Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. (YAP)

*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 Crime Solutions 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. When “short term, high dose” accomplishes more than one might think.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Youth Advocate Program (YAP) model is that it is fairly short-term compared to many community-based mentoring opportunities—only 4-6 months, when most community-based programs aim for at least a year if not several as a minimum expectation. At first this may seem surprising, given that YAP serves youth who are not just “involved” in the juvenile justice system but t who have violent or multiple serious offenses that have them facing incarceration in a juvenile detention facility. Supporting youth in that situation would seem at first glance to require long-term relationships with caring mentors that help these youth navigate a series of challenges and build a life that hopefully allows them to avoid recidivism.

Well, what YAP lacks in duration, it more than makes up for in intensity. Utilizing a paid mentor position, youth meet with their mentors at least 7.5 hours a week—occasionally increasing that to as many as 30 hours a week if they need extremely intensive help in a time of crisis. That not only provides ample opportunity for the program’s mentors to ensure youth are meeting the expectations of their court-mandated Individual Treatment Plan, it also means they have the time to build a deeper relationship and really get to know what makes a young person tick. The program tries to match mentors and youth along lines of similar interest and geographic proximity, hopefully giving the pair as few barriers as possible as they start to work together, knowing that the time is short.

The fact that this program shows reductions in criminal behavior a full year after exit from the program suggests that it’s possible to facilitate some longer-term changes in behavior from a rather brief relationship, provided that the intensity is high and the work the pair engages in is guided by an overarching plan. In fact, the OJJDP study of YAP referenced this review offers further hints as to how mentors can make these relationships impactful in a short period of time—and which behaviors they may want to avoid at various points.

2. Timing is everything.

While the old adage that “timing is everything” certainly applies to comedy, it also seems to matter a great deal in programs like YAP. One of the interesting aspects of this evaluation is that they focused so heavily on the actions of mentors and what was happening within matches, in addition to examining program outcomes. This is incredibly helpful to the field as it allows us to not only know if the program “worked” (and it does seem to have achieved many of its goals), but also how it may have worked and the connection between the actions of mentors and those outcomes. One key finding in this regard is that youth whose mentors who engaged in more serious conversations at the start of the relationship and more playful and relational activities toward the end fared better in terms of their levels of misconduct when they left the program than mentors who started out more playful before moving into serious conversations. At some level, this bucks conventional wisdom that assumes mentors are better off taking time getting to know youth and having some low-stress interactions to build trust before engaging in serious discussions or talking about behavioral issues. But what YAP mentors seem able to do is start the relationships from a place that is both relational (hence the importance of those shared interests/neighborhoods) and engaging in serious conversation right off the bat. Given that these youth are only in this program in lieu of incarceration, and that the pair has limited time to work together, once can see why mentors would perhaps want to come in with some serious “getting down to business’ right off the bat. One can also imagine that in relationships where the mentor is still pushing serious problem-based conversation deep into their time together that perhaps youth would begin to tune that out or might feel like their mentor only thinks of them as someone with problems.

The most successful mentors here seemed to start with more of a focus on the serious work to be done, but then bolstered the relationship and set the stage for longer term success by ending their time together with more fun and play that let youth know this relationship was about more than the work they had done together, meaningful as that was. Other programs serving youth with serious needs or challenges may want to consider whether they can start addressing some of those tougher issues earlier in the relationship. Perhaps mentors and youth bond together better, in these cases, through the addressing of hard issues, rather than building a “nice” relationship that can get undercut in the youth’s mind when the conversation topics turn more serious.

3. Once again, experienced mentors may boost outcomes.

One of the trends that we have talked about in these “insights” documents before is that there is a clear trend in mentoring research suggesting that programs can boost their outcomes by using mentors who have a teaching, advocacy, or prior youth work background. The idea being that they may bring more advanced skills and a deeper understanding of young people to the role of a mentor. And this evaluation seems to only strengthen that view. This study once again found that youth whose mentors had prior experience as a teacher and higher levels of education fared better in terms of their criminal behavior and engagement in school. The experience and education that these mentors bring to this work may be particularly important in a short-duration, high-intensity program like YAP where they need to establish a good working relationship with the youth in short order and balance the immediate needs of the youth and the court-mandated plan they must adhere to. One can see how experience as a teacher may teach critical skills for that juggling act.

But there was one area where mentors’ education level may have had a downside: Mentors with a higher education level were also more likely to be engaging in serious conversations deeper into the relationship, exactly the action cautioned against in the point above. Now, there may be many explanations for this, but it might be that mentors who have completed more schooling might value education more and be more likely to push their mentees to focus on school. They may also define “success” differently for the youth they are working with. It doesn’t seem that their insistence on serious conversations late in the relationship negated their impact—they still outperformed their less-educated peers. But they did also tend to engage in a behavior that, according to those other analyses, didn’t quite work as well for the youth in the program.

4. What’s the “secret sauce”?

While this evaluation certainly demonstrates the effectiveness of the YAP model, and offers some hints as to effective mentor approaches, it remains unclear exactly how the mentors in this program are able to influence longer-term trajectories for youth from a short, albeit intense, mentoring experience. Given that these youth are multiple offenders and have often committed very serious crimes, one can assume that these youth have been exposed to mentors and caring adult-led interventions long before they arrive at YAP. In some ways, YAP may represent a bit of a last chance with only incarceration left as a form of behavioral correction.

But what made this program stick when others had not? Certainly the intensity of the relationship helps, as does the integration of the mentor into the community and family of the youth, and the blend of play and serious work noted earlier. And having a court-mandated treatment plan looming over the relationship probably also reinforces that this is an opportunity not to be taken lightly by youth.

But we unfortunately don’t have a lot of information about the activities mentors and youth engage in to know exactly how mentors are able to change thinking patterns, long-term behaviors, and other factors that can be real barriers to changing one’s life in the way that successful YAP mentees seem to have. Perhaps it’s just a matter of getting deeper into the life of the youth, something that being a paid mentor spending copious amounts of time with a youth affords. Maybe these mentors have ways of reaching these youth that previous mentors didn’t possess. Maybe the timing of the program and the age of the participants puts pressure on the youth that “this time has to be different.” Hopefully future evaluations of YAP can shed more light on exactly how mentors engage in those serious conversations, how they build strong bonds while doing that, and how exactly those more playful moments toward the end of the relationship leave things on a note that carries forward for the mentee. While this evaluation taught us a lot about YAP, there is still more to learn about this intriguing model.

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" section of the National Mentoring Resource Center site.

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