Saturday, August 12, 2017

What I Learned in the Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring

On the 1st day of the week-long Portland University School of Social Work Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring, we learned that research shows that youth and volunteer mentoring relationships are less likely to close and more likely to persist when they exhibit the following characteristics and/or demographics:  
  • Being male (both youth and volunteers) 
  • Volunteers with higher incomes
  • Unmarried volunteers
  • Younger youth
  • Youth without risk behaviors and/or emotional problems
  • Girls living with single parent fathers
So basically, we can achieve higher retention rates if we find a bunch of single rich men and match them with kids with no problems.

Since that is never going to happen, :) we took a deeper look into what the research says about why matches close and how to mitigate the reasons in our own programming.  

When trying to avoid premature closure, it is helpful to know the predictors:  
  • Expectations: matches are more likely to close when the expectations for any one of the participants are not being met.  Understanding expectations for volunteers, youth and parents is important, but using training to continually check in on and shape expectations can be very effective. Change happens slowly, and the results of youth mentoring don't happen overnight.  Many outcomes are not even identifiable until mentees grow up.  Expectations need to reflect this. 
  • Long waits:  the longer a child waits, the more likely he/she is to persist.  Typically boys wait longer and their matches last longer.  This is not to say we should make kids wait, but to understand that the wait creates a deeper appreciation for the reward. 
  • Adaptability:  the more adaptable match participants are, the more likely they are to overcome match life cycle challenges. Training is also useful to emphasize the need to be flexible in the face of change, and when things aren't working the way a parent, youth or volunteer thought they would.  Adaptability is closely tied to good problem solving skills. 
  • Commitment:  obviously, it helps if everyone has the same commitment level, in any relationship. A process where match participants participate in an intentional and deliberate oral and written statement of their commitment to the rules of the program, like the length of the initial commitment, (typically 12 months), and the frequency of outings (varies), is significantly important. The specific commitments for each participant in the relationship should be clarified in the beginning, including parents.  This should also be repeated annually, or if there are problems with anyone not following through on the commitment. 
  • Socioeconomic differences: Match participants often have very different backgrounds and come from very different cultures.  Training is essential in helping volunteers understand the effects of poverty and trauma on families.
  • Understanding of child development:  The level of knowledge a volunteer has about the ages and stages of child development is a predictor of match longevity, which is why this is a critical training topic.  Training should include information about how trauma can stunt growth and development, preventing kids from being on track.
  • Communication:  Some people are natural communicators, but most of us don't do it very well - especially with people we barely know.  Frequent and thorough communication is essential and critically important in the beginning of the match, or during major life changes, in order for the relationship to continue to grow and thrive. 
  • Perceived need: Whether a volunteer feels like a Little needs him/her too much or too little, it can cause problems.  This is clearly also tied to expectations.  Volunteers should always know exactly why his/her child was referred and/or accepted in the program, and what the volunteer is expected to accomplish in the course of the mentoring relationship. 
One of my favorite notes I took during the Institute was this on "the most important things to watch for each match participant:" 
•    The Bigs' expectations for what will happen,
•    The Parents' commitment to making it happen, and
•    The Kids desire for it to happen at all.

If you have all of that under control, you're good to go. 

The following is an outline of the training we developed for match participants that is heavily informed by our attendance at the Institute. 

When a Match Closes
Closure, the process of transitioning or ending relationships, is a natural part of the mentoring life cycle. From an ethical standpoint, we know careful management of mentoring relationship closures is critical to ensuring positive outcomes for youth.

The Research
Youth mentoring research suggests that improper closure can be damaging for mentees. Both premature (early) match closure and failing to provide some sort of resolution or closure process at the end of a relationship both can have negative consequences.  These include: 
•    Becoming vulnerable to negative feelings resulting from poor relationship endings
•    Internalizing negative feelings like abandonment, fear, or confusion
•    Showing decreases in self-worth, self-confidence and academic self-efficacy
•    Even for mentoring relationships characterized as weak, closure may contribute to negative emotional outcomes for the mentees such as feelings of disappointment or anger. 
However, with agency support and proper notice of the timing of and reasons for closure, mentees and other members of the match may fare better in coping with the loss of the mentoring relationship.

Steps for Closure
Healthy closure provides mentees with an opportunity to reflect on their experience.  You and your mentee don’t want to miss an opportunity to thank each other for your time together.  If for some reason you think your match may have to close, look at the training schedule to see when the next Closure Training will be:  Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.  At this training, you will develop a plan that ensures your little has the best end result.  As often as possible, mentors and mentees should discuss memories of fun times they have had together and participate in a positive celebration that formally marks the transition in the relationship. Moreover, staff may gather information from matches that could be used to improve agency practices or guide future recommendations for match members.