2012; Grossman & Tierney, 1998; Herrera et al., 2007; Herrera, Grossman, Kauh, & McMaken, 2011). Recognized as a model program by the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention (OJJDP) through the Blueprints for Violence Prevention initiative and subsequently deemed an evidence-based program (Lemmon & Verrechia, 2009; Mihalic et al., 2001; Mihalic, Fagan, Irwin, Ballard, & Elliott, 2004), BBBS has been identified as an effective intervention for elementary to high school age youth. Specifically, BBBS serves youth ages 6 to 18, often from disadvantaged communities and single-parent households (Mihalic et al., 2004). Volunteer mentors are screened, trained, and carefully matched with mentees. Mentors commit to meeting their mentees three or more times a month for a total of 5 or more hours and engaging in mutually agreed upon activities, such as attending after-school events, sporting events, walking in a park, and going to a library. A program coordinator regularly makes contact with the mentor, mentee, and parent to monitor the relationship. An 18-month evaluation of eight BBBS programs revealed that youth engaged in a mentoring program were 46% less likely to begin using drugs, 27% less likely to begin using alcohol, 32% less likely to be involved in assault, less likely to skip school, and had improved academic attitudes and peer and family relations. Finally, the rigorous review of mentoring programs conducted by OJJDP found BBBS to be the only program to be extensively evaluated and demonstrably capable of reducing drug use and delinquency (Mihalic et al., 2004).
Amachi, a program originating in Philadelphia as a collaboration between BBBS and faith-based organizations, derived its name from the West African word for “who knows but what God has brought us through this child” (Bruster & Foreman, 2012). Unlike BBBS, which targets all youth in need, Amachi focuses specifically on youth whose parents or relatives are incarcerated. The program was developed in 2000 and today there exist roughly 350 Amachi mentoring programs across the United States, serving more than 300,000 youth. Early evaluation studies of Amachi found that youth who were engaged in a 12-month or longer mentoring relationship felt more confident about education and their grades, and had improved school attendance. A large proportion of mentees also reportedly ceased using drugs or alcohol (Juvocy, 2003; as cited in Bruster & Foreman, 2012; see also Smith, 2012).
Amachi has much in common with BBBS and operates in a similar fashion, but with an exclusive focus on youth with incarcerated parents (Smith, 2012). While the program is championed as a faith-based initiative, it does not require its mentors or mentees to be of a particular religious affiliation. Like BBBS, mentors are screened and trained prior to being matched with a mentee. Mentors can be volunteers or recruited through local churches and congregations. The mentoring is one-on-one and mentors are expected to commit to at least a 1-hour weekly meeting or two 2-hour meetings per month. Amachi originally started with funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts and continues to seek sustainable funding from various sources in addition to Pew.
Two additional programs, the CYC and MCP, have also been associated with some positive findings in the literature. CYC was developed as a grassroots effort by educators and government professionals in 1987 as a response to increased dropout rates in Cincinnati public schools (Broussard et al., 2006). The mentoring program focuses its efforts on tutoring, postsecondary education, and youth employment. Said to have matched more than 1,000 youth from grades 3 to 12 with mentors, the program focuses specifically on inner-city impoverished male and female youth (95% of whom live in poverty) who are predominantly African American. Unlike BBBS and Amachi, which are community-based, CYC possesses a strong, school-based component that involves pairing mentees with paid youth advocates who supervise academic progress in addition to other activities, such as weekly meetings, home visits, and building relationships with the mentees’ relatives.
Researchers conducted group interviews with CYC mentees/students, youth advocates, and parents (Mosley-Howard, Broussard, & Roychoudhury, 2001; as cited by Broussard et al., 2006). According to their self-reports, mentees/students who met, on average, at least four times a week with a youth advocate perceived the program to be effective in enabling positive prosocial changes in their behavior and academic prospects. Specifically, mentees were appreciative of the youth advocates’ ability to keep them focused and motivated on school work as opposed to loitering on the street or arguing with teachers. Unsurprisingly, the youth advocates believed they were making a difference and cited assistance with completing college applications and financial aid forms as distinct signs of progress. Conversely, parents voiced a need for greater communication with the youth advocates. Parents also expressed dismay as to why some, but not all, of their children could be involved in the program. At the most extreme, some parents indicated feelings of frustration, believing their authority as a parent had been undermined by the youth advocate. Unfortunately, no systematic data has been collected on mentees aside from anecdotal evidence from the youth advocates, which greatly impairs the program’s evaluability.
MCP, like Amachi, is a national initiative aimed at providing mentors for youth with incarcerated parents. The MCP program conducted at the Seton Youth Shelters (SYS), located in Virginia Beach, Virginia was developed in 1985 to aid youth in crisis and foster family reunification (Bruster & Foreman, 2012). Youth who enter SYS may stay from 1 to 90 days, depending on their needs. The service is provided at no cost to needy youth. While there, they attend public school and receive individual, family, and group counseling. In 2006 it was recognized that a large proportion of admissions were for youth with incarcerated parents, and a mentoring program was developed to provide these youth, ages 10 to 11, with positive adult role models. These mentors provided one-on-one time with at-risk youth, provided prosocial avenues for recreation, and encouraged educational achievement. Like other youth mentoring programs, MCP requires weekly mentor-mentee meetings with structured activities such as assistance with homework, trips to the library, and special events (e.g., sports).
Since its inception, MCP has paired 206 youth with mentors. Of those matches, 60% remained intact for 1 year or longer. The majority of early terminations, about 24%, were caused by extenuating circumstances of the mentor, mentee, or the mentee’s family that were beyond their control (e.g., moving, deployment, illness, or crisis). Only approximately 10% of premature terminations were due to communication issues. Bruster & Foreman (2012) utilized a survey of children and their caregivers to gauge perceptions of the program’s effectiveness by asking about the parent’s incarceration and issues concerning housing, interventions, mental health, and communication. With the majority of mentees being African American (54%) and male (64%), their findings revealed that families held positive opinions of the mentoring program. Mentees, in particular, felt mentors were supportive and motivated them to do better academically.
A variety of other mentoring programs exist, including Across Ages, The Buddy System, Building Essential Life Options Through New Goals (BELONG), Career Beginnings, Campus Partners in Learning, Hospital Youth Mentoring Program, Linking Lifetimes, Raising Ambition Instills Self-Esteem (RAISE), and Sponsor-A-Scholar (Jekielek et al., 2002). These programs, like those already mentioned, share many common elements. In particular, each program supports close positive relationships between at-risk youth and caring adults who are community volunteers. Programs usually provide clear guidelines for the frequency and substance of the contact between youth and mentors. However, there are differences, such as the ways in which they organize and provide services (e.g., life skills training, academic tutoring, and community service). Overall, these mentoring programs demonstrate the consistent trend of improving educational outcomes, resulting in improved attitudes toward school, fewer unexcused absences, and a higher likelihood of attending college. Youth in these programs also tend to be less likely to use drugs or alcohol than youth who are not in these programs. In some cases, youth are less likely to engage in delinquent behaviors, though this finding is not consistent across programs. Furthermore, mentoring has shown to improve parent-youth relations and youths’ sense of self-worth. Mentoring has also reportedly improved mentees’ perceptions of elders and encouraged greater generosity and caring for others. Such benefits appear to hold true even for high-risk youth. However, these programs do not seem to have an effect on parental relations or school absences (Herrera et al., 2013; Tolan, Henry, Schoeny, Bass, Lovegrove, & Nichols, 2013).
Recently, a variety of systematic reviews and meta-analyses were conducted on youth mentoring programs. As mentioned previously, OJJDP’s systematic evaluation utilized a rigorous methodology, finding that only BBBS had been appropriately evaluated and had a substantive, though perhaps modest, positive impact on youth outcomes (i.e., academic improvement, delinquency reduction; Mihalic et al., 2001, 2004). OJJDP did not conduct a meta-analysis, however, meaning that cumulative evaluative results could lead one to alternate conclusions. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), relying on meta-analytical techniques, for example, found only a mentoring program known as Across Ages to be suitable as a model program, whereas BBBS was deemed an effective (i.e., promising) program (Rhodes, 2008). SAMHSA’s interest is in behavioral and psychological outcomes; OJJDP’s interest is in criminological outcomes.
More recent reviews and meta-analyses, therefore, prove especially informative (Dubois, Holloway, Valentine, & Cooper, 2002; Dubois, Portillo, Rhodes, Silverthorn, & Valentine, 2011; Jolliffe & Farrington, 2007; Rhodes, 2008; Tolan et al., 2013). As Rhodes (2008) explains, there is a great deal of literature devoted to the interests of youth mentoring interventions but a paucity of evaluative research, and few methodologically rigorous, outcome evaluations. Several primary studies have provided evidence that youth mentoring programs can work for some and have improved social, academic, and behavioral outcomes (DeWit et al., 2006; Dubois et al., 2002; 2011; Grossman & Tierney, 1998; Herrera et al., 2007, 2011; Karcher, 2005; Keating, Tomashina, Foster, & Allesandri, 2002). Dubois and colleagues’ meta-analyses (2002; 2011) revealed positive effects of youth mentoring programs, but the strength of the effects of such programs overall were weak. That said, the variation in effect sizes across studies was substantial. The researchers found that well-structured programs with clear goals and expectations, and continued mentor support, had the strongest effects. In a more recent meta-analysis of 46 youth mentoring program evaluations, researchers found moderate effect sizes in reducing delinquency, aggression, and drug use and improving academic functioning (Tolan et al., 2013). Finally, Jolliffe & Farrington (2007) examined the impact of youth mentoring on juvenile recidivism. With 18 relevant studies located for inclusion, their meta-analysis revealed an overall significant but weak effect. Furthermore, while 7 studies demonstrated a significant positive effect, the other 11 possessed null or negative but nonsignificant results. Of the many attempts to comprehensively integrate the literature, the need for randomized experimental evaluations continues. The outcomes of these meta-analyses were contingent on the methodology of the studies included, as well as on differences among the youth, mentors, and program characteristics (Rhodes, 2008).
To summarize, there are numerous youth mentoring programs across the country. They vary in terms of setting (school vs. community-based) and target population (e.g., high-risk, youth with incarcerated parents), yet conceptually they are similar. Most programs recruit volunteers, conduct screening and matching assessments, and support the mentoring relationship. Evaluation research has occurred more recently in the past two decades. A moderate number of studies have been evaluated in a variety of meta-analyses. The results of these studies, along with the many primary studies, have exposed a common trend. Specifically, youth mentoring programs tend to work well in fostering improved mentee attitudes toward school, behavior, and social relationships with peers and others. Less demonstrated is their effect on reducing delinquency or justice-related outcomes, although there has been some limited support that these programs are effective in reducing youths’ drug and alcohol use. Overall, the strength of mentoring programs has generally been regarded as positive, but weak to moderate. The following sections aim to provide guidance on practices that may enhance the mentoring experience and support positive outcomes.
As the previous section implied, the effectiveness of mentoring programs can vary due to a multitude of circumstances. That said, this section identifies a number of vulnerable populations that may benefit from mentoring programs. These include abused and neglected youth, youth with disabilities, pregnant and parenting adolescents, juvenile offenders, academically at-risk students, urban youth, youth with incarcerated parents, and youth with co-occurring risk factors.
More than five million youth are referred to the services of a child protective agency in any given year, with roughly 900,000 found to be victims of abuse or neglect (Britner et al., 2006). Perpetrators are most often the parents. More than 500,000 children are living in foster care. Research has shown neglected and abused youth are more likely than other youth to have their mentoring matches end prematurely (Grossman & Rhodes, 2002; Rhodes, Haight, & Briggs, 1999). The difficulties in maintaining matches with adult mentors are often connected to an inability to trust others as a product of their abuse. Nevertheless, foster care youth have been found to benefit from mentoring and reportedly exhibit significant improvements in self-esteem.
Approximately 11% of students between the ages of 6 and 13 in the United States receive special education services as a result of physical or mental impairment and disabilities (Britner et al., 2006). Youth with disabilities have been found to benefit from adult mentors who also have disabilities. These mentors are able to assist youth in developing strategies for overcoming their impairments, promoting greater independence and autonomy. Peer mentors with disabilities have also demonstrated effectiveness. That said, mentors without disabilities have also still been able to influence these youths positively in terms of educational goals.
Forty-three in 1,000 females between the ages of 15 and 19 experience pregnancy (Britner et al., 2006). Research has shown mentors for pregnant teenagers or adolescent parents can lower levels of depression, improve access to support networks, and encourage adolescents to seek out other social services. In addition, studies have shown mentored adolescent parents are less likely to abuse their children.
Juveniles account for approximately 2.3 million arrests in a given year, roughly 17% of all arrests and 15% of all arrests for violent crime (Britner et al., 2006). One of the difficulties with assessing mentoring of juvenile offenders is the many interventions to which they are exposed. In effect, it can become difficult for researchers to parse out which interventions, actors, or systems are the sources of change for juveniles. In one study comparing mentoring with skills training, the authors found skills training to be more cost effective, leading to a 14% reduction in recidivism (Blechman, Maurice, Buecker, & Helberg, 2000). Such a finding is not surprising given the relatively weak impact of mentoring on juvenile recidivism as reported in Jolliffe & Farrington’s (2007) meta-analysis.
An estimated 15% of American youth will fail to graduate high school in a given year (Britner et al., 2006). African American male youth residing in impoverished inner-city urban areas are at the greatest risk for dropping out of school (Pettit, 2012). Dropping out is often related to poor performance in school previously (Britner et al., 2006). As such, delays and difficulties beginning early in elementary school accumulate, leading to greater risk for failure and dropout in high school. School-based mentoring has often been less effective than community-based programs. Nonetheless, school-based mentoring has been found to increase positive attitudes toward school, self-esteem, a willingness to help others, improved grades, and a reduction in school absences (Britner et al., 2006; Grossman et al., 2012).
Urban youth living in impoverished neighborhoods are especially vulnerable to negative community influences and delinquency (Broussard et al., 2006). Only anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of programs such as CYC, as already mentioned, is available. Nevertheless, this evidence highlights the positive perceptions of African American youth on the mentor’s ability in such programs to keep them focused on academics and away from the street.
Fifty-four percent of inmates are parents, and more than 2.7 million children have parents behind bars (i.e., prison or jail; Bruster & Foreman, 2012; Pew, 2013). In other words, 1 in 28 children has an incarcerated parent. When categorized by race, African American children are the most likely to have an incarcerated parent, with a rate of 1 in 9, followed by Hispanic children with a rate of 1 in 28, and White children with a rate of 1 in 125. Roughly 80% to 90% of incarcerated parents have some form of contact with their children (e.g., telephone, letters, visits). For many, the telephone or handwritten letters are the most common form of contact. Approximately 53% of African American inmates reportedly speak to their children at least once a month. The rate of contact is higher for African Americans than for Whites (40%) or Hispanics (36%; Bruster & Foreman, 2012); perhaps this is an artifact of African Americans’ disproportionate rates of incarceration (see Pettit, 2012; Tonry, 2011; Wacquant, 2009; Western, 2008). In terms of daily contact, incarcerated female offenders (14% to 27%) are more likely to stay in touch than male offenders (9% to 18%). Youth who visit their incarcerated parents on a regular basis and possess a positive relationship tend to exhibit fewer behavior problems (Bruster & Foreman, 2012). Furthermore, when an inmate maintains contact with his or her family, the inmate’s behavior while incarcerated has been shown to improve and the likelihood of recidivism is reduced. The children of incarcerated adults typically reside with the other parent or a close relative (e.g., grandparent). Only approximately 12% of children with incarcerated parents are placed in foster care. In the case of incarcerated fathers, the child is most often placed with the mother (90%). However, only 28% of incarcerated mothers have reported the child being left in the care of the father.
As reported by the Pew Charitable Trusts (2013), having an incarcerated parent hurts children educationally and financially. Families with an incarcerated father, in particular, bring home approximately 22% less income than other families. Furthermore, these youth are more likely to be expelled or suspended from school for behavioral problems, roughly 23% compared to 4% for other youth. Programs such as Amachi, MCP, and SYS are based on the recognition that youth with incarcerated parents are at increased risk for delinquency and in need of prevention or intervention. Evaluations of the effectiveness of these programs to date rely on anecdotal data from mentees, mentors, and parents (Broussard et al., 2006; Bruster & Foreman, 2012). The results are largely positive and show increases in reported measures of self-esteem and commitment to education. However, other studies on the impact of juvenile recidivism and delinquency must lead one to be, at best, cautiously optimistic about such programs’ effectiveness in reducing the onset and persistence of delinquency among youth with incarcerated parents (Jolliffe & Farrington, 2007).
Youth with co-occuring risk factors, much like those addressed by oppression theory, mentioned previously, possess multiple risk factors for juvenile delinquency such as neglect, poverty, disabilities, and/or mental illness. These youth are even more disadvantaged and have greater needs than other youth (Britner et al., 2006). However, the literature to date has not classified youth from a multidimensional perspective of converging disadvantages. Given the generally positive, though perhaps weak-to-moderate effect of mentoring programs on academic outcomes and self-esteem, it would seem reasonable to hypothesize such programs would have the same effects on youth who possess multiple or a combination of risk factors.
These vulnerable populations are a source of both optimism and skepticism for the state of youth mentoring programs and their evaluations. It generally appears that mentoring programs have an impact on youth, even youth with a variety of disadvantages, but the effect is likely to be limited and weak. Furthermore, program results can be quite dispersed, with larger effects on certain youth in certain circumstances as opposed to others (Rhodes, 2008). Perhaps part of the disparity in evaluation findings is a product of youth with varying degrees of risk and needs. Modern day pretrial, probation, and parole agencies rely heavily on risk/needs assessment instruments (e.g., LSI-R, COMPASS) to appropriately categorize, manage, and provide relevant services to defendants, probationers, and parolees (Andrews, Bonta, & Hoge, 1990; Bonta, Rugge, Scott, Bourgon, & Yessine, 2008; Dowden & Andrews, 2004; Taxman & Thanner, 2006). In fact, a great deal of effort has been expended in some cases to empirically validate such instruments. Yet the youth mentoring literature makes only a passing mention of screening and inclusion criteria. It is clear programs are employing a set of inclusion criteria but it is unclear how that inclusion informs the matching of mentors to mentees, or how, and whether, inclusion criteria inform program evaluation.
Issues of Accessibility and Support
While youth mentoring programs hold promise for youth at greatest risk for educational problems and delinquency, their ability to obtain and match youth with prosocial adults is a complicated endeavor that encounters many barriers. First, those most in need of mentors often live in impoverished neighborhoods where locating suitable mentors is difficult (Hamilton & Hamilton, 2010). Furthermore, those who would often serve as the best mentors lead busy lives. Even when appropriately matched, differing schedules can complicate match experiences. Finally, the length of time that mentors and mentees spend together can be limited by time constraints. If too little time is afforded, the impact may be trivial and the focus more on fun time than substantive, goal-oriented endeavors. In such cases mentors can experience burnout and feel they have been taken advantage of.
Although not explicitly identified in the literature in relation to youth mentoring, there should be some thoughtful discussion of the impact of returning, desisting offenders who participate and work in prevention and intervention programs. The reason for this trend, as Maruna’s (2001) book clearly articulates, comes from ex-convicts’ desire to not only renew their lives but to repackage their past life in a positive light. In other words, they use their past criminal behaviors to serve a larger purpose: that is, to help them guide wayward youth and turn them away from an antisocial lifestyle. In addition, many lack the skills for other conventional jobs and under such circumstances their criminal experiences can be construed as marketable (Pettit, 2012). However, there is some inherent danger in utilizing former offenders in prevention and intervention strategies.
Violence interrupters (a.k.a., street workers), for example, have been used in some gang intervention programs designed to intervene in gang conflicts as they arise (Ritter, 2009). The reasoning is that former, supposedly denounced, gang members know the social networks of gangs in their areas and are better equipped to know when, where, and how, to intervene in gang conflicts than those who have not previously been involved in gangs. There are two primary dangers present when utilizing violence interrupters: (a) the former offender may be placed in danger, and (b) former offenders may take advantage of legitimate program resources to engage in illegal activities (Klein & Maxson, 2006).
Violence interrupters represent an extreme example. No doubt mentoring programs would be careful in their selection of mentors but, nevertheless, former offenders do sometimes participate. Mentoring programs should consider what former, desisting offenders can and cannot offer youth. They can serve as powerful role models for delinquent youth and demonstrate success through prosocial means. What some youth in inner-city ghettos refer to as “being real” illustrates the enhanced legitimacy afforded to former offenders. On the other hand, they could symbolize an inappropriate sense of normalcy; that offending, whether minor drug offenses or otherwise, is part of the inner-city transitioning process to adulthood. Mentoring research to date seems to have focused on satisfaction and outcome measures but appears to have neglected the heterogeneous characteristics of the mentors.
Guidance for Future Evaluation
Dubois and colleagues (2006) recommend a three-stage process of program evaluation for youth mentoring. The first stage, pre-intervention, concerns the development of the research design, piloting, refinement, and preliminary analyses. At this early stage the focus is on individual and population studies. In other words, what are the needs of the individuals and how do those needs relate to the larger population and resources available within the community? The first stage also concerns ways to minimize any harm youth may encounter when engaged in the program. The second stage, intervention, represents the process of using early research findings and collaboration with stakeholders to inform current program strategies and prepare for more in-depth evaluations. At this stage a full-scale efficacy trial is recommended, and evaluation procedures should include satisfaction perceptions from mentors and mentees, program benefits, costs, cost-effectiveness, and a cost-benefit ratio. Finally, the third stage, preventative service system intervention research, concerns the impact of the intervention on youth outcomes. Care should also be taken to ensure program fidelity (see also Wheeler, Keller, & DuBois, 2010). Finally, cost-effectiveness/cost-benefit analyses will provide a bottom line for the program’s overall value.
In addition, Deutsch and Spencer (2009) provide a variety of measures worthy of consideration by youth mentoring programs. These can be divided into hard (e.g., employment, education, training) and soft (e.g., self-esteem, personal development) outcomes. Furthermore, measures can be differentiated in terms of mentoring relationship outcomes and mentoring program outcomes. Mentoring relationship outcomes include duration (e.g., closure rates, average length of matches, percentage of matches maintained beyond 1 year); frequency/consistency of contact (i.e., dosage); connection (i.e., bond between mentor and mentee); mentor approach (developmental vs. instrumental); and mentor/mentee satisfaction. Though some scales exist, many require further validation of their psychometric properties (Dubois et al., 2006; Deutsch & Spencer, 2009). Mentoring program outcomes include screening criteria, program expectations of the mentors (i.e., commitment), training provided to mentors, structured activities provided for mentors and mentees by the program, and methods of monitoring relationships. The combination of Dubois et al.’s (2006) outcome-laden recommendations and Deutsch and Spencer’s (2009) multiple domain perspective provides a host of measures needed to more fully document and understand the processes and impact of youth mentoring.
Best Practices for Mentoring Programs
Deutsch & Spencer (2009) provide seven best practices for youth mentoring programs that are rooted in empirical findings. These include (a) select experienced mentors, (b) set expectations at the outset, (c) provide ongoing training, (d) support parental involvement, (e) provide structured activities, (f) utilize a community-based versus school-based approach, and (g) systematically monitor the program. A valuable resource, MENTOR (2009) similarly provides guidance on best practices in the conduct of youth mentoring programs. MENTOR’s report provides guidance on program management, program evaluation, recruitment, screening, training, matching, monitoring/support, and closure.
Bottom-line, mentoring works best when matches meet for at least 4 hours a month and relations stay intact for at least 1 year (Grossman et al., 2012; Jekielek et al., 2002; MENTOR, 2006). It is worth noting that in a recent study of high-risk youth mentoring, Herrera and colleagues (2013) did not find the length of the match or rematching to have a distinguishable impact on outcomes, although they did find a noticeable decrease in the overall benefits of mentoring on those who were rematched. Nonetheless, selecting experienced mentors who come from helping backgrounds is particularly important for sensitive youth who have been abused or neglected (Grossman et al., 2012; Herrera et al., 2013). Although research has not typically focused on parents, a study by Spencer, Collins, Ward, and Smashnaya, (2010) demonstrates parents are important stakeholders in the mentor-mentee relationship and their involvement can be vital to the relationship’s longevity. Parents often serve as collaborators in suggesting appropriate activities and strong mentor-parent relationships instill confidence and trust that allow for a healthier bond to form with mentees. Mentoring does not work when matches are prematurely terminated, typically within the first 3 months (Grossman et al., 2012; Rhodes, Spencer, Keller, Liang, & Noam, 2006). School-based mentoring (SBM) matches tend to end sooner than community-based matches (CBM). The average length of matches in SBM is about 5 months compared to 1 year for CBM (see also MENTOR, 2006). While early terminations yield no positive impact on youth, they also do not negatively impact the youth. However, rematched youth tend to have more negative outcomes. This could be due, in part, to feelings of rejection from the last match. Finally, youth in high-stress situations matched with college student mentors are more likely to experience early terminations.
Various authors have recognized differences in mentoring styles (Karcher & Nakkula, 2010; Keller & Pryce, 2012; Lock et al., 2006; Pryce & Keller, 2013; Pryce, 2012; Thomson & Zand, 2010). While often characterized as a dichotomy, Karcher and Nakkula (2010) explain that mentors exist on a continuum of two overarching dispositions: (a) developmental, in which the focus is on bonding and making emotional connections, and (b) instrumental (or prescriptive), in which the focus is on specific goals and outcomes. Karcher and Nakkula recognized mentoring styles can change over time and used three dimensions to characterize mentor and mentee interactions. First, focus pertains to whether the objective of the mentor-mentee interaction is primarily emotional or goal-oriented. It is possible for an emotional interaction to have goals but the goals are secondary. Likewise, a goal-oriented mentor may infuse opportunities for emotional connection but this is of secondary importance. Second, purpose refers to whether the interaction is intended to meet conventional adult (i.e., skills for adulthood) or youth (i.e., play) needs. Finally, authorship concerns the method by which the mentor and mentee come to agree on a given activity. The activity could be at the discretion of the mentor, collaboratively agreed upon by both, or deferred solely to the youth.
Keller and Pryce’s (2012) study of 26 new BBBS relationships in three schools in low-income urban areas, using interviews and questionnaires, developed four relationship characterizations. First, the teaching assistant/tutor relationship focused on school work. The friend participated in playing games and conversation. The sage/counselor went a step further than being a friend by offering sound advice and a greater concern for the mentees’ well-being. Finally, the acquaintance represented mentoring relationships that were experiencing difficulty or awkwardness. Of these distinct relationship typologies, those in sage/counselor relationships expressed the most positive outcomes, with reductions in depressive symptoms and aggressive behavior. Not surprisingly, the acquaintance relationships featured the poorest outcomes, including an increase in aggressive behaviors. Keller and Pryce (2012) specifically highlight the importance of being attentive to youths’ needs, staying positively engaged, and supporting the mentee’s learning needs and development.
While Karcher and Nakkula (2010) and Keller and Pryce (2012) each characterized a continuum of mentoring styles and interactions, it is clear that both laissez-faire (i.e., those that are under-structured) and solely prescriptive mentoring styles (i.e., those that are overly structured) are not effective. Finally, while many mentoring programs will possess various training materials to assist mentors, Manza and Patrick’s (2012) question-and-answer styled book is particularly insightful and intuitive.
A variety of evaluations have been conducted across the globe on youth mentoring programs, which often share the same goals and aspirations as those in the United States (Bodin & Leifman, 2011; Brown et al., 2009; Farruggia, Bullen, Solomon, Collins, & Dunphy, 2011; Goldner & Mayseless, 2009; Newburn & Shiner, 2006). In Britain, as in the United States, mentoring programs were found to increase involvement in education, training, and work, but were less successful in reducing delinquency (Newburn & Shiner, 2006). Sweden’s attempt to prevent adolescents’ substance abuse through mentoring was unsuccessful, showing no statistically significant results (Bodin & Leifman, 2011). The study conducted in Sweden suffered from a low response rate and the program had a high number of premature terminations. A study in Israel by Goldner & Mayseless (2009) of the Perach mentoring program found improvements in academic adjustment, social support, and well-being, but did not examine delinquency.
A unique study in Rwanda examined adult mentors’ impact on youth-headed households resulting from a high prevalence of AIDS. It found mentors helped ameliorate youth grief, youth perceived greater adult support, and youth had a slight decrease in rates of depression (Brown et al., 2009). Finally, a meta-analysis of 22 mentoring programs targeting at-risk socio-economically disadvantaged youth in New Zealand found no significant impact on educational or delinquent outcomes (Farruggia et al., 2011). It has been argued that one-on-one mentoring may be culturally inappropriate, especially for groups such as the Maori and Pasifika, who value group needs over individual ambitions. Four mentoring programs have included culturally appropriate components yet they still failed to demonstrate substantive outcomes.
Youth mentoring programs do work, but not always. Furthermore, what works depends to some extent on what outcomes are deemed most important. For example, if the aim is to reduce delinquency then, unfortunately, there is limited evidence to suggest youth mentoring programs are effective (Rhodes, 2008). If educational outcomes and self-esteem are considered valuable, then one may have a more cognizant argument. Overall, results are still not as favorable as one would hope, with effects often being weak or, at best, moderate in strength. However, with more than 5,000 youth mentoring programs in existence across the country, it is clear there are many evaluations yet to occur that could prove informative to this growing body of empirical literature (Blakeslee & Keller, 2012). Furthermore, the literature that does exist has been developed predominantly within the last two decades.
As Rhodes (2008) noted, meta-analyses are subject to variations across studies; the overall effects documented are often the results of a number of positive studies tempered by a variety of low-impact or negative studies associated with a high number of premature terminations (e.g., Bodin & Leifman, 2011). Indeed, it may not be a matter of whether mentoring programs work but rather when they work. This review of the research has demonstrated that mentoring programs are most likely to work when matches possess longevity and structure, promote youth autonomy, and represent a balance of emotional and goal-oriented activities. They do not work when matches terminate prematurely or sensitive youth are matched with casual, inexperienced mentors (see also Herrera et al., 2013).
Although OJJDP formally recognized BBBS as an evidence-based program based on a rigorous evaluation associated with a positive impact, the cumulative evidence of effectiveness of mentoring programs as demonstrated by a variety of meta-analyses is less convincing (Dubois et al., 2002; Jolliffe & Farrington, 2007; Rhodes, 2008). Not only is more research needed, especially longitudinal research, but the research needs to take a more systematic and collaborative focus that recognizes a variety of process and outcome measures (Dubois et al., 2006; Deutsch & Spencer, 2009). Besides stable funding to ensure fidelity, youth mentoring programs need to support mentors with ongoing training, continue to provide structured activities, and collect the data needed for short-term and long-term evaluations.
Although research leading to more definitive outcomes is needed, especially in terms of delinquency, youth mentoring programs overall have been demonstrated to work, as a variety of meta-analyses have illustrated (Dubois et al., 2011; Herrera et al., 2013). Although mentoring programs’ impact may be weak or moderate in strength, and programs will experience both successes and failures in their matches, these programs are, by and large, positively influencing the lives of youth. Considering that the time spent between mentors and their mentees is limited (an hour or two a week), the evidence that such programs have an impact at all speaks to the potential they possess. Furthermore, in terms of cost-benefit, most programs comprise volunteer mentors, presenting a substantial value to the community. Going forward, the question of mentoring should not be concerned so much with can or does it work, but rather, when and how does it work, and how can it be improved?
About the Author
Adam K. Matz, MS, is a research associate at the American Probation and Parole Association, Council of State Governments, Lexington, Kentucky, and a doctoral candidate at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Department of Criminology, Indiana, Pennsylvania. Mr. Matz also volunteers for a youth mentoring program.
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