KEEP SAFE (formerly Middle School Success)

*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 might have influenced its rating as “Promising” (that is, a program that shows encouraging, but not definitive evidence of effectiveness).

Providing support on two fronts with multiple strategies.

One of the more interesting features of this program model is that it provides services to both youth and their caregivers. The program targets girls in the foster care system who are about to enter middle school, with an emphasis on reducing their delinquency and substance abuse. But the designers of the program postulate that a key factor in these girls achieving good outcomes is the stability and supportiveness of their placement in a foster home. So in addition to providing training and skill building to the youth, the program also spends considerable time providing intervention sessions for the caregivers on how to implement a behavioral reinforcement system that would reduce conflict in the home, reinforce the girls’ positive behaviors, and hopefully lead to fewer placement changes. For youth in foster care, frequent placement changes are associated with a host of negative behaviors and outcomes. So the caregivers are intended to receive six core sessions over the summer to build their behavior reinforcement skills, with weekly two-hour follow-up sessions provided throughout the school year (caregivers attended, on average, about 20 of the 40 available follow-up sessions).

Unfortunately, the evaluation did not examine the impact of the caregiver sessions on their parenting behaviors, nor did it explore whether more consistent participation in the follow-up sessions was associated with better outcomes. But the program was successful in reducing the number of placement changes for the treatment girls (as opposed to the “control” group), which is consistent with (but, of course, not proof of) the services to caregivers playing a role in stabilizing the home environment and reducing the need for placement changes.

Mentoring programs of all types, but especially those working on behavioral issues with highly at-risk adolescents, may want to consider providing some form of support or skill-development training to the parents and caregivers of those mentees. Building a more stable and supportive home environment might reinforce the positive changes the mentee is experiencing from the services they receive.

The middle school years are a key time for mentors to have impact.

The developers of this program specifically targeted the transition to middle school as a key point to offer an intervention for these girls. Obviously, these girls’ involvement in the child welfare system raises their level of risk inherently. But the evaluators note that the transition to middle school is fraught with challenges, emphasizing that it’s “a critical period that has been associated with a range of subsequent adjustment problems, including significant declines in academic achievement, motivation, and self-esteem, and significant increases in discipline problems and psychological distress.” But they also note that there has been research on previous interventions targeting this period of adolescence demonstrating their effectiveness in building resiliency and fending off these declines in achievement and well-being.

By beginning the work of the program during the summer before the move to middle school—then continuing to support youth with weekly sessions that reinforce their new attitudes, skills, and behaviors—this program was attempting to get out in front of the challenges all students face when moving into the intimidating world of middle school. Programs working in this age range may want to consider special summer programming designed to give mentees a head start on building resiliency and preparing to meet the challenges that their new school environment will present. Evidence suggests that youth are open to the influence of an intervention at this stage, before more serious problems have set in, so mentoring programs may be particularly helpful by making sure this transition goes smoothly.

Emphasizing fidelity to the intervention.

One last feature of this program worth noting is that, because it was designed by researchers at the Oregon Social Learning Center, there was a particular emphasis in the evaluation on fidelity to the intervention as it was offered over the summer and during the follow-ups throughout the year. They were not content to assume that the program’s curriculum and core messages were being delivered by staff as intended. They actually videotaped the sessions and reviewed them later with staff to correct mistakes and reinforce the proper delivery of the messages and concepts of the program.

Now, most mentoring programs would be ill advised to start videotaping each and every mentoring outing in the name of giving the mentor feedback. But all programs do have some obligation to ensure that their mentors are delivering the right messages, reinforcing the right behaviors, and conducting themselves in a way that reinforces the program’s theory of change. They only way a program can have its intended effect is if mentors are delivering what the program thinks they are delivering to the young person. So match check-ins, activity logs, and other strategies for tracking what “fidelity” looks like for your program model is really important. This is especially true in programs where mentors have to deliver a set curriculum or set of structured activities, but it’s also true in programs where mentors are simply being generally supportive to youth and imparting sound wisdom and advice. So all practitioners in the mentoring field should think about what it means to deliver their program “as intended” and develop ways of ensuring that’s actually happening across their matches.

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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