Mentoring 101: What the Experts Say

 Photo credits: Vision Atlanta Mentoring (L); Pass It On—Outdoor Mentors (R)

by Greta Herbertz, 13, and Victoria Kreyden, 16 for Y-Press

INDIANAPOLIS, IN—Take one “needy” kid, add a caring adult and throw in some mutually enjoyable activities and conversation. Repeat as necessary for a year or more.

Multiply this by the 18 million kids in need of mentors, and proponents believe you might have a smarter, happier, and more confident youth population in this country.

Mentoring programs, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, and support partnerships, such as MENTOR, are at the forefront of this effort. MENTOR is a national organization that provides resources for mentoring programs all over the United States. BBBS and other programs match children in need with adult volunteers, who then engage and support the youth.

Larry Wright, chief executive officer at MENTOR, says the key to successful relationships is for organizations to do some homework and find compatible pairs. “Quite frequently, they have people on staff who are matchmakers. You know, they’re just good at saying, ‘Hey, you know what? I think you, John and Joe, I think you guys would be great together,’ and for whatever reason, they’re right, and then they provide the great support and it works.”

Making the recipe work

Click here to read Y-Press interviews with a group of mentees from across the country.

The mentoring relationship is one that has to work well for both the mentor and the mentee. To ensure this, the needs of both parties need to be taken into consideration for the pair to get the most out of the relationship. Jean Rhodes, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Boston who has done extensive research on mentoring relationships, describes some of the variables of a good match: “Graphical proximity, that is they live close to each other; availability, that is they’re both ready at the same time to be matched; and shared interests, so if they share an interest in a particular sport or an activity.”

Once the relationship is established, mentors usually meet with their students once a week or so, doing enjoyable activities such as going to the mall or to basketball games and talking about anything the child needs to discuss.

Wright says that some relationships take off better than others. “In some circumstances, you see organizations in which 100 percent of the mentor/mentee matches that they make are successful.”

But sometimes, the recipe isn’t so simple. For whatever reason, the relationship doesn’t gel, and the match is uncomfortable or forced for at least one party. Unfortunately, the outcome is often a terminated relationship, resulting in hurt feelings and a child who might become a little more distrustful of adults.

“Half of mentoring relationships fall apart before their expected time because either the volunteer or the youth has lost interest or can’t do it anymore,” Rhodes said.

Long lasting benefits

If a child has a good relationship with his or her mentor, Rhodes and Wright agree that mentoring is effective. Rhodes says, “The research is pretty clear that youth who are in positive, long-lasting, intensive relationships do better over time in all of those areas we talked about: academic, behavioral and psychological.”

Wright adds another benefit: “One of the things mentoring does is it actually helps young people improve relationships with adults. It improves relationships with their peers. It can improve relationships with their parents.”

In fact nationally, Big Brothers Big Sisters reports that children who have participated in their programs are 52 percent less likely to ditch school, are more confident in class, have better relationships with their family, are 46 percent less likely to use drugs and 27 percent less likely to start drinking alcohol.

Wright estimates that there are as many as 10,000 mentoring programs in the United States. Many receive government funding, but both Wright and Rhodes expect changes.

Rhodes believes that while programs may continue to grow, they will need to prove that they have good results. “There’s going to be more and more emphasis on evaluation, and programs aren’t going to be just allowed to get funding without showing that they are effective.”

Wright agrees about the new focus on measured outcomes. “The upside on that is the field is getting a lot better. The quality is improving. Kids are getting better experiences. The downside is, you know, I think we can miss a lot of things. I think we can overlook a lot of things that are great, but maybe just aren’t measured very well,” he said.

Perhaps more effective would be to expand the mentoring experience—not mentoring programs, Rhodes says.
“We need to kind of think about mentoring as not just occurring within one-on-one programs, but in after-school settings, in camps, in sports. If we make the adults in those settings more intentional about their mentoring, and train them in ways that we know work, we can expand the reach of mentoring without even having to expand mentoring programs as much.”


CONTINUED: Mentees Talk About Their Experiences >>


Contributors: Caroline Gardner, 13, Elizabeth Papandria, 13, and Joshua Segaran, 14.

Based in Indianapolis, Y-Press is a youth-driven organization that gives children a voice in the world through journalism. Members build communication skills by producing stories with a youth perspective. WKCD has partnered with Y-Press for five years, tapping their talent as young journalists and social observers of our times.

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