A report on developmental mentoring

Developmental mentoring is a structured, cross-age peer mentoring program designed to promote children’s development by facilitating connectedness to the mentor, the school and the family. A study by Michael J. Karcher, University of Texas/San Antonio, measured the effect of mentors’ attendance on student outcomes.

In a randomized study of 73 rural youth, students’ connectedness to school was significantly greater for those who participated in the mentoring program. Positive changes in self-esteem, social skills and behavior were related to mentors’ attendance. When mentors attended only sporadically, their young students showed an actual decline in self-esteem and behavior over pre-program levels. Unreliable mentors appeared to do more harm than good. Karcher concludes that the relational processes are far more important to positive outcomes than the program curricula.

Best practices for mentoring programs, derived from a meta-analysis of 55 studies, revealed that the size of the positive effect varied according to the number of best practices employed in the program. Best practices include monitoring program implementation, providing mentors with ongoing training, involving parents, structuring activities, and clarifying expectations about the frequency of meetings. When all of these factors are present, the effectiveness of the mentoring program doubles.

Focus on connectedness

Mentoring, unlike tutoring, is not focused on developing specific academic skills. The focus in mentoring is on the personal relationship between the two students, which appears to develop young students’ self-esteem, connectedness, identity and academic attitudes. Mentors are high-school student volunteers who are supervised by school staff or university coordinators. All meetings are scheduled, coordinated and carefully monitored. Parents are involved through take-home activities and monthly Saturday events. Mentors are shown the “connectedness curriculum” before each meeting.

Connectedness refers to a youngster’s activity with and affection for the people, places and activities within his life. Promoting connectedness is the primary goal of developmental mentoring because research reveals that success in school increases and risk-taking behavior decreases when adolescents are connected to family and school. Low connectedness to school has been found to predict adolescent depression, risk taking, underachievement, and alienation from peers, teachers and parents. Connectedness to family and to school have been found to reciprocally influence self-esteem, social skills and identity development. Recent studies suggest that mentoring can affect social skills, school behavior and self-esteem as well as connectedness to family and school. The mechanism by which this change occurs is unclear.

Frequency of contact

One criticism in previous studies of cross-age mentoring is that adolescent mentors may not be mature enough to be consistently present or sufficiently attentive to the younger students. In addition, the limited duration of these relationships may not be sufficient for long term gains. However, the meta-analysis revealed that the frequency of contact predicted positive outcomes better than the length of mentoring. It appears that the empathy and attention received from a consistently present mentor is what accounts for positive outcomes.

In this study, Karcher tested whether young students who were randomly assigned to the mentoring program reported greater gains in connectedness to school, family and reading than students in a comparison group who were not part of the mentoring program. He also measured whether attendance of either partner affected changes in connectedness, and whether connectedness gains were related to the amount of the curriculum to which they were exposed.

The program was conducted with mostly Caucasian, rural youth who were randomly assigned to either the mentoring program or a tutoring program that did not begin until the mentoring program ended. Teachers in fourth and fifth grades assessed the risk status of children, seeking a balance of high- and low-risk students for the program. Family, academic and behavioral risks were evaluated.

Family risk factors included poverty, history of abuse, frequent moves, divorced or single parents and history of foster care. Academic risks included poor grades, frequent tardiness or absenteeism, learning disability, and lack of interest in school. Behavioral risks were inadequate social skills, few friends, emotional/behavioral problems, difficulty getting along with others, and problems with authority.

Teacher ratings were compared to scores on the Primary Mental Health Project Child Rating Scale. In addition, students completed the Hemingway Measure of Preadolescent Connectedness and the Harter Self-Perception Scale for Children.

Volunteer mentors were recruited from the eighth through 12th grades. These students tended to be engaged in extracurricular activities at school. All participated in eight hours of training and most had an additional two hours of monthly supervision. Mentoring was conducted one-on-one in a group format twice weekly for two hours after school. Pairs of students self-selected each other after a six-hour Saturday orientation. Ninety percent of the young children received their first or second choice of mentor. The mentoring continued for six months, there were 48 after-school meetings and six Saturday meetings with parents, for a total of 144 contact hours.

After-school sessions consisted of an opening “icebreaker” activity, a connectedness curriculum activity, a snack, and a group game or art activity. The group format allowed children whose mentors could not attend to participate within a small-group setting. Connectedness activities promoted connection to peers, friends, family, self, school and reading. For example, a connectedness-to-school activity entailed interviewing a teacher. After the student partners planned and rehearsed it together, the elementary student conducted the interview, discussed it with her mentor, developed a poster and story about the teacher, and presented it to her peers.

A connectedness- to-reading activity used eight short books about moral dilemmas. The partners read the books together and then role-played alternative outcomes in a small group. The program also included a monthly Saturday event to which parents were invited to spend time with their child’s mentor, see the work their child had done, and participate in an activity such as a picnic or trip to the zoo.

Inconsistency has negative effect

Karcher hypothesized that significant gains in connectedness to reading, school and family would result from participation in the mentoring program. Significant differences between students in mentoring and comparison groups was seen in their connectedness to school and parents, but not in their connectedness to reading or friends. Mentor attendance was positively related to improvements in young students’ self-reported social skills and self-esteem. This study suggests that positive gains in connectedness to parents and to school were made by students who participated in the mentoring program for six months. Mentor’s attendance was a better predictor of positive change than the attendance of their younger partner.

It was clear that when adolescent mentors were inconsistent, it had a negative effect on their partners. This study provides evidence that cross-age peer mentoring can be effective and that mentors’ attendance can have a direct effect on the social skills, behavioral self-management, and self-esteem of their young partners. The quality of the mentoring relationship, as measured by the behavioral commitment of the mentor through consistent attendance, appears to be more important than the amount of exposure to the program curriculum. This study supports the idea than young students make self-appraisals of their likeability, attractiveness and self-management skills based on their mentors’ availability and attendance.

This study is limited by the smallness and lack of diversity of the sample. However, it does indicate that school-based mentoring programs, even when they do not include tutoring or academic activities, can have positive effects on school-related attitudes and behaviors. It is apparent, as well, that encouraging mentors’ regular attendance and supporting children when their mentors are absent are very important.

“The Effects of Developmental Mentoring and High School Mentors’ Attendance on Their Younger Mentees’ Self-Esteem, Social Skills, and Connectedness”, Psychology in the Schools, Volume 42, Number 1, January 2005, pp. 65-77

Published in ERN February 2005 Volume 18 Number 2

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