Mentoring works for troubled, but how?

Father_of_the_Teen__Growing_Up_With_Your_Kids_photoWhen young people are struggling – with school, addiction, criminal behavior or a number of other problems – help often comes through a mentor. Thousands of organizations across the country pair at-risk young people with a role model to help them get back on track. But does mentoring work?

A systematic review of 46 studies published last year by the Campbell Collaboration found that mentoring is an effective. intervention for troubled youth. The authors found the strongest evidence that mentoring helps high-risk youth avoid criminal behavior and improve their performance at school. They also found some data suggesting mentoring reduces drug use and aggressive behavior among troubled youth.

But there was a catch. The researchers struggled to determine which aspects of mentoring are most effective. That’s because most of the studies on mentoring do not provide details about the mentoring relationship or program structure.

“The valuable features and most promising approaches cannot be ascertained with any certainty,” the authors wrote. “In fact, the body of studies is remarkably lacking in description of key features, program design organization, and theorized processes of impact that are typically provided.”

The authors were able to find evidence that mentors who offered emotional support and helped advocate for youth were more effective. Other than that, there is little data about why how mentoring works.

Another systematic review, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest in 2011, took a broader view to measure whether mentoring works for positive youth development in general, not just troubled kids. Researchers analyzed 73 studies of mentoring programs and found that they work across a variety of areas including behavioral, social, emotional, and academic development.

The broader review also identified some elements that create an effective mentoring program, including pairing mentors and mentees based on similar interests and providing support for mentors to take on teaching or advocacy roles.

“More experimental studies have been done on mentoring than on any other youth development program or practice,” said Steve Hamilton, associate director for youth development at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research. “Although more research is needed, especially to identify what components of mentoring programs are most critical, it is clear that the central idea of building close supportive relationships between adults and youth is sound.”

The take-home message: Mentoring works. Quality randomized trials that measure specific components of mentoring programs could help improve mentoring programs and ultimately help thousands of youth get back on track.

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