Two young women, one a teen and one a young adult

The Science of Mentoring

Who doesn’t think mentoring is a great idea for kids, especially youth at risk of delinquency?

President Obama spoke for the common wisdom in a speech last January, when he proclaimed, “Mentors help children build confidence, gain knowledge, and develop the strength of character to succeed inside and outside of the classroom.”

Although support for mentoring abounds, many of its touted benefits—which may indeed exist—are only anecdotally supported.

“People like mentoring, and mentoring programs sometimes have their own political energy,” says Patrick Tolan, professor in the Department of Human Services at the Curry School of Education and the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences in the U.Va. School of Medicine. He is also the director of Youth-Nex: The U.Va. Center to Promote Effective Youth Development.

“A lot of mentoring programs have good empirical evidence that they make a difference in preventing school failure, drug abuse, delinquency, violence, and related problems,” he added. Not all mentoring programs are beneficial, however, and the mechanisms behind the successful ones—which activities, people, or other factors make them effective—are generally unknown.

Tolan and Youth-Nex colleagues have begun trying to discover the characteristics of the mentoring process that engender positive change in youth. Their ultimate goal is to develop metrics for measuring the quality of a vast array of activities that typically fall under the mentoring umbrella.

Patrick Tolan

Tolan has been researching youth risk and prevention for more than 30 years. Since becoming director of Youth-Nex in 2010, he has focused on connecting his prior work in mental health problem prevention to the emerging fields of positive youth development and youth capability. He also focuses on connecting diverse scholarship across the University around this important issue.

Oddly enough, he says, definitions of mentors and mentoring vary widely, so one of his team’s early tasks was narrowing the definition. “Not every adult-child interaction is mentoring.”

Not every adult-child interaction is mentoring.

After examining 46 rigorous studies of mentoring programs published between 1970 and 2011, the team identified some common threads of mentoring. Their ongoing research will consider mentoring to be the provision by a volunteer or paraprofessional, through a one-to-one relationship, of modeling, teaching, emotional support, and advocacy.

Mentoring is different, they say, from psychotherapy, skills building, behavioral training, informal care, and tutoring.

The goal of mentoring relationships is generally positive change in self-image, attitudes, goals, and behavior and preventing or stemming risky behavior.

The researchers found from the studies they examined that effects were most significant when mentoring activities emphasized emotional support and advocacy.  Emotional support involves being available to listen to and exhibit care about how the child feels. Advocacy refers to speaking up for the child. It can be informal, as in helping explain the child’s view to a teacher or parent, or formal, as in going to a planning meeting with a probation caseworker.

“With more specificity of what mentors in a given program are expected to do and more specific measurement of how interpersonal processes like emotional support or modeling affect how mentoring works, we can improve our training during mentoring and, I think, make mentoring even more effective,” Tolan says.

As the team works to create and validate scales to measure mentoring programs, they have developed an online survey to collect information about the experiences of mentoring.

Are you a youth mentor? You are invited to participate in the survey and contribute to the research.

Youth who are currently or were previously engaged in mentoring between ages 10 and 16 are also invited to participate in the survey.

Participants will receive a stipend for completing the survey.

Listen to a research talk by Tolan on this topic.