Mentoring Programs: A Powerful Intervention Tool for Children At Risk

I believe in the power of prevention. In fact, I experienced it firsthand working with young people who were just starting out in the juvenile justice system. This experience offered tremendous insight into how I think about helping children at risk. I saw an opportunity to interrupt and shift adverse life trajectories. Instead of thinking about treatment and how we could fix problems after the fact, I began to think about partnering with youth and families to intervene early and prevent them altogether.

Mentoring Programs: Providing a Context For Positive Development

My broader interest in mentoring programs stemmed from my work at the Volunteers of America Children’s Residential Treatment Center in Minneapolis. As a residential counselor on location, I experienced and witnessed the potential of adult-youth relationships. These relationships create a powerful context for socio-emotional, cognitive and identity development. They even promote better relationships with parents and teachers. Every child is different, which means every child experiences mentoring differently based on his or her needs.

While some mentoring programs are specifically designed to prevent obesity or substance use, mentoring can be individualized. Some young people might experience gains in academics while others will feel less lonely and more supported. Mentors can focus on what’s most important. By providing children a positive experience with caring adults, we can make a real difference. Quality mentoring teaches young people to attract and recruit mentors for a lifetime. We can all recognize the positive influence of mentors in our own lives – personal or professional – formal or informal.

Mentor Families

I am currently part of a research team that has been funded by the William T. Grant Foundation. Through that funding, we are testing small groups of mentor-mentee dyads known as “Mentor Families.” This combination of one-to-one and group mentoring is thought to promote positive youth development above and beyond one-to-one relationships by providing youth a place to belong and matter, multiple relationships with supportive adults and peers and opportunities for building self-efficacy and skills. The project will begin in September and the intervention will take place on the Colorado State University campus. Youth ages 11-18 will be matched with an undergraduate student mentor and attend during after school hours once a week. They will participate in a semi-structured program that combines academics, a walk on campus to explore higher education, dinner and prosocial activities.

This mentoring program will work to augment the impact of mentoring by combining the two methods. We will be examining a wide range of data from surveys and social network information to observations and “iEAR” results, where mentors will wear an iPod to record interactions. We can speak about how mentoring makes a difference, but without firsthand accounts, we don’t truly understand how and why. If we can understand that, then we may be able to expand the reach of mentoring to the projected 9 million at-risk youth who will reach adulthood without connecting to a mentor of any kind.

A successful mentor can play a huge role in the lives of all children. Here are five tips for teachers, community leaders, volunteers and anyone who wants to positively influence young people:

  1. Be there. Whenever we ask young people what makes a good mentor or what makes a particular mentor stick, the response almost always revolves around showing up. Good mentors show up when it’s easy, but especially when it’s hard or when they aren’t wanted.
  2. Listen first. It’s very important to understand where each child comes from, their life experiences and their position in the world. We all want to offer advice, but a good mentor will provide a sympathetic ear before a guiding hand.
  3. Build on strengths. Don’t over-focus on a child’s shortcomings. Instead focus on how you can highlight what’s going well in their lives. This will help young people become more resilient in whatever challenges they are facing.
  4. Help them find their sparks. It’s important for young people to discover something they are passionate and excited about. Promote their confidence and build their self-esteem so they can chase their dreams.
  5. Ask for help. There will be points where you need support. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.
Lindsey Weiler, Ph.D.

About the Author

Lindsey Weiler, Ph.D.

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