Baloo and You

*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 “Promising” (that is, a program that shows some evidence that it achieves justice-related goals when implemented with fidelity).

1. Sometimes simpler is just fine.

One of the things that immediately sticks out about the Baloo and You program is how little is asked of mentors. As with any program, mentors must commit to regular, consistent meetings with their mentee, engagement in the type of activities the program expects, and all the other aspects of the program that the developers deemed to be important. But compared to most modern mentoring programs, the premise behind, and approach to, the work with mentees in this program is remarkably simple.

The program theorizes that when children are young (6- to 10-years-old in this case), certain relationships can offer corrective experiences and what the authors of the second study describe as “an enriched social environment.” The relationships in this program thus offer children a chance to experience new things, learn new life skills, and receive role modelling from a caring adult.

While that might sound like what a lot of mentoring programs offer youth, in reading the two evaluation papers associated with this program, one can’t help but be struck by just how straightforward and “under-stuffed” the program is in comparison to many mentoring programs. In this program, mentors spend one afternoon a week with their mentee engaging in joint activities, adapted to the needs of the child, including things like trips to the zoo, cooking a meal together, working on craft projects, playing sports, or just engaging in conversation. There appears to be no set curriculum, no talking points for mentors beyond just being developmentally appropriate, no skills training or other quasi-clinical activities drawn from other evidence-based interventions, no turning mentors into highly trained pseudo-social workers or therapists. The mentor and the kid just… hang out. They spend time together and through engaging in normal, everyday activities, the program hypothesizes that these young children will build critical life skills, such as being organized, problem solving, concentration, expressing empathy, and making good decisions. As one of the papers about the program puts it, Baloo and You is strongly grounded in the idea that learning is a byproduct, not something to be intently focused on and willed into existence through sheer effort and rigid tactics.

But it seems many mentoring programs today have gone in the opposite direction, training mentors in all kinds of developmental theory, the specific steps and actions of tightly implemented interventions, and all manner of “change talk” skills designed to elicit specific changes in the youth they are working with. They transform the simple “caring adult spending time with you” mentor archetype into a quasi-therapist/coach/teacher/social worker, stuffed to the brim with the latest research and clinically-derived tips for moving their mentee from point A to point B. These programs tend not to fully trust that the relationship itself—the simple and fun interactions between a mentor and a child—will actually result in anything meaningful. It is refreshing to read a description of a program like this that trusts that an empathic relationship with someone new is an ideal environment for children to learn and practice skills that will help them throughout their life. Mentors don’t need to be deliverers of anything beyond a fun, caring, and enjoyable relationship in which their mentee learns how to just be in the world, how to be their best self, and how to get along with others.

Now, the mentors in this program do get support from the program staff on how to customize the mentoring experience precisely for the things that their mentee needs to work on. But they also trust that the relationship itself is a sufficient form of intervention, something that is not often seen in today’s competitive funding environment where programs chase outcomes so intensively that the mentoring relationships sometimes don’t look much like mentoring relationships when all is said and done.

Obviously, this approach would very possibly not work well for older youth or for youth experiencing more serious challenges or needing very specific help. But Baloo and You starts young, with foundational aspects of being a healthy person, and trusts that a mentor will help that child just by hanging out and being a role model. As one of the study authors puts it, “in the concept of the ‘byproduct,’ countless indirect paths lead to the finish line.” And as these evaluations showed, these youth got to the finish line, not by getting dragged there by their mentors, but by being given the freedom to be a kid having fun and talking about stuff with a new caring adult. What a novel concept for a field that increasingly seems to be distrustful of simply giving a child some love and a good time.

2. Simple still needs support.

While it’s true that the mentors in Baloo and You were mostly free to just concentrate on being in the relationship and engaging in fun activities, there was more going on behind the scenes than that. As noted above, mentors met with staff who were professionals in education or psychology so that they could emphasize the right things when meeting with their mentees or come up with activities that would be specifically tailored to the needs of the young person. While it’s true that most of the activities mentors and youth engaged in could be described as “everyday activities” that doesn’t mean that they weren’t chosen with some intentionality in mind. An activity like baking cookies together could provide an opportunity to work on all kinds of things, such as being organized and following directions, cooperation and taking turns, concentrating on the task at hand, and exercising patience (don’t eat the raw dough!).

One of the neat things the program did to facilitate these check-ins and allow the mentors to get input from more knowledgeable child development experts was to ask each of them to keep a diary about how the match was going, specific challenges expressed by the mentee, and areas where they felt like they could need some guidance. These diary entries were instrumental in letting the program staff know what was working and how they could offer specific suggestions for activities that might give children additional opportunities to work on areas of need.

The diary entries also provided amazing content for use in the program evaluation that shed light into how exactly the activities of the relationships were helping youth grow and learn those valuable life skills. For example, diary entries around arts and crafts and cooking activities illustrated just how children were learning organizational skills. In fact, coupled with other data, they were able to show that the more often children engaged in those activities, the less often they did things like forgetting to bring their books to school. Other programs may consider having mentors fill out diaries or other robust activity reporting forms as a way of knowing what’s happening under the surface of relationships.

3. Good examples of evaluation designs that fit the program.

The two evaluations of the Baloo and You program offer a few interesting wrinkles that other practitioners could learn from and mirror in their programs.

  • Good strategies for getting reliable information from younger children – One of the challenges in serving younger children like this program does is how to get reliable and accurate information from children who may struggle with concepts being asked about, may face challenges in filling out pencil and paper scales, or simply might struggle to reflect on their experiences. The Kosse paper in particular has a nice section describing how they did interviews with the children and how they used games and other interactive play to do things like establish baseline assessments and show gains at the end of the program. Programs working with younger children might learn some interesting techniques from these articles.

  • The value of multiple control groups – One of the most interesting aspects of the Kosse article is the use of two control/comparison groups—youth from low socio-economic status (SES) households (which mirrored the treatment youth) and youth from high SES households. The researchers obviously wanted to know if the program could improve mentees’ prosocial behaviors in comparison to their peers, but they also hypothesized that mentees might wind up, through the relationship offered in the program, “catching up” to youth growing up in higher SES households (where they theorized that youth would have access to more caring adult relationships and opportunities to build strong prosocial skills in a variety of settings).

    Sure enough, the mentored youth did outperform their low-SES peers and were essentially indistinguishable, even at the two-year follow up, from their higher SES classmates in terms of their prosocial behavior. But credit the evaluators with digging deeper. They also examined the results of the program through the lens of the mothers’ own prosocial behaviors. While it is true that mothers from low-SES households did tend to score lower on measures of prosocial behaviors, it is entirely possible that high-SES children can also find themselves in homes where the adults fail to provide sufficient interactions and activities to build prosocial skills. This provides a more nuanced view of who might benefit from the program than just household income. And as predicted the findings showed that children whose mothers displayed low levels of prosociality were most likely to benefit from the program, illustrating that the work with the mentors offered these youth something that could fill in gaps in what they were perhaps not receiving in the home.

    By using multiple comparison groups and by examining factors beyond simple SES status, the program was able to unpack some of the mechanisms of change at the heart of the program and learn quite a bit about the types of youth who might benefit most from the program moving forward.

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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