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Mentoring College Students – What Makes Mentoring Relationships Work

October 5, 2010

There is a rich literature on the nature of mentoring relationships for youth, but less understanding on how mentoring relationships function as young people develop into late adolescence and early adulthood. A better understanding of mentoring relationships for this age group is critical to programs aimed at drop out prevention, transition into adulthood, and college undergraduates. This is the subject of an article in New Directions for Youth Development (summer, 2010) by Simon Larose, and his colleagues at the Département d’études sur l’enseignement et l’apprentissage of the Faculté des sciences de l’éducation at Université Laval in Quebec.

Those familiar with youth-mentoring literature know that much of the discussion hinges on finding the right balance between so-called “developmental (unstructured, involving social supports and fun activities)” vs. “instrumental (structured and involving educational, professional and learning activities)” approaches. The youth mentoring field has tended to favor the developmental approach, although current research views this as somewhat of a simplification, and supports a blending of approaches.

What isn’t clear is whether this framework is even applicable to older adolescents and young adults.  Compared with youth mentoring, where the qualities promoting friendship might be paramount, it is easy to wonder whether college students would benefit from a more goal directed, focused and structured approach to help them achieve their specific academic and career goals. LaRose et. al., examine such interesting questions as whether it is important for college mentoring matches to engage in social activities? Is mentoring the appropriate venue to resolve mentees’ personal as well as academic problems? When targeting mentees at risk of academic failure, is a more “prescriptive” approach indicated?

The authors discuss the MIRES program which seeks to prevent college freshman from dropping out of science programs.  The authors found that matches that participated in structured, meaningful activities were more effective than matches that focused exclusively on problem solving or open discussion. Mentors who expressed some “directivity coupled with high emotional involvement and reciprocity” were more likely to connect with their mentees and improve their academic adjustment. In contrast to the literature on mentoring children and young teens, this would favor a balance tipped toward the instrumental, rather than developmental, end of the scale. The authors feel that for older adolescents “what is meaningful may actually be interactions with a conventional purpose, such as future academic success, rather than those that are playful.” It is easy to imagine how mentees would benefit from acquiring the specific tools and advice they need to negotiate the science-career ladder. The authors stress, however, that mentoring relationships continue to benefit from reciprocity, responsiveness to mentee’ needs and the facilitation of the developmental needs of mentees, in particular autonomy. Mentees needs must to come first, it is just that, in young adulthood, a relatively more directive approach may best meet those needs.

–The Structure of effective academic mentoring in late adolescence. LaRose, S., Cyreene, D., Garceau, O., Brodeur, P., Tarabulsy, GM, New Directions for Youth Development: Theory Practice, Research, (summer 2010) Jossey-Bass publisher.

Public policy and research on school-based mentoring take a front seat in the new issue of Social Policy Research

August 13, 2010

School-based youth mentoring programs took a blow last year when the Obama administration cut the federal Department of Education school-based mentoring program within days of the release of a controversial IES-sponsored study of the initiative that reported limited impacts of the program. The US-DOE program was one of the only nationwide federal funding streams of scope devoted to youth mentoring that supported whole-community and school mentoring efforts of youth serving organizations (many federal funding streams specify a particular subset of youth out of all the youth an organization might serve, such as children with an incarcerated parent). Cutting the program raised a number of issues about how research results are interpreted by policy makers, and what constitutes evidence of best practice and federal initiative effectiveness. What makes these questions especially intriguing in the case of youth mentoring is that two other large random-assignment studies on school-based mentoring have been released in the past three years, which provide a somewhat different view of the effectiveness of school-based mentoring, and have led to a different response from the sponsoring agencies (Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and Communities in Schools): rather than terminating the programs, in these cases the findings were used to inform and improve program practice. In other words, in one case research was used to pull funding and in the others it was taken as a sign that practice that should be improved and then the intervention reassessed.

As anyone involved in education or youth-serving programs knows, there is a new drive toward funding “what works,” what is “cost-effective,” what is “innovative,” that arguably outpaces tools and efforts to measure program effectiveness and youth success over time. Even within the purview of “gold standard”  research (research utilizing control groups and randomized assignment), there is much more gray area than is widely recognized, particularly with regard to the complex and difficult to measure outcomes associated with social science research. In this context readers will be interested in the new issue of Social Policy Report (SPR),  a journal devoted to promoting joint understanding of policy and research for informed decision-making, that takes a deeper look at the three large studies on school-based mentoring.  The issue is available online:  “Review of Three Recent Randomized Trials of School-Based Mentoring: Making Sense of Mixed Findings,” and is authored by two faculty of the Center for Interdisciplinary Mentoring Research, Marc Wheeler and Thomas Keller, along with preeminent mentoring researcher David Dubois of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The authors use metaanalytical tools, secondary data-analysis and other means to review the findings from the studies and discuss in-depth what should (and should not) be our take-aways from these large studies regarding school-based mentoring as an intervention.

The report has a lot to interest anyone involved in communicating about, and being informed consumers of, social research and practice. It is very interesting to hear how the different research designs, measures, and application of criteria for statistical significance led to results being reported and publicly interpreted in different ways, and how the authors and commentators grapple with ways to communicate findings effectively. For example, there is a useful metaphorical description comparing different levels of significance used in the studies to baseball umpires calling strikes. It is of note that MENTOR/The National Mentoring Partnership has planned an event with the Washington DC Press Corps to discuss the report in September.

The Social Policy Report is available online: Wheeler, M.E., Keller, T.E.  & Dubois, D.L., (2010). Review of three recent randomized trials of school-based mentoring. Social Policy Report, 24(3). (available as a pdf from the Society for Research on Child Development,

The accompanying metaanalysis of the three school-based programs was published on our (the Center for Interdisciplinary Mentoring Research) website: Wheeler, M.E., Dubois, D.L., Keller, T.E.   (2010). Detailed summary of meta-analysis performed for review of three recent randomized trials of school-based mentoring: Making sense of mixed findings.

Here is a radio broadcast from KTOO Public Broadcasting in Juneau, Alaska where Marc Wheeler discusses the report (fast forward to minutes 22:00 – 43:00):

The Importance of Mentoring Women in Science

June 18, 2010

The National Research Committee has issued a report encouraging women in science to seek multiple mentors during all stages of their career,  citing evidence that women research faculty may benefit from mentoring even more than men. For example,  the NRC has shown that female assistant professors with no mentors had 68 percent probability of having grant funding versus 93 percent of women with mentors (the same was not found to be true for male faculty with and without mentors).  More woman than men report having mentors: among tenure-track faculty, 57% of women and 49% of men were in mentoring relationships.

Cathy Trower of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at Harvard University has examined many issues related to career satisfaction and motivation of research faculty. According to her research, woman in research positions tend to be less satisfied with their careers than male research faculty.  Trower recommends that departments provide mentoring for all faculty to encourage a better sense of belonging. Mentoring helps address the feelings of isolation and marginalization often reported by women in academic settings. Among science, technology, mathematics and engineering faculty in the COACHE survey, women rated the importance of formal mentoring significantly higher than men did. Trower told AAUW, “Mentoring is crucial for STEM women because without it they might not be privy to the good old boys’ club or behind the scenes conversations that are crucial to fitting in the department and to getting tenure” (Why so Few?).  Interestingly, Trower reports that informal mentoring relationships are even more important for women in STEM careers than formal mentoring.  Trower believes that this may be because “informal relationships arise organically, and because they are not part of a formal process, they may feel more natural, closer, more trusting and honest, which may be especially important to women in STEM, who are often in a numerical minority in their departments.”  It is interesting to compare these results to other research looking at mentoring in the workplace (see cimrblog post from March 25, 2010)

A number of recent reports (cited below) have documented progress overcoming the dramatic under-representation of women in science careers. These reports emphasize the importance of mentoring at all stages along the career pathway. Headway has been made, but women are still dramatically underrepresented in faculty positions. In fact, although boys and girls graduate from high school with equal numbers wanting to pursue careers in science, there are substantial losses all along the pipeline. Women comprise only 22 percent of doctoral scientists and engineers employed full time (up roughly five percentage points over the past decade), and the numbers of women continue to drop off, as we move into senior faculty and research positions. Even among women receiving Ph.D.s, a disproportionate number go on to apply for faculty positions . Although many factors may contribute to this drop off, it is most certainly impacted by the challenges women face in balancing career and family in early-stage research careers. Anyone who has navigated the graduate student, postdoc and junior faculty pipeline can attest to the struggles — from low pay to frequent moves to expectations around pursuing grant support or applying for tenure within specific timeframes — that make it difficult for women who wish to start a family. Women often feel that they are forced to choose between a career or a family or to put their career on hold. One way that mentoring relationships can help women in science is by focusing on ways to achieve a work/life balance. I have to say, though, that much that I have found in the literature on achieving work-life balance in research careers isn’t satisfactory. New NIH guidelines on “early career researchers” are a step in the right direction — they allow for an early-career researcher to take a break for family and still retain early-career status past the regular 10-year mark. Still, mentors that can role model successful balancing of family and career, and structural changes in tenure policies and other institutional practices are much needed.
For more imformation on mentoring women in science see:

Peer mentoring as an intervention in child welfare, drug treatment, and HIV support

June 11, 2010

June 11, 2010 — Peer mentoring is being used in some interesting new contexts, including: “parent mentors” for birth parents participating in the child welfare system aimed at improving reunification outcomes; peer “family mentors” for parents undergoing treatment for substance abuse; and peer programs for HIV positive teens. The Source, the journal from the National Abandoned Infants Assistance Resource Center,  has devoted its Spring issue to examining the many benefits and challenges of these types of peer programs. The issue will be very useful to programs implementing mentoring programs serving these populations.

One article — Parent Mentors in Child Welfare: A Paradigm Shift from Traditional Services, by Laura Frame, Jill Duerr Berrick and Judi Knittel  — provides a very interesting overview of the challenges in implementing a peer parent mentor program for birth parents in the child welfare system based on their work in two California Counties. Peer mentors are selected from the pool of parents who themselves have experienced child removal and who have successfully and stably reunified with their children. They are uniquely able to provide psycho-social support from a personal perspective. Among the positive benefits cited:

  • Parents receiving this type of mentoring often feel that  “if they could do it, so can I,” which can be powerfully motivating and engender hope in ways that traditional supports cannot.
  • Parent peer mentor services can be designed to remain available to birth parents after the immediate crisis phase is over, providing a more sustained network of support.
  • Parent mentors may be a part of the community that the parent comes from and have an understanding of the parent’s unique culture and community.
  • Programs can be designed to include mentoring of fathers, who are often relegated to a subsidiary position in child welfare reunification efforts.

But implementing parent mentoring programs for parents involved in the child welfare system is hardly straightforward, and requires a paradigm shift and overcoming numerous challenges. Staff may welcome peer mentoring programs in theory, but in practice it can be difficult to relinquish traditional models  based upon “professionally trained staff as experts.” Peer programs in these settings tend to make agencies more transparent and responsive, essentially giving parents a new voice. The flip side is that child welfare professionals may not be as ready as they think they are to hear this new voice, which may point out shortcomings and problems in the existing system. The programs can create new challenges and time constraints for staff who must operate within the framework of the child welfare bureaucracy. The fact that parent mentors “have been there,” is a great asset, but can also mean that they may have past criminal convictions, substance abuse issues and may lack educational and work experience to draw from. They will need to be prepared to successfully transition from being clients to being leaders, and staff will need to be prepared to accept them in new roles. There are many role clarity issues that need to be sorted out for mentors to operate effectively.

As is often the case, practice far out paces research in promoting peer mentoring as an effective strategy in child welfare. Evaluation and research of parent mentoring programs is still scant, but there are indications of positive outcomes, including evidence that suggests that parent mentors may be helpful in engaging substance-abusing clients in treatment [see Ryan, J., Marsh, J., Testa, M., & Louderman, R. , 2006, Integrating substance abuse treatment and child welfare services: Findings from the Illinois alcohol and other drug abuse waiver demonstration. Social Work Research, 30-2, 95-107].

One article in the issue examines how family mentoring can be used in substance abuse treatment and child welfare, based on information from the START program in Cleveland. In the START program, family mentors are recruited that have, on average, seven years of successful recovery and have experiences that sensitize them to child needs. Family mentors are hired and work in a team with a caseworker to support 12-15 families. Skepticism about hiring persons in recovery as mentors prompted the START program to develop a checklist of family mentor activities that provides a window into how mentoring functions in this context. Mentoring includes a myriad of activities supporting all family members and even relatives caring for children. Activities include recovery support, and coaching and mentoring on sober parenting. Interestingly, even though the mentors are serving a population of parents with severe substance abuse and other problems, 72% of families kept each and every appointment with their family mentor (4-6/month), indicating that the mentoring relationship was important to participants.

The issue also has several articles on designing peer-supports to HIV infected adults and teens. The supports discussed include peer “group” counseling, and supportive supervision, and attest to both challenges and impacts these types of programs can have for providing emotional support, and promoting adherence to medical care plans. There are many factors that make research difficult, for example authors of the article on peer supports for HIV teens point out the obvious ethical concerns when it comes to identifying a “control group” of HIV positive teens that don’t receive peer supports).

For these articles and others see:

Peer Mentors: Alliances at Work, (2010) The Source, Volume 20, No. 1(2010)  National Abandoned Infants Assistance Resource Center, University of California, Berkeley

Dr. Reed Larson examines the role of youth programs in adolescent development

June 4, 2010

June 3, 2010 — Researchers and practitioners interested in positive youth development, how youth learn to navigate complex adult-world situations, how youth programs impact adolescent behavior, and group mentoring will enjoy this fascinating presidential address at the Society for Research on Adolescence, presented by Dr. Reed Larson of the University of Illinois- Urbana-Champaign, titled: Positive Development in a Disorderly World.”

Dr. Larson states emphatically that young people trying to get a toehold in the adult world need to develop a rich set of competencies to navigate disorder and complexity. The question is two-fold: what are the competencies required and how do youth develop them? He provides a vivid overview of what is and is not known about adolescent brain and cognitive development, set against a backdrop of an increasingly labyrinthine challenges youth face as they transition into adulthood. His research looks in particular at youth programs in which youth create art or technology projects or engage in leadership building, service, and civic engagement activities.

  • Dr. Larson’s framework supports an alternative to the common public image of teenagers with emotions that are out of control, suggesting that although teens experience strong emotions they can also learn to channel them in powerful ways through goal-directed activities and projects.
  • Although mid-adolescence is a peak developmental period for boredom, research hasn’t adequately addressed the flip side of how motivation is developed and encouraged in youth. Even though many theories of motivation state that human motivation is through self-interest and short-term gain, teens often are highly motivated by activities that they perceive will help their communities and peers and that increase their ability to achieve long-term goals with no immediate payoff, such as helping them prepare for future careers. Much of the meaning that youth find in activities, and much of their sense of sustained motivation isn’t drawn directly from adults, but emerges via their own constructive process of finding meaning. It is interesting in this context to reflect on some of the new research from the Search Institute on the “sparks” that motivate youth.
  • Many youth who engage in youth programs develop strategic thinking skills that they can transfer to other facets of their lives, including jobs and education.
  • Youth develop strategic thinking skills not just through trial and error and learning from mistakes, but also through activities designed to encourage tactical thinking, planning, use of the imagination and reasoned experimentation.

Many of Dr. Larson’s points have direct bearing on how youth programs, including group mentoring programs, are designed and delivered. His research is a wealth of information for how adults engage with youth to encourage positive youth development, including the challenges and benefits of youth-led vs. adult-led models  (for example, see Larson, R., Walker, K., & Pearch, 2005, citation below ). In his framework, youth-led programs are ideal for developing leadership skills for youth if implemented and supported correctly. In contrast adult-led programs can be excellent at imparting specific skills, but have their unique challenges.

Dr. Larson has a number of great articles available on his website including topics such as the role of program advisors, adolescent emotional development, development of initiative and strategic thinking in adolescence, and different models of youth programs:

Larson, R., Walker, K., & Pearce, N. (2005). A comparison of youth-driven and adult-driven youth programs: Balancing inputs from youth and adults.  Journal of Community Psychology, 33, 57-74.

Larson, R.W., Rickman, A.N., Gibbons, C.M., & Walker, K.C. (2009). Practitioner expertise: Creating quality within the daily tumble of events in youth settings. In N.Yohalem, R. Granger, & K. Pittman (Eds.). New Directions for Youth Development, No 121, 71-88. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Larson, R. W. & Brown, J. R. (2007). Emotional development in adolescence: What can be learned from a high school theater program. Child Development, 78(4), 1083-1099.

Evaluation of the Gates Foundation Washington State Achievers Program

April 2, 2010

April 2, 2010 — The Gates Foundation has just released Expanding Access and Opportunity: The Washington State Achievers Program Report which evaluates their initiative to expand access to college for low-income students through school reform, mentoring, and scholarships. The report examines student demographics, college readiness, enrollment and persistence, student loans and experience for students in the Washington State Achievers Program — a program designed to help break down higher education barriers for low-income students. The program includes students from 16 high schools throughout Washington and involves high school redesign, mentoring and scholarships. In the context of mentoring, the results were interesting in that students reported that their mentors were very important to their ability to navigate the college atmosphere and that they were particularly important for students who began at two-year institutions, possibly because two-year institutions don’t always have the student support infrastructure of four-year institutions. There were also other findings that will be of interest to researchers studying young adults transitioning into colleges including the amount of remedial help students required, financial strains, etc. The report can be downloaded at:

Expanding Access and Opportunity: The Washington State Achievers Program
Institute for Higher Education Policy; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
(March 2010)

Youth Mentoring Researchers and Practitioners Discuss Ethics, Recruitment and Screening

March 30, 2010

March 29, 2010 — This week, top researchers and practitioners from the youth mentoring field presented the second webinar of a series hosted by MENTOR/The National Mentoring Partnership on Mentor Recruitment and Screening. The webinar should be available online sometime later this week.

Dr. Renée Spencer of the Boston University School of Social Work  discussed mentor recruitment through the lens of her qualitative research interviewing mentors and mentees about why their matches succeeded or failed. Her research gets at the heart of the importance of managing expectations for both mentors and mentees, and has implications for the ethical principles underlying youth mentoring program design. Specifically, research has shown that mentoring relationships that end too early can actually negatively impact mentees, who are left to deal with disappointment. All aspects of mentoring recruitment and screening must be designed to make it clear to mentors what is expected of them, and to make sure mentors are both fully committed and in it for “the right reasons.” Celeste Janssen of Oregon Mentors spoke about the advice she gives mentoring programs throughout Oregon about recruitment messaging, particularly the need to purge language suggesting that “mentoring is easy,” and “anyone can do it.”  She encouraged programs not to try to be “all things to all people,” to develop a recruitment plan using strategic messaging that they test on target audiences, and to remember not to forget the importance of word-of-mouth recruitment from your current mentors and champions. Ben Gulker of Mentor Michigan introduced their Men in Mentoring Toolkit, to help programs overcome the shortage of male mentors, and discussed in greater detail the types of targeted mentoring that is effective for men. The final speaker was, Jenny Stern-Carusone of  Committed Partners for Youth/Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lane County, who spoke in-depth about the screening policies and procedures used by her agency, and how they are designed not just to screen people out, but to make sure that they get the right people in.  She gave a very informative talk, not just about the nuts-and-bolts of each stage of the process, but also the ethical issues involved, and how they work to really determine mentors’ motivations are in alignment with their program goals.

In addition to all of the resources from MENTOR,  and the Men in Mentoring Toolkit, researchers might be interested in other resources mentioned in the webinar including:


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