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Strengthening Mentoring
Opportunities for At-Risk Youth
Bottom Line
Mentoring programs for young people have proliferated rapidly in
recent years and now serve more than 2 million youth in the U.S.,
most of whom are from disadvantaged social and economic back-
The overall record of success for youth mentoring programs is
encouraging but uneven.
Recommended next steps include:
– Measured expansion of programs with strong evidence of
– Careful evaluation of newer, innovative approaches that may
increase both the reach and the impact of services
– Federal leadership in the areas of quality assurance, evaluation,
and support for mentor recruitment and retention
What Do We Know?
Too many young people lack strong and sustained relationships
with caring adults, putting them at serious risk.
An estimated 8.5 million youth (about 20%) do not have caring
adults in their lives. Those from disadvantaged homes and com-
munities are over-represented in this number.
Young persons who lack a strong relationship with a caring adult
while growing up are much more vulnerable to a host of difficul-
ties, ranging from academic failure to involvement in serious risk
behaviors. Research finds that resilient youth—those who suc-
cessfully transition from risk-filled backgrounds to the adult world
of work and good citizenship—are consistently distinguished by
the presence of a caring adult in their lives.
About this Policy Brief...
Mentoring the next generation
of youth is critical to the future
health and prosperity of our nation.
Yet, millions of young people are
currently growing up without the
guidance and support from parents
or others that is needed to prepare
them to become well-adjusted and
contributing members of society.
Making progress in addressing this
need will require substantial com-
mitments of time and resources
at all levels—from individuals to
communities to government. These
investments must be made care-
fully and strategically.
For guidance, this brief summa-
rizes the latest research on youth
mentoring. Several new directions
for programs and policies aimed
at connecting young people with
caring adults are outlined that build
on current knowledge. We hope in
doing so to stimulate dialogue and,
ultimately, actions that strengthen
the foundation for success that we
provide to our nation’s youth.
by Timothy Cavell (University of Arkansas), David DuBois (University of Illinois at Chicago),
Michael Karcher (University of Texas at San Antonio), Thomas Keller (Portland State University),
and Jean Rhodes (University of Massachusetts, Boston)*
* Authors are listed in alphabetical order as each contributed equally to the writing of this brief.
Please direct comments or requests for additional information to David DuBois at
February 2009
More than a decade of research has revealed mentoring to be a viable intervention strategy that holds
considerable promise. Yet, programs face myriad challenges and appear to be well short of reaching
their potential.
Mentoring programs are capable of making a positive difference in multiple domains of youth behavior
and development:
– Improvements in self-esteem
– Better relationships with parents and peers
– Greater school connectedness
– Improved academic performance
– Reductions in substance use, violence, and other risk behaviors
Extrapolations from existing data indicate that high-quality mentoring programs have the potential
to produce a sizable monetary return on investment. Such analyses presume that mentoring has
long-term educational and vocational benefits for participating youth, however, an assumption that is
largely untested.
Barriers to widespread effectiveness include:
Inability to recruit, screen, and train sufficient
numbers of mentors to meet program demands
– Inconsistent benefits across programs
– Positive outcomes not being reliably sustained
after program participation ends
– Harmful effects for some youth because mentors
are unreliable, end relationships prematurely, or
model deviant behavior or authority-undermining
Collectively, these trends underscore a need for great care when seeking to “go to scale” either by expand-
ing existing programs or by funding newer, start-up programs.
The most successful programs incorporate evidence-based “best” practices, which include:
– Targeting youth most likely to benefit from mentoring
– Using rigorous approaches to screen and train mentors
– Clearly articulating program goals and expectations
– Arranging activities to facilitate mentor-youth relationship development
– Providing ongoing support for mentors to strengthen relationships and minimize early match
Strengthening Mentoring Opportunities for At-Risk Youth
– Supporting and involving parents
– Coordinating linkages with other programs
and services
Using systematic monitoring and evalu-
ation to engage in continuous quality
Good intentions and a ready corps of volunteers
are not enough to deliver an effective youth
mentoring program—a solid infrastructure is
Initiatives to promote program quality are
occurring in many sectors of the mentoring
field. For example:
– MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership has developed the Elements of Effective Practice and a
network of state and regional partnerships to support the adoption of these guidelines
– Big Brothers Big Sisters is piloting and evaluating an extensive set of evidence-based enhance-
ments to its school-based mentoring program
– Friends for Youth has published a resource, Screening Applicants for Effectiveness, that offers tools
designed to screen out potential child predators and prevent child molestation
Such initiatives require a professional, well-trained workforce to staff youth mentoring agencies. Sev-
eral new education and training opportunities are emerging to meet this need, but sustainable sup-
port is key.
Innovation is also plentiful. Programs are experimenting with:
– Alternative delivery formats and structures, such as e-mentoring and peer, group, and team
– Embedding mentoring within specific community settings such as after-school programs and the
– Tailoring services to specific populations and cultural groups, such as children of prisoners
– Alternative sources of mentors, such as “natural” mentors from within youths’ own social net-
works as well as paid paraprofessionals
– Long-term commitments to youth from elementary school to high school graduation
– Integrating mentoring within larger programs that offer extensive arrays of other services and
Strengthening Mentoring Opportunities for At-Risk Youth
Recommended Next Steps
Policies that strengthen families, schools, neighborhoods, and communities—especially those that cul-
tivate a strong ethic of collective responsibility for mentoring our next generation—are vital for ensuring
that young people receive guidance and support from caring adults. Yet, for many of our most vulnerable
youth, there is an urgent need for access to high-quality mentoring which is made possible through more
formal and targeted programs. Future priorities should include:
Intensifying support for the most promising current mentoring programs and organizations,
– Local, state, and regional programs that
demonstrate strong alignment with best
practices, with funding carefully structured
to ensure quality is maintained while pursu-
ing measured growth goals
– Intermediary organizations that can provide
the technical assistance needed to ensure
that essential elements of infrastructure are
in place across all programs
– National programs that have rigorous evi-
dence of positive impacts and capacity to
expand their reach to underserved commu-
nities and youth
Investing in ground-breaking studies of mentoring young people, including:
– A long-term, in-depth investigation of the formal as well as informal mentoring experiences of a
large, nationally-representative sample of youth and how these may contribute to future success
– Comparative evaluation of differing program models, including newer, innovative approaches,
using a consortium of researchers working at multiple sites
Mounting new strategic initiatives at the Federal level, including:
– Better systems of coordination to promote common standards of excellence and shared methods
of evaluation across the numerous agencies involved in supporting mentoring
– Policies to increase the supply of committed mentors for programs, such as college tuition reim-
bursement, employer partnerships and tax credits, and other incentives
Rhodes, J. E., & DuBois, D. L. (2006). Understanding and facilitating the youth mentoring movement.
Social Policy Report, 20(3). Available online at:
Strengthening Mentoring Opportunities for At-Risk Youth
... The study sample consisted of 164 young people aged 10-14 who were newly referred to the BBBS programme in the West of Ireland in 2007. Young people, parents, mentors and teachers completed surveys at 4 time points over a 2-year period (October 2007to October 2009. A range of analyses of youth and parent data was undertaken, including comparison of mean scores, calculation of effect sizes and multilevel regression analyses. ...
... Furthermore, good practice guidelines for mentoring programmes indicate that appropriate supports should be provided to ensure that adult volunteers spend time with young people on a regular basis and in ways that foster close emotional bonds. The practices that are associated with these outcomes include training, ongoing staff supervision of matches, and programme events (Cavell et al, 2009;DuBois and Neville, 1997). There was evidence from the case study data in the present research that the provision of these supports through the programme was perceived as valuable and helped to ensure that matches overcame difficulties. ...
... Biographical accounts of young offenders have highlighted the establishment of a caring relationship with a non-parental adult as a watershed in positive life transformation (Chung et al., 2005) and Adler et al. (2016) highlighted how mentoring can be especially effective when used early on in a young person's potential offending career. Indeed there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that mentoring can have numerous positive influences on youth, such as making them less likely to substance abuse ( Cavell et al., 2009), improve academic achievement (Grossman and Tierney, 1998) as well as reducing offending and re-offending ( Maguire et al., 2010). At-risk mentees in the Big Brother, Big Sister (BBBS) programme in the United States (Grossman and Tierney, 1998) were 32 per cent less likely to have committed a violent act over the past year than young people without mentors. ...
There has been limited research regarding the effectiveness of mentoring for at-risk youth in the United Kingdom and none focussing on a dance-based intervention. This study explored experiences of a mentoring through street dance programme. Eight participants (aged 16–18) and their mentor took part in semi-structured interviews which were transcribed verbatim and the data subjected to thematic analysis. Three emergent themes were identified: Relationship with mentor, changes in outlook and coping with emotions. Data indicated that the programme resulted in increased mental wellbeing, desistance from antisocial behaviours, positive future outlook and greater awareness of life opportunities. A trusting, non-hierarchical mentor-mentee relationship was central. Inclusion of mentor narratives was a novel aspect of the study and allowed for insight into how this was achieved. Street dance itself provided a framework for confidence building, social levelling and bonding. Results are discussed in terms of future directions for good practice.
... Unfortunately, mentoring programs across the country lack qualified adults willing to serve as mentors for youth. Additionally, the quality of mentors and programs are widely varied throughout the country (Cavell, DuBois, Karcher, Keller, & Rhodes, 2009). Thus, increasing the availability and quality of training for mentors would be advantageous for sons of deployed fathers. ...
Full-text available
Guided by the understanding of the unique problems faced by children of deployed military parents and boys who grow up with an absent father, this theoretical study examines their convergence. This study presents an understanding of the psychological, emotional, and psychosocial development of children with deployed parents and the current approaches utilized to address their problems. Current research treats military children as a singular entity and does not consider the gender of the child and the deployed parent. The areas of mental health, socialization, and masculinity of sons of absent fathers are examined. By incorporating additional theoretical orientations, mentor programs, and differentiated family systems counseling, many of the clinical inadequacies for this population may be addressed.
... Note: Dependent variable was coded 00fewer than 10 %, 1011 %-25 %, 2026 %-50 %, 3051 %-75 %, 4076 %-100 % a month], when meeting lengths are long [3 h or more], and mentor training is always used). A large difference in the predicted rates emerged-around a 2 point difference which could translate into more than a 700 fold increase in goal achievement likelihood). 1 Cavell, DuBois, Karcher, Keller, and Rhodes, (2009;2) observed that, while extrapolations from the mentoring database suggest that programs offer substantial fiscal and social returns on investment, empirical confirmation of impact is needed. This study affirmed three primary findings regarding mentoring program elements predictive of goal attainment for at risk and system involved youth. ...
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Though mentoring has emerged as a promising and low-cost intervention for at-risk youth in recent years, the scientific knowledge base on the topic remains under-developed. The current study augments the knowledge base on youth mentoring by analyzing programmatic elements of mentoring programs situated in or adjacent to the juvenile justice system that are predictive of participant success. Poisson regression was utilized to analyze data collected through a national mentoring community saturation survey. Findings indicated that mentoring programs that require more frequent interaction and sustain relationships for longer timeframes realize higher success rates. Similarly, the use of formal mentor training was also observed as indicative of the use of evidence based practices and higher success rates, though likely beyond the logistical and fiscal reach of some local mentoring initiatives. The implications for further research and the mentoring community are discussed.
... Third, the presence of the mentoring coordinator at the focus group discussions may have inhibited boys from expressing negative views; however, as noted earlier, an effort was made to minimise the power difference between the coordinator and the boys, and in both the focus groups and the individual interviews boys appeared to talk very openly. Finally, the positive accounts may in part be a reflection of a well-functioning mentoring programme: the programme incorporated evidence-based ''best'' practices, such as screening and training mentors, arranging activities to facilitate mentor-youth relationship development, and involving parents (Cavell, DuBois, Karcher, Keller, & Rhodes, 2009;DuBois et al., 2002). However, it is clear that difficulties and conflicts can arise in mentoring relationships with vulnerable youth (Clayden & Stein, 2004;Spencer, 2007b), and it is possible that the focus groups and interviews in the present study gave insufficient attention to these. ...
Full-text available
African-Caribbean adolescent boys in the UK have a risk of developing mental health difficulties but are a challenging group to engage in mental health services. One avenue for promoting the psychological well-being of these adolescents is through mentoring programmes. This qualitative study explored the role of mentoring with African-Caribbean adolescent boys who had psychological and behavioural difficulties. Thirteen mentees and five mentors participated in a combination of focus groups and interviews; Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis was used to analyse their accounts and generated nine themes. The accounts highlighted the uniqueness of the mentoring relationship. Strong, emotional bonds were formed between boys and mentors, facilitated by the perception of shared life experiences; boys were able to show their vulnerabilities and accept support. The findings suggest that mentoring can assist at-risk African-Caribbean youth in coping with challenges in their lives and may help to promote positive developmental trajectories for these vulnerable adolescents.
Technical Report
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Rivas, M. (2014). Mirada colectiva a indicadores y estrategias exitosas: Guía de consulta para organizaciones sin fines de lucro que trabajan temas de educación y desarrollo económico. San Juan: FBP. "A Collective Outlook on Successful Indicators and Strategies: A Guide for Non-Profit Organizations that Work on Education and Economic Development" is a reference guide that summarizes the characteristics and positive results of successful projects in education and economic development. With a clear and simple language, this guide promotes that non-profit organizations ponder, discuss and critically comprehend the so-called best practices, scientifically-based, research-based or evidence-based projects. Community based organizations will find a guide that goes beyond fashions or proposal requirements, designed not to copy what others do, but to contribute to their creativity and excellence. "Mirada colectiva a indicadores y estrategias exitosas" es una guía de consulta que tiene el objetivo de resumir de manera práctica y en un lenguaje sencillo las principales características y resultados positivos que utilizan proyectos exitosos dentro de las categorías de temas que apoya la Fundación Banco Popular: educación y desarrollo económico. Se busca que lejos de las modas, los requisitos o la perspectiva de expertos y científicos las organizaciones sin fines de lucro en Puerto Rico y otros países reflexionen, comprendan y desarrollen más curiosidad por los llamados proyectos exitosos, mejores prácticas, prácticas apropiadas, ejemplares, efectivas, modelos, con base científica, basadas en investigación o basadas en evidencia. No se pretende que copien lo que hacen otros, sino seguir aportando a su creatividad y excelencia.