Great Life Mentoring 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 strong evidence indicating it achieves intended outcomes when implemented with fidelity). Great Life Mentoring offers a strong example of what a mentoring program working collaboratively with mental health providers can achieve. There are a few program features worth mentioning that likely contribute to the success of the program.
1. Training mentors adequately for the challenging task at hand.
Given that Great Life Mentoring (GLM) serves youth with varying levels and types of mental health challenges, mentors in this program must be trained to recognize how those challenges present themselves in the youth they are working with and how they can respond appropriately to meet the needs of the young person and keep them engaged in their clinical treatments without overstepping the bounds of their role as a mentor. The youth in the evaluation were typically not severely impaired by their mental health needs (the average participant was rated by a clinician as having “obvious problems”, but not “serious” or worse using the Children’s Global Assessment Scale). Yet, they did most likely experience more ups and downs than would be typical of a youth served in a volunteer-based mentoring program, which is something that could challenge an untrained mentor in how to respond and be supportive.
To mitigate this problem, GLM requires its mentors to go through 20 hours of pre-match training. This is obviously quite a bit more than the 2 hours or so that the average program requires. (MENTOR’s latest national survey of mentoring programs found that only 23% of programs offered more than 4 hours of training, while 70% offered between 1 and 4 hours.) The Great Life training covers topics such as attachment theory, thus positioning mentors to be better prepared to offer corrective attachment experiences that allow youth to reframe their perceptions of closeness and belonging in relation to others. The training also covers topics such as self-awareness, emotional health, displaying empathy, and setting clear boundaries, all of which are regarded as important to working effectively with the youth who are served by thus program.
This robust training is supplemented by monthly in-person supervision by a GLM staff person for the first year of the match. Along with the usual purposes that would be served by this supervision in any program, in GLM it allows mentors to further learn about and act in support of the youth’s overall treatment plan and areas of emphasis for growth and change set out by the youth’s mental health providers. This approach builds mentor skills but then also deploys them within the context of the youth’s formal treatment plan and in collaboration with the professional team working with the mentee.
2. Experienced mentors might make a difference.
One of the more consistent findings in the mentoring research is that programs in which a large number of mentors bring a youth work or related background to the mentoring role tend to produce stronger outcomes. Now, it is unclear as to whether those programs differ in other ways that might also lead to those stronger outcomes, but both DuBois’ 2002 meta-analysis and the recent meta-analysis from Raposa and colleagues found that mentors with a helping profession background tended to boost program results.
In the case of Great Life Mentoring, about a third of mentors reported a helping profession background and a quarter were currently working in a youth-related field, such as early child care, education, or youth programs. It seems natural that people working in these spaces would be drawn to a program like Great Life: they likely are familiar with the needs of these youth and know how much a mentor might benefit them, they likely feel like they can take on the challenge of a more difficult mentoring role in a program like this, and they may also feel like they can absorb and apply the skills and lessons of the training they will be offered.
So did having this high percentage of helping profession mentors make a difference? Well, in this study, neither having experience in a helping profession or a youth-related field predicted relationship length. Mentors with a higher level of education did tend to have longer relationships. Yet, as the study authors note, higher education may be a proxy for other factors, such as more flexible work schedules or more disposable income to spend on match activities, which may explain the education-match length association.
Even though that helping profession background did not seem to influence match length here, it’s hard to believe that it didn’t impact the overall quality of the program at some level. One might assume that these experienced mentors brought more skills to their relationships beyond what they learned in the training. They might also possess other personal characteristics that made them a good fit for working with these youth, such as higher levels of empathy or more ability to be “attuned” to youth they are working with, that improved outcomes (even if it didn’t translate into match length).
But this also might be evidence that everyday people who don’t have deep experience working with youth can be effectively trained into this role if that training is robust as that described above. It’s also worth noting that the program was very picky about who got to serve as a mentor, screening out more than half of the applicants during their screening and training procedures. So regardless of background, it is clear that Great Life was really choosing exceptional and skilled people to serve in this role. This is a great example of programs insisting on the right person with the right skills to avoid doing harm to the vulnerable youth they serve.
3. Match length as a key to success.
Needless to say, most youth do not overcome mental health challenges easily or quickly. For many, the services they get in a program like GLM are just the first steps in a lifetime of being in and out of clinical services. Given the long-term nature of these services, it is really heartening to read that Great Life has an average match length of 3 years. This amount of time certainly allows for mentors and youth to build deep trust and mutuality and suggest a relationship that grows stronger and more meaningful over time. The longevity of its matches also enables the mentor to be part of that treatment team for longer and, as suggested by findings of this evaluation, have an impact on the youth’s continuation of treatment as a result. This was somewhat borne out in the findings of this study that mentored youth were far less likely to have an unplanned exit from treatment that youth who were not mentored. These youth stuck with their mentor, and their treatment, longer.
Perhaps most importantly, these matches had very little attrition compared to most programs. Only 7.7% of the matches in this study lasted less than a year. Some estimates of match attrition in typical community-based mentoring programs place that less-than-a-year attrition rate as high as 40%. So Great Life Mentoring, through their careful mentor selection, intensive training, and ongoing collaboration with clinicians, was able to build lasting matches with youth that one might expect would be challenging to engage in mentoring and who might drop out of services more frequently than would be expected in a program serving the general population. These long matches and low attrition rates seem almost undoubtedly to have influenced the positive outcomes of the program and represent really high benchmarks for similar service providers to strive for. Serving youth with mental health challenges may be long-term work and this program appears to have unlocked several key practices to honor that long-term commitment to these youth.
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.