Mentoring: A Promising Strategy for Youth Development

To address these questions, Child Trends reviewed studies of ten youth mentoring programs, including
both nationwide and locally based programs. Our conclusions about program impacts are based on
experimentally designed evaluations. These evaluations compare youth randomly assigned to a mentoring program with a group of similar youth who were not so assigned. Seven studies conducted on five of
these programs used an experimental design to evaluate the programs. Our conclusions about effective
program approaches, however, are generally based on non-experimental analyses.
This Research Brief brings together highlights from these multiple studies. The overarching finding
from this research is that mentoring programs can be effective tools for enhancing the positive development of youth. Mentored youth are likely to have fewer absences from school, better attitudes towards
school, fewer incidents of hitting others, less drug and alcohol use, more positive attitudes toward their
elders and toward helping in general, and improved relationships with their parents. But the research
also sounds some cautionary notes. For example, it suggests that mentoring relationships of short
duration may do more harm than good. Also, in most programs, mentoring was augmented with other
services, such as academic support.
We conclude this brief with some considerations that policy makers and practitioners may want to keep
in mind as they address the needs of at-risk youth.
THE FOUNDATION OF
MENTORING
All children need caring adults in their lives.
Although positive, sustained relationships with
parents represent a critical resource for children,
other adults can provide support that is similar to
the support that a parent provides. This support
from other adults can either be in addition to that
provided by a parent or in place of support that a
parent refuses or is unable to give. For example,
other adults can provide financial assistance,
enhance children’s learning skills, and help build
their self-esteem and self-control. They can also
provide emotional support, advice, and guidance
about subjects that adolescents might feel uncomfortable, apprehensive, or fearful discussing with
their parents.1
Such involvement may be especially important for
at-risk youth, that is, young people from poor,
struggling, often single-parent families who live in
neighborhoods that offer few positive outlets and
a limited number of positive role models.
Mentoring programs can be seen as formal mechanisms for establishing a positive relationship
with at least one caring adult. Indeed, mentoring
is often defined as a sustained relationship
between a young person and an adult in which the
adult provides the young person with support,
guidance, and assistance.2 The very foundation
of mentoring is the idea that if caring, concerned
adults are available to young people, youth will
be more likely to become successful adults
themselves.3
THE SCOPE OF MENTORING
Although all mentoring programs aim to promote positive youth outcomes, they vary somewhat in their goals, emphasis, and structure.
Some programs have broad youth development
goals, while others focus more narrowly on
improving academic performance, helping youth
stay in school, preparing youth for a particular
line of work, or reducing substance abuse and
other anti-social behaviors. Some programs are
unstructured; others are highly structured. The
programs whose evaluations we reviewed run
the gamut. (See accompanying box for brief
descriptions of these programs.) These programs do have a lot in common, though. Most
are community-based, in contrast to schoolbased, and most target an “at-risk” population.
Many of the evaluations of these programs were
conducted by Public/Private Ventures. One was
conducted by Manpower Demonstration
Research Corporation, and another by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. See References for
complete citations for the program evaluations.
THE IMPACT OF
MENTORING
We drew from evaluations of these programs to
assess the effects of mentoring in three major
areas that are critical to young people’s success
in life: educational achievement; health and safety; and social and emotional development. We
restrict our assessment of impacts for youth
well-being to randomized experimental
evaluations.4,5
Before highlighting these outcomes, we offer a
caveat. While Big Brothers/Big Sisters and The
Buddy System are purely mentoring programs,
in the other programs whose evaluations we
reviewed, one-on-one mentoring is only one part
Programs Evaluated by Experimental Methods
Across Ages, based in Philadelphia, targets 6thgraders in distressed areas for mentoring by an older
adult, with a special emphasis on reducing substance
abuse and other antisocial behaviors.
Big Brothers/Big Sisters operates nationwide. This
well-known, highly structured program promotes positive youth development through one-on-one mentoring
for 5- to 18-year-olds who come primarily from singleparentfamilies.
The Buddy System, based in Hawaii, used adults
from the community to serve as mentors for 10-to-17-
year-olds with behavior and academic problems. The
program is no longer in existence.
Building Essential Life Options through New
Goals (BELONG) provided opportunities for middleschool and junior-high students to be mentored by
undergraduates from Texas A& M University in an
effort to improve school performance and prevent substance abuse. The program is no longer operating.
Career Beginnings, with programs in six cities, targets 11th- and 12th-grade students for mentoring by an
adult, as well as other activities designed to prepare students for further education and future employment.
Programs Evaluated by Quasi-experimental
or Non-experimental Methods
Campus Partners In Learning, (which is no longer
in existence) brought together college students and 4thto 9th-graders for mentoring and group activities aimed
both at improving young people’s academic and social
outcomes and boosting college students’ leadership
skills. It operated nationally.
The Hospital Youth Mentoring Program, taps volunteers who work in hospitals in cities across the nation
to mentor young people (ages 14-22), to encourage them
to stay in school, introduce them to hospital-based
careers, and, in other ways, support their positive
development.
Linking Lifetimes, which no longer operates but was
a forerunner to the Across Ages program, used older
people to mentor at-risk youth and young offenders.
The program was based in Philadelphia.
Raising Ambition Instills Self-Esteem (RAISE),
based in Baltimore, provides long-term (seven years)
mentoring, educational, and recreational activities for
young people, beginning in the 6th grade.
Sponsor-A-Scholar uses mentoring, academic support, and financial assistance to help students from
Philadelphia public high schools stay in school and
enroll in college. As with RAISE, the program emphasizes long-term participation, in this case, from 9th
grade through college enrollment.
of a comprehensive strategy to improve youth
outcomes. Other parts of that strategy might
include workshops for parents, a life-skills curriculum for youth, individual tutoring, or financial support for college, for example. So it could
be that other factors in addition to mentoring
itself might have contributed to the documented
outcomes.
Educational Achievement
Because academic achievement is a key predictor
of socioeconomic status, it is not surprising that
many mentoring programs emphasize improving
the academic and cognitive skills of young
people. What the evaluations found:
Overall, youth participating in mentoring
relationships experience positive academic
returns.
■ Better attendance. Youth participating
in mentoring programs had fewer
unexcused absences from school than did
similar youth not participating in these
programs. For example, youth in Big
Brothers/Big Sisters skipped half as many
days of school as did the control youth. And
youth participating in the Across Ages
program showed a gain of more than a week
of attended classes, compared with nonprogram youth. Such results were
consistent across all three studies that
examined attendance.
■ Better chance of going on to higher
education. An evaluation of Career
Beginnings, an academically oriented
program, found that participants were
somewhat more likely to attend college than
non-participant youth. Of youth enrolled in
this program, for example, 53 percent were
enrolled in college the first year after high
school graduation, compared with
49 percent in the control group.
■ Better attitudes toward school.
Two evaluations of the Across Ages program
each showed that mentored youth had
better attitudes toward school than
non-mentored youth. In addition, teachers
viewed youth mentored in the BELONG
program as placing a higher value on school
than non-mentored youth.
Further evaluation is needed to confirm
whether mentoring improves grades.
Youngsters who were mentored through the Big
Brothers/Big Sisters program experienced modest gains in their GPAs over time. These gains
were strongest among minority females, who
had GPAs of about a “B-” compared to a “C+”
for minority females who were not in the program. However, youth did not have significantly
better grades as a result of their participation in
Across Ages. Youth mentored through the
BELONG program were less likely to fail math,
but not other subjects.

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