Mentoring for prevention; a valuable partner in the process

Mentoring can best be described by the classic example of the Big Brother/Big Sister Program. In the Big Brother/Big Sister Program, an adult volunteer mentor commits to developing a supportive relationship with a youth who is between 6 and 16 years old. Although older youth can mentor younger ones, mentoring programs most typically rely on adult mentors. Informal mentoring may happen as part of any youth/adult interaction, but mentoring programs seek to purposefully structure mentor/mentee relationships to maximize success. Mentoring may be a component of treatment or intervention, but mentoring for prevention involves youth who have not experienced significant ATOD problems. Often the youth chosen to participate are considered to be “at-risk” due to having limited access to their parents.

Mentoring is strongly rooted in resiliency theory and research. The goal is to “bond” each youth (via a caring, enjoyable relationship) to a positive role model who gives the youth encouragement and support for healthy activities and development.  Key studies of eight Big Brother / Big Sister programs by an organization called ‘Public/Private Ventures’ in the early 1990’s differentiated successful ‘developmental’ mentor/mentee relationships from less effective ‘prescriptive” relationships. In the less effective ‘prescriptive” relationships, adults sought to guide or direct youth, apparently leading to alienation in those youth rather than the success of the developmental, supportive relationships. (Mentors need to strike a balance between a non-prescriptive approach and the identifying of behaviours which need to be observed, and a [brotherly] discussion of these boundaries). These studies found very substantial effects toward decreased likelihood of mentored youth initiating alcohol or other drug use, in comparison to a control group.  Bonnie Benard (1996) summarizes research-based characteristics of effective mentoring relationships as follows:

  • Relationships have sufficient intensity and duration (regular weekly contacts, three-four hours per meeting. longer than one year in duration, etc.)
  • Sustained relationships are those in which the mentor sees him/herself as a friend: not as a teacher or preacher. Success is based on the mentors belief that he or she is there to meet the developmental needs of youth—to provide supports and opportunities the youth does not otherwise have.
  • Mentors center their involvement and expectations on developing a reliable trusting relationship and expand the scope of their efforts as the relationship strengthens.
  • Mentors place top priority on having the relationship enjoyable and fun to both partners, listen non-judgmentally, look for the youth’s interests and strengths, and incorporate the youth into the decision-making process around their activities.
  • From a resiliency perspective, mentors provide the three protective factors of a caring relationship that conveys positive expectations and respect, and that provides ongoing opportunities for participation and contribution, and see risks existing in the environment, not in the youth.
  • Relationships are fundamentally based on the belief that the development of a caring, trusting, respectful reciprocal relationship is a key to reducing risks, enhancing protection, and promoting positive youth development in any system.

The following list includes elements of an effective mentoring program. In any community based prevention, one can better assist those involved in the implementation  of mentoring programs by promoting these elements:

  • Encourage quality relationships. Support efforts to build on research-based findings associated with successful mentoring relationships.
  • Screen mentors. Use thorough volunteer screening methods that filter out adults who are unlikely to make a lasting commitments or might pose a safety risk to the youth.
  • Train mentors. Conduct mentor training that promotes caring relationships, conveying a  deep belief in a youth’s innate resilience. Train on communication and limit-setting skills, tips on relationship-building, and recommendations on the best way to interact with a young person.
  • Make careful matches. Ensure a good match between the youth and mentor expectations and program goals. Conduct interviews with mentors that explain the type and depth of a mentoring relationship and commitment expectations. Consider youth preferences, their family, and the volunteer, as well as use a professional case manager to analyze which volunteer would work best with which youth.
  • Establish structure and a process. Build a program structure and process, supervised by case managers/youth workers. Ensure that case managers supervise each match through quality contact with the parent/guardian, volunteer, and youth in an ongoing/consistent manner and provides help as needed. Use staff to provide “back-up” stability and continuity in a mentoring relationship, especially so that youth are not left alone if their mentor leaves.
  • Create a communication process. Ensure that a communication and feedback loop is established for youth and adults to discuss needs, progress, and problems.
  • Support social activities/ATOD-free events. Support the relationship and activities of youth and adults by providing community-based activities and events that are ATOD-free. Be a resource/volunteer in activities and educational programs.
  • Meet mentor needs. Respond to a mentor’s needs, as well as the youth’s needs to support the mentoring relationship.
  • Involve families. Communicate clear expectations about family involvement in the mentoring program. Build in opportunities for the families of the youth and adult to become involved in activities.
References: This paper derived from a publication by Alan Markwood: Best Practices in ATOD Prevention, pp51-54, pubd. Chestnut Health Services for Illinois Department of Human Services, 1997. – Benard, Bonnie (1996). Mentoring: New study shows the power of relationships to make a difference. Resiliency in Action, Fall, 1996. – Blum, Robert William & Peggy Mann (1997). Reducing the risk: Connections that Make a difference in the Lives of Youth. University of Minnesota. – Saito, Rebecca N. & Blyth, Dale A. (1995). Understanding Mentoring Relationships. Search Institute, Minneapolis, MN. – Tierney, Joseph P. Grossman, J.B. with Resch, N.L. Public/Private Ventures (1995). Making a Difference; an impact study of Big Brothers, Big Sisters (USA): 5 year evaluation.

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