Better Futures Program

*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.

In considering the key takeaways from the research on this program that other mentoring programs can apply to their work, it’s useful to reflect on the features and practices that might have influenced its rating as “Effective” (that is, a program that shows definitive evidence of effectiveness)…

Perhaps the first thing that jumps out to readers of the evaluation of Better Futures is the substantial effect sizes that this program has achieved. Effect sizes are, essentially, a measure of just how much change from business-as-usual that an intervention or program has made on participants. In general, mentoring programs as a whole produce an effect size that is considered to be “small” (the 2011 meta-analysis led by NMRC Research Board Chair Dr. David DuBois found an overall effect size of .21). But Better Futures as produced impacts that go far beyond these modest gains, with effect sizes ranging from .74 to 1.75 for just about every outcome the evaluation examined. Only the outcomes of “mental health recovery” and “quality of life” failed to show statistically significant changes for participants compared to a randomly assigned control group of youth. But in every other possible outcome, this program produced impacts that were frequently “large” by the standard definition and downright massive in comparison to most mentoring interventions.

So how did Better Futures achieve all this? Let’s look at a few meaningful factors:

A great application of relevant theory when designing the program

As we’ve noted in considering other program reviews for the NMRC, one of the keys to success for mentoring programs may be making sure that the services are building on relevant theories and prior research that indicates that mentors will produce results within the context of the youth needs being addressed. Better Futures does an excellent job of this in its design by building on the concepts of Self-Determination Theory, which is premised on the idea that an individual’s well-being is influenced by the degree of autonomy and skill he or she has in his or her own self-care. This program clearly is built around the idea of empowering youth in foster care—youth who by nature of their experience in the child welfare system may have felt very, very disempowered in the course their life has taken. The program is built on a foundation of self-determination and that idea that if these youth are put in the driver’s seat of their postsecondary planning, and provided with just enough mentoring, skill development, and instrumental support as scaffolding, that the results will be meaningful. And this evaluation certainly seems to indicate that they were correct. Participants empowered in this manner were found to leave this program in a very different place than many of their non-participant peers and all of that arguably starts with the theory of self-determinism and the cultivation of mentoring services that will enhance that self-determinism in mentees.

Normalizing the experience of aging out of foster care and going into post-secondary life

Another relevant idea that we can see play out in the design of this program is that of “normalizing” what is essentially an abnormal experience. Youth in the child welfare system live, by default, lives that are anything but normal. The uncertainty, shifting environments, and inconsistent care offered by that system can leave youth feeling like they are very much anomalies among their peers. In fact, the NMRC has reviewed another promising mentoring program for serving foster youth that emphasizes making the experience seem more “normal” by having them interact with peers who are in similar circumstances. Better Futures seeks to achieve this “normalization” by bringing participants together for a multi-day “institute” on a college campus where they can interact with dozens of youth who are facing the same challenges and uncertainties as they head into young adulthood and plan for life after high school. The potential power of bringing together cohorts of youth going through the same difficult transition cannot be overstated as this offers the opportunity for connections to multiple mentors and a wealth of peer learning and information sharing, along with the overarching relief of knowing “I’m not in this alone.”

Offering a blend of developmental and instrumental mentoring

The support offered by Better Futures is, in many cases, highly “instrumental” in nature—that is, it emphasizes teaching, information sharing, and helping youth achieve some concrete goal or complete some discrete task. In fact, the mentors in the program have a suite of 17 different “experiences” that they are supposed to provide to youth, as well as 11 targeted self-determination “skills” they are supposed to teach, all in the service of preparing a plan for post-secondary education. So the experience of being a mentee in the program appears largely to be that of getting some concrete help on all this planning and completing the often mundane tasks associated with going to college, such as applying for financial aid or figuring out housing circumstances. But the way that the program does this is also relationship-driven and there is a heavy emphasis on personal growth, reflection, and peer support. This is a program that values relationships and encourages participants to, for the first time in their lives, take control of their future and the trajectory of the years to come. This combination of developmental mentoring and instrumental support is very much in alignment with recent theory about how mentors might work best with youth, helping them grow as people generally while also providing targeted instrumental support to overcome hurdles as needed. (For more on this idea, see this special issue of New Directions for Youth Development; the full text articles may be available through the services of public or university libraries.)

Picking the right mentors to help “normalize” this transition

Another key factor in the success of Better Futures may be who they ask to fill the mentor role. The mentors in this program are all young adults who have been to college and who also themselves have been in the foster care system or dealt with mental health issues. One can imagine that seeing a slightly older person who comes from a similar background and has managed to make this transition is highly motivating and empowering to participants. These mentors are likely to have invaluable first-hand experience with the struggles, the stumbling blocks, and the “tips” that can make this transition go well for mentees. It’s hard to imagine any old volunteer bringing the same level of understanding, skill, and personal lived experience to the table, no matter how good the training provided. This program does a nice job of backing up its self-determination message with living examples of what that transition looks like on the other side.

Tracking fidelity of implementation… flexibly

Another interesting feature of the program is found in those 17 “experiences” and 11 skills that the program tries to give mentees. As suggested earlier in this discussion, when a program is this grounded in meaningful theory and the expected changes, one might assume that fidelity to the model (how rigorously the program does certain tasks) is paramount, even though each mentee is a unique person with unique challenges and needs. But Better Futures finds a very nice middle ground between the rigidity of the model and the flexibility to meet clients where they are at. The mentors in the program are not expected to deliver all 17 of those “experiences” to every mentee, but rather, to select the ones that are most relevant to each of the individual participants. This way, the program can deliver a whole host of relevant skill-building and instrumental supports to every youth in the program, while also maintaining the flexibility needed to customize the experience in accordance with that overarching self-determination principle.

The mentors are encouraged to provide as many of the experiences as possible, but this can, as noted, be customized and tailored to the individual. The mentors are also responsible for tracking the components of the intervention that each mentee receives. Even though the program allows for a lot of flexibility, their fidelity results speak for themselves: 100% participation in the Summer Institute elements, 99.3% in exposure to the 11 self-determination skills, and 90.4% participation in the 17 experiential activities. These results speak to a program that allows mentors to give mentees the right developmental experiences but also ensure that everyone in the program is getting a robust intervention. After many years in the child welfare system, one can only imagine how nice it must feel to mentees to have services customized to their needs and not be shoved into a one-size-fits-all approach.

In spite of these strong outcomes and innovative approaches, there are some caveats that service providers should keep in mind when thinking about this program:

  • The evaluation does not provide a cost-per-match estimate, but one imagines that the multi-day Institute and customized support after are not low-cost. This program is providing a lot of support, but it is unclear how scalable this model is, both for cost and logistical reasons.

  • The evaluation also does not examine whether these youth actually went to college more than control youth. One might assume that they did, given their massive gains in measures of planning and preparation, but it’s unclear whether the program actually led to more of these youth attending, and subsequently graduating, from their chosen higher education institutions. A follow-up study looking at those outcomes would be a nice addition to our understanding here.

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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