Reflections from the 2016 Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring
One of the defining phrases of the modern youth mentoring movement has been “fervor without infrastructure.” This concept, applied to the emerging youth mentoring field in Marc Freedman’s landmark 1991 book The Kindness of Strangers, articulated an essential tension that was emerging at the time and has certainly played out in the years since: How can our movement build a strong foundation, stable funding, evidence-based practices, and skilled professionals, to adequately support the deeply personal mentoring relationships that are so impactful to so many? How can we scale this good work responsibly? How can we make sure that mentors, who are most often just regular folks volunteering their time, have the support they need to meet a child’s needs? And what are the implications when we follow the fervor before that infrastructure gets solidified?
These types of questions were percolating in my mind, and the minds of about 40 other mentoring researchers and practitioners, by the end of the 2016 Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring, held August 1-4 at Portland State University. This annual event, organized by Dr. Tom Keller and sponsored in part by MENTOR, brings together experienced mentoring professionals, researchers, and policymakers each summer for presentations on emergent research and thoughtful discussions on how those findings will, or should, influence the mentoring field moving forward. The topic for the 2016 event (see sidebar for a list of presenters) was “the ending of mentoring relationships”, specifically focused on research that speaks to why matches end prematurely and how programs might prevent early endings from happening. The institute also featured research on how to best facilitate match endings when they do occur. By the end of the week, it was clear to the group that the youth mentoring field should increasingly emphasize the support we give programmatic matches and develop and honor policies that ensure as many matches as possible end on a positive and healthy note.
Obviously, the youth mentoring field has long emphasized the support of the mentor-mentee matches in its program structures and staff roles. And recent years have seen practitioners adjusting their practices around match support and closure in response to compelling research showing that matches that terminated earlier than expected can lead to worse outcomes for youth than if they had never been matched in the first place (and can leave youth less likely to benefit from a new match). But I walked away from the event with an invigorated sense of purpose and importance when it comes to how we support and ultimately end mentoring relationships. Simply put, the research suggests that far too many youth (as well as parents and mentors) are leaving our mentoring programs confused and hurt by the often abrupt ways that matches end. This research also, thankfully, pointed to some paths forward that can prevent matches from closing earlier than they should and support staff in helping mentors, youth, and parents find positives when those relationships do end, regardless of reason.
There is no way to adequately summarize the 20+ hours of research presented at the SIYM in a single blog post, but here are some of the highlights that will stick with me. I closed out the week by offering an overview of several of the compelling themes of the event and by talking with the group about what they felt needed to happen to improve how relationships end in our field. Here are some of the key takeaways we discussed to wrap up the week. To learn more about each of the Research Fellows and Presenters, view this post on the Chronicle for Evidence-Based Mentoring website.
1. The issues around closure are most acute in community-based mentoring programs. While we certainly heard about research on many types of programs over the course of the week, it became clear that much of the struggle was about the “life-long”, or at the very least, open-ended, relationships that many community-based models tout as ideal, if not the norm. School-based programs tend to have it a bit easier: they have finite calendars and youth who matriculate literally out of the building where services are offered. It can be easier to see the limits of a relationship in these contexts and the end of the school year offers a natural end point (and a much more captive audience) to say goodbye to one another. But in community-based programs, the open-ended nature of the relationship creates all kinds of looming expectations about closeness and duration that foster feelings of guilt or stress when things don’t go according to script. Some of this needs to get addressed in mentor and family recruitment, where the messages can be a little, to be honest, unrealistic. But it was also clear that community-based programs also face logistical challenges about meeting with participants in person, scheduling check-in calls, and ultimately, getting participants to actually plan a goodbye and follow through on it. So while school-based programs also need to watch for harmful early terminations, it’s the community-based programs that might be feeling the most pain here. (One potential solution discussed during the event was one BBBS Canada school-based mentoring policy that would intentionally “close” matches when the initial commitments are up, offering a planned celebration/reflection event that would allow matches to either end positively or make a firm commitment to a longer period.)
2. We need more realistic recruitment messages. As noted above, many of the issues that ultimately sank the mentoring relationships in these studies were planted long before the match was ever made. They came from volunteer recruitment messages that too often presented mentoring as being something that literally anyone could do, as well as messages that painted mentors as saviors that could come in and wipe away the negative impact of everything that life has thrown at a child. Mentors are constantly told that their relationship will be close, if not emotionally intimate, and that they will feel all the good feelings that come from having someone thank you for your help. We all know that the reality of mentoring is often different: your relationship may be more of a working alliance than a deep friendship, your mentee might never express deep gratitude, and, in spite of all your help, your mentee might not find the success in life they were hoping for. Life is hard and messy, as are our relationships, including mentoring relationships. But we really need to grapple with how to create enthusiasm for the mentoring experience without setting participants up for failure. (It’s also worth noting that youth and parents get “oversold” on mentoring during recruitment too.)
3. We need to find ways to increase the amount and quality of match support functions within programs. If there was one trend that I felt cut through most of the research at the SIYM, it was that there is a tremendous amount of pressure on match support specialists in most program settings. In many ways, the intervention of mentoring starts right at the point where program staff turn their attention elsewhere: when the match is made. There is always the next batch of mentors to recruit, screen, and train, not to mention a thousand other tasks that need doing. Yet, that is where the rubber meets the road in mentoring: then that mentor and youth start interacting, start working on challenges, start sharing who they are and what makes them tick. That is the time when one would hope that staff would be offering the most support and making sure that small hiccups don’t grow into major concerns and that those lingering unrealistic expectations get checked and reframed. But this is often the place where match support is lacking. Time and again during the SIYM, we heard about match support staff failing to check in with participants, not offering helpful advice, not helping solve communication issues, not working effectively with parents, and not following their agencies’ own protocols around how matches are closed. We heard stories of programs with staffing challenges supporting hundreds and hundreds of matches with just one or two match support specialists. We heard stories about this critical position often being staffed by the least experienced person in the agency, someone who brings “early career” knowledge for ridiculously low pay (which then results in subsequent stories about one match having five support specialists in just 18 months). We heard many confessions during the week that this is something even our best programs struggle with. The answer here is not easy, it is one of funding and capacity. There are thousands of match support specialists around the country that do amazing work in their programs. We need to acknowledge that… But in talking with program leaders it is clear that this is also a position that, almost across the board, is overseeing too many matches without the depth of experience to address the challenges those matches have. Our field needs to seriously consider demanding more of this position, in terms of experience and expertise, and to pay that position accordingly. I find it curious that this role is the one where programs go lean… But fixing this would either mean serving fewer youth with the same amount of money or spending more per-youth, two choices that I think are a hard sell for those who fund programs. Better cost-per-match research would help the field get this right, but only if it realistically looks at what this role entails and sets an appropriate dollar amount on the expertise needed to do the job right. Unfortunately, the SIYM highlighted that we have a ways to go in walking our talk when it comes to match support.
4. There are paths forward if we can get practitioners the right tools and resources. Funding and staffing issues aside, the research presented at the SIYM did highlight that there are things we can emphasize in running programs that can make all this better. Renee Spencer noted that closure can be a much more positive experience, even if the match itself wasn’t, when the process is:
Planned (scheduled in advance with time to prepare)
Process-oriented (with opportunities to explore and express feelings)
Growth-promoting (celebrating good things and normalizing the act of saying goodbye and experiencing loss; one key idea that emerged from the practitioners is to have match support staff gather mementos and special “keepsakes” throughout the match that can be presented to participants at closure to remind them of the positives of the experience)
Clear (no more mushy “Oh, I’ll call sometime” comments to a child who will take them at face value)
But to support closure that builds on these principles, practitioners will need tools. To prevent early closures from happening as frequently, we need:
Over the course of the next year, MENTOR will be working with Dr. Keller and many of the 2016 SIYM researchers and practitioners to build exactly these kinds of trainings and tools. We will also be exploring the development of more accurate cost-per-match estimates for various models and for mentoring certain groups of youth, both in terms of the actual costs programs are currently incurring, but also a more realistic dollar amount if we were to staff and compensate the match support role at the level it deserves.
|2016 SIYM Research Fellows and Presenters|
Host and Session Moderator:
· Tom Keller of Portland State University
· Antoinette Basualdo-Delmonico of Boston University
· Michael Karcher of the University of Texas—San Antonio
· Elizabeth Raposa of College of William and Mary
· Renee Spencer of Boston University
· Michael Garringer of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership
· Meghan Perry of the Institute for Youth Success at Education Northwest
· Karen Shaver (formerly) of Big Brothers Big Sisters Canada
· Shannon Turner of My Life