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Getting the Most out of Mentoring Relationships

Posted by Meghan Trombly Nov 11, 2011 , , , ,

Beginning this month, Meghan Trombly, Strong Women, Strong Girls’ Director of Process Improvement and Knowledge, is blogging monthly about the current research and emerging trends that are informing our work. Check in each month to learn what we’re reading about relationshipsrole models, or skills

For Strong Women, Strong Girls, the toxic and abusive relationships dominating recent news headlines – such as the Penn State allegations – are quite disheartening.  As a mentoring program, relationships are at the core of our work.  Consequently, ensuring that we have the proper policies, structures, and trainings in place to prevent our mentoring relationships from going down similar negative and dangerous paths are essential.  In turn, having complementary policies, structures, and trainings in place that encourage the positive outcomes of mentoring are equally as important. As part of Strong Women, Strong Girls’ commitment to creating a culture of innovation and building positive relationships, this quarter we have been contemplating two articles, in particular, related to mentoring.

The first, “Impact Evaluation of the U.S. Department of Education’s Student Mentoring Program,” has created ripples across the mentoring community. The research calls into question the impact of school-based mentoring. As a result of the study, President Obama’s administration planned to reduce funding for the Department of Education’s (DOE) Student Mentoring Program. Even if not receiving funding through the DOE, all mentoring programs should stand up and take notice. This study and subsequent reaction could set precedence for broader funding cut-backs.   At Strong Women, Strong Girls, we’re asking staff to understand the study, including its scope and limitations.  Most importantly, the research focused on average mentoring programs, not necessarily those high-quality programs adhering to the best practices of mentoring. As a result, Strong Women, Strong Girls staff also reviewed “Elements of Effective Practice” by MENTOR, the National Mentoring Partnership. Reviewing the Elements reminds us of the essential components required for a high-impact mentoring program.

The second piece of research that SWSG reviewed was “How Effective are Mentoring Programs for Youth? A Systematic Assessment of the Evidence.” This meta-analysis of 73 independent research evaluations of mentoring programs from 1999-2010 is the first of its kind since the 1990s. The study includes a wealth of valuable information for mentoring programs. The research demonstrates that high-quality mentoring programs do positively impact youth’s behavior, attitude, and performance. Specifically, Strong Women, Strong Girls staff are taking action on the following findings:

  • Youth with moderate risk benefit the most: Strong Women, Strong Girls is working closely with our site liaisons to ensure that girls who are most appropriate for our program are enrolled.  We are reminded that Strong Women, Strong Girls is not designed to be a substitute for intensive social-emotional services.
  • Duration and expectations of relationships matter: Youth benefit from longer relationships. However, if the program is shorter and expectations are set up front, the program can still achieve impact. We are working with the college women who serve as mentors to align their rigorous academic schedules with mentoring times for the entire academic year. We train mentors to clearly discuss program-duration expectations with girls. To ensure proper relationship closure, we built in a standardized lesson to formally close their relationship and discuss feelings for longer term growth.
  • Level of impact varies by gender: Programs with higher percentages of males showed greater benefits. There is not conclusive evidence to explain the causes of this difference. However, the variance might be due to one hypothesis that girls who are referred to mentoring programs report a lower level of trust for adults than boys who are referred. The lack of trust for adults makes establishing a relationship with a mentor more difficult.  Other research demonstrates that girls take longer than boys, up to a year, to report positive relationships with their mentors. Strong Women, Strong Girls is speaking with mentors about these findings. The hypothesis can be particularly encouraging for mentors who are feeling frustrated by the lack of an immediate connection with girls.
  • Program design is essential: The structure of a program matters. Embedding certain program characteristics lead to greater benefits for youth.

In light of these studies, we encourage all mentoring programs to review the “Effective Practices in Mentoring.” Complete the “Check List for Mentoring Programs.” Celebrate those elements you are already implementing. Create a realistic and comprehensive plan to institute the elements you are missing.

Finally, we would love to hear your suggestions on ways in which Strong Women, Strong Girls can maximize the positive benefits of mentoring relationships. Please share your ideas here! Check back in next month for the latest research that Strong Women, Strong Girls is reviewing on role models.

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