A Quick Word About Mentoring With: Manolya Tanyu, Senior Researcher
In 2012, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, implemented the Mentoring Enhancement Demonstration Program (MEDP). This initiative was designed to strengthen existing mentorship programs across the United States. In this Q&A, Manolya Tanyu describes the effectiveness of the programmatic enhancements—and the challenges of implementing them across a wide array of mentorship organizations.
Q: What is mentoring?
Tanyu: Mentoring is a beneficial relationship between someone who is more skilled or experienced and another person who is willing to receive teaching or advocacy. Mentoring relationships happen in many forms and in different settings, including the workplace, academic institutions, and communities.
Formal youth mentoring programs, which often serve “at-risk” youth, aim to develop these relationships by matching volunteers with young people and providing them with access to resources and new experiences. This is the type of mentoring relationship that we examined in our research on MEDP.
Q: How does mentoring affect underserved young people?
Tanyu: Mentoring has become a popular intervention strategy in the U.S. to promote youth well-being and reduce the effects of environmental risks, such as poverty, stressful family events, and negative peer relationships. The research shows that mentoring has widespread positive effects on young people, including improved self-esteem and academic performance, as well as fewer risky behaviors. These effects are even stronger when mentors emphasize emotional support, teaching, and advocacy.
Q: What are some challenges that mentoring programs face, and how did MEDP attempt to address them?
Tanyu: The strongest predictor of positive mentoring outcomes is the strength of the mentor-mentee relationship. Mentoring relationships often need ongoing support and monitoring. With over 5,000 U.S. organizations offering youth mentoring, there are large variations in how well the programs can support mentors in developing effective relationships and staying engaged.
MEDP was designed specifically to address these challenges. Through it, existing mentoring programs developed a set of programmatic enhancements, including targeted training of mentors and ongoing staff support for them. AIR conducted a rigorous process and outcome evaluation of MEDP to assess the effectiveness of programmatic enhancements. The MEDP-enhanced practices involved incorporating advocacy or teaching roles for mentors, including providing focused pre-match and ongoing training to mentors, and helping mentors carry out the targeted roles.
Q: MEDP was designed to strengthen mentors’ roles as teachers and advocates. What do those roles look like in a mentoring context?
Tanyu: We found many ways that mentoring relationships can involve teaching and advocacy.
Teaching functions vary. For example, mentors can provide instruction during a group learning activity or tutoring. They can also lead a structured activity to develop a particular skill, like table manners or learning how to swim. Mentors can also capitalize on “teachable moments” to share knowledge or practice skills during otherwise unrelated activities.
Advocacy functions include outreach, such as connecting the mentee to relevant professionals or services, representing the mentee by speaking on their behalf in decision-making situations, empowering the mentee to advocate for him/herself, and encouraging the mentee’s interests and activities.
Q: What challenges did participating programs face in terms of implementing enhanced mentor roles and providing support?
Tanyu: Although MEDP facilitated opportunities to innovate and develop unique approaches to promote advocacy and teaching, it was not an easy task for participating youth-serving programs. For many programs, particularly those operating with limited resources and those experiencing staff turnover, it was burdensome to provide staff with the training and support necessary to implement the enhanced practices. Also, before staff could support mentors with teaching or advocacy functions, they first needed to understand the nature of these skills, which sometimes required additional training (which could, in turn, also strain existing resources). In addition, participating in a rigorous randomized controlled trial like ours put additional burdens on programs, as many were inexperienced in the required research and data collection activities.
Q: Based on your findings, what lessons learned would you share with mentoring programs hoping to implement enhancements?
Tanyu: We learned that it is important to understand a program’s readiness to implement new or enhanced practices. A commitment to high-quality mentoring is necessary, but it is not enough without adequate programmatic support (i.e., training and resources provided to staff).
Researchers and policymakers should work closely with practitioners to identify effective program practices that can be implemented realistically and sustained over the long-term. For example, while online training and mentor support was considered an innovative way to expose mentors to key information and skills, it was a challenge both to build the technology and encourage mentors to use it.