Strategies for Setting and Working on Mentee Goals

*Note: The National Mentoring Resource Center makes these “Insights for Mentoring Practitioners” available for each program or practice reviewed by the National Mentoring Resource Center Research Board. Their purpose is to give mentoring professionals additional information and understanding that can help them apply reviews to their own programs. You can read the full review on the National Mentoring Resource Center website.

Perhaps one of the most concrete and purposeful activities mentors can do is to work with their mentee to identify and pursue meaningful goals. While programs usually have broad outcomes that they are trying to achieve for youth (improved grades, interest in careers, reduced problem behaviors, etc.), each mentoring relationship can also be thought of as a universe unto itself, with its own personalities, interactions, and activities. Since each young person is unique, it stands that they would also have unique goals for their life in mind and unique strengths and weaknesses that can help or hinder the pursuit of those goals. Thus, mentors, especially in one-to-one programs as were reviewed here, are especially well-positioned to offer the unique forms of guidance and support that mentees need to set and achieve goals.

The research reviewed here offers a few hints for practitioners and mentors in their programs as to how to best go about building goal setting and pursuit into their programs. The good news in this research is that working on goals shows evidence of being a successful practice across programs serving different ages, with different goals, and even using different mentoring platforms (as in the case of one program that was purely online). The studies reviewed offer several different examples of how a program can approach goal setting within their matches, but there are a few elements of this work that seemed to be universal to making goal setting and pursuit effective in a mentoring context.

1. Goal setting and pursuit work must be engaging to the mentee.

While it might sound like a truism that young people need to be engaged in their own goal setting and attainment, mentoring programs and mentors can often struggle to find ways to make this work compelling, youth-centered, and well-integrated into the mentoring relationship. But as noted in Study 1 in this review, the level of a young person’s engagement with the goal setting activities, and the degree to which mentors and youth spend time talking about and working on goals, can be predictive of just how successful they can be in achieving their goals. In looking across the programs that found success around goal work in this review, there are a few things programs can do to make this work more engaging to mentees:

  • Focus the goal-setting around big transition points that youth will inherently be concerned about. A few of the more successful examples in this review were from programs that centered on the transition out of child welfare services or the transition into college and early career. Youth who are facing a major change or big hurdle may inherently be more open to a mentor’s help with setting and reaching goals. Youth in just about any program are likely to be facing transition points of some kind and youth might be more engaged if the goal work emphasizes specific tasks and achievements that can support that transition.

  • Engage parents and others in a web of support. One of the studies of the Take Charge program emphasized the involvement of parents, providing them with updates on the selection and progress of goals and even teaching them how they could be supportive of that work in the home environment. Since mentors and youth have limited time together, it makes sense to involve others and make sure that critical adults, such as parents, are also positioned to be supportive of goal pursuit.

  • Emphasize a self-determination approach. One of the big keys to the success of the Take Charge program is the emphasis that it places on the concept of self-determination, which may be especially important for youth who may feel rather disempowered by circumstances in their lives (e.g., youth with disabilities or youth in systems of care). These youth may respond particularly well to a chance to be put “in the drivers’ seat” when it comes to their future. While mentors may be critical assets in the pursuit of goals, young people may be more engaged and motivated by the message that their attainment of goals really does rest on their shoulders and that it is up to them to chart a course and stick with it. Unfortunately, this is something that many mentors seem to struggle with in their desire to help a young person find success. It can be easy for “adultism” to creep into a mentoring relationship, with the mentor dictating what goals are worthy and how the young person should proceed. It’s easy to see why this approach might lead to youth disengaging from the goal-setting work. So when possible, emphasize the concept of self-determination to increase youth buy-in.

2. Think carefully about what goes into setting and pursuing goals and build that into a framework that speaks to your participants.

One of the notable aspects of the programs in this review was the degree to which they attempted to define and address the many components that go into goal setting and pursuit. Rather than just instructing mentors and youth to set some goals and go for them, they presented a framework by which the participants could get specific about activities and actions.

For example, in one of the Take Charge studies, they note a three-pronged approach to goal-related work: Achievement (which was the literal work of crafting transition plans and monitoring progress on tasks), Partnership Development (which involved identifying people who could serve in that aforementioned web of support), and Self-Regulation (which involved skills and strategies for rewarding effort, maintaining motivation, and managing frustrations). Other programs may want to consider how well they prepare mentors and youth to think about these particular aspects of goal-related work.

In another example, the Thrive program in this review emphasized their “GPS” model (Goal selection, Pursuit of strategies, and Shifting gears to overcome obstacles). The last aspect of the model, shifting strategies if an original plan is not working, is critical to achieving goals, but is often under-considered in models where “sticking with the plan” is emphasized at the expense of a more adaptable approach.

In general, programs would be well-advised to think intentionally about the little details that go into setting and achieving goals. Presenting mentors and youth with a framework like this can help them choose the right goals, identify the right supports, and prepare to change course if their first approach isn’t working.

3. Provide materials and a process that reflects whatever framework is chosen.

Another practice noted in the review is that many of these programs provided mentors and youth with formal training, materials, and a time-bound process to structure the selection and pursuit of goals. Rather than leaving every match to figure out on their own how to set and achieve goals, programs like Thrive and Take Charge offered a fairly rigid set of tools and resources for matches to use. They allowed for some flexibility within these frameworks and tools to accommodate youth voice and differing types of goals, but they also offered scaffolding intended to support the process and help monitor progress. In fact, one of the studies of Take Charge even had a “fidelity of implementation checklist” to make sure that their “coaches” (serving in a very mentor-like role) actually went through the steps needed and delivered the intervention as intended. It stands to reason that not every program needs to be that intentional about how mentors and youth pursue goals, but that also that optimal results are not likely to be attained if they simply leave matches to their own devices either. There seem to be hints in the Thrive study that the amount of time and effort a match puts into goal-related work has some correlation to how supported youth feel and how engaged they are in trying to achieve their goals. So make sure that matches are provided with materials and a process that allows them to focus on goals as needed.

Of course, experience suggests that dogged pursuit of goals can strip away a lot of the fun of a mentoring relationship and that an overemphasis on goals can actually get in the way of the emotional bonding and relationship depth that seems to be important in mentoring. So provide enough structure so that matches aren’t making it up as they go, while also maintaining a balance and avoiding turning mentors into goal-focused task masters.

4. Measure your efforts to build these skills.

It’s worth noting that the NMRC’s Measurement Guidance Toolkit offers a recommended tool for measuring the goal-setting skills and beliefs of youth. The Global Scale of Selection, Optimization, and Compensation (SOC) is a simple, 9-item measure that assesses youth’s goal-directed behaviors. Administered when youth enter the program, this scale can help you identify which youth may need extra support in setting and striving for meaningful goals. It can also be administered at the end of the program cycle or mentoring relationships to see if your framework and accompanying tools did make an impact in how your mentees think about goals and their actions to go achieve them. If you can show that your mentors do teach youth these valuable skills, you can make a convincing argument to parents, funders, and other stakeholders that your program really does help youth achieve their goals.

For more information on research-informed program practices and tools for implementation, be sure to consult the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring™ and the "Resources for Mentoring Programs" section of the National Mentoring Resource Center site.

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