Healthy and prosocial behavior includes behaviors that are directly promotive of physical health, such as exercise and a nutritional diet, as well as those that are directed to supporting the health and well-being of others, such as peers and members of one’s community more generally. Attention to promoting these positive outcomes is consistent with the strengths-oriented perspective that is widely emphasized in the mentoring field.1,2,3,4 Theoretically, the presence of a mentor in the life of a young person may support healthy and prosocial behavior.5,6 Along with processes such as mentor role modeling of relevant behaviors, mentors may help young people to both learn and apply strategies for incorporating healthy and prosocial behaviors into their lives.7,8 In deciding which health and prosocial behaviors to include, priority was given to those behaviors that theory and research suggest mentors may be most likely to influence. The following types of healthy and prosocial behaviors were selected for inclusion in the Toolkit: healthy eating, physical activity, prosocial behavior, and civic engagement.
Healthy eating in this context refers to choosing an appropriate calorie level to help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight, support nutrient adequacy, and reduce the risk of chronic disease.9 Given that dietary behaviors initiated during childhood and adolescence are often carried into adulthood, mentors have the potential to influence healthy eating behaviors not only over the short-term, but also across the lifespan of the young people with whom they work. At the same time, there also may be powerful influences in the lives of young people that make it difficult for mentors to support healthy eating behaviors. Access to healthy food, for example, spans multiple contexts for young people (home, school, community) and where limited may compromise the efforts of mentors. The social and behavioral norms that exist in these settings, too, may work against healthy eating behavior in many instances. One useful strategy for addressing contextual influences on healthy eating is with the use of peer mentors. Unlike adult mentors, cross-age peer mentors may be present in many of the same contexts as the young people they are mentoring (school and community), and thus are in key positions to demonstrate both the importance of healthy eating and where healthy food can be accessed in their schools and communities. In line with these possibilities, research suggests that cross-age peer mentoring programs hold promise as an effective method for delivering health curricula and to enhance the development of younger children6 and for helping mentees improve nutritional knowledge and attitudes and intentions toward healthy eating.10 The evidence base regarding effects of mentoring on healthy eating among youth, however, is surprisingly limited.
Excessive weight during childhood is a growing public health problem that is linked to obesity-related challenges, such as childhood asthma, hypertension, diabetes, and weight-related criticism (a type of peer victimization targeting weight or body shape).11,12 The combination of inadequate physical activity and an unhealthy diet contributes directly to overweight status among youth.13 Research with ethnic minority middle school students suggests parental modeling of healthy behaviors is a strategy that may help children maintain a healthy weight.14 Mentors may be able to play a useful role in supporting parents with these efforts. Mentors may engage in physical activities with youth as part of their time together, for example, and also may promote behaviors in this area by encouraging or facilitating their mentees’ participation in sports and recreational programs that help to keep youth active. Results from an evaluation of a youth development and mentoring program for girls found that one of the areas of greatest benefit was the domain of healthy behavior, with program participants reporting greater improvements in physical activity relative to a comparison group.15 In this study, physical activity included the activities program participants were involved in during the past week, including walking, running, bicycling, skating, and swimming. In general, however, there has been only limited attention to mentoring’s potential effects on physical activity level and the conditions under which such benefits are likely to be realized. Thus these topics remain poorly understood.
Prosocial behavior is “voluntary behavior that benefits others or promotes harmonious relations with others.”16,17 As such, prosocial behavior can be conceived as at the core of a mentor’s behavior and intentions (i.e., to benefit the mentee) and thus, not surprisingly is often a desired youth outcome for mentoring programs. Research has found that youth who are considered “prosocial” are good problem solvers, are considerate, and tend not to be aggressive.18,19 Mentors may promote prosocial behavior in their mentees by teaching and helping them to practice social skills, by modeling prosocial behavior themselves, and by introducing their mentees to diverse social interactions and contexts.20 Despite this potential, research evidence for effects of mentoring on prosocial behavior is equivocal. Of note, evidence of overall effects of mentoring program participation on measures of prosocial behavior was absent in the Role of Risk study21 as well as in randomized control trials of the Big Brothers Big Sisters school-based mentoring program22 and school-based mentoring programs funded through the Student Mentoring Program.23
Civic engagement refers to the ways in which citizens participate in the life of a community to improve conditions for others or to help shape the community’s future.24 Civic engagement behaviors are, in fact, what mentors are ideally modeling in every interaction with youth they are mentoring. They are thus theoretically outcomes that mentoring relationships have the potential to impact and research has found a link between civic engagement and mentoring. In the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development, youth who participated in 4-H were 2.1 times more likely than youth not in 4-H to make contributions to their communities and 1.8 times more likely to have higher scores on measures of active and engaged citizenship.25 Active and engaged citizenship is a construct that reflects young people’s responses to measures of civic duty, civic skills, neighborhood connection, and civic participation. 4-H youth also reported more mentors than did non-4-H youth. Taken together, these findings suggest a link between having a mentor and the promotion of civic engagement among other behaviors associated with positive youth development.25 In the Role of Risk study, however, there was no evidence of an effect of program participation on youths’ reported levels of involvement in community service activities.21
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13. Glover, S., Piper, C., Hassan, R., Preston, G., Wilkinson, L., Bowen-Seabrook, J., & Williams, S. (2011). Dietary, physical activity, and lifestyle behaviors of rural African Americans South Carolina children. Journal of the National Medical Association, 103, 300–304. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0027-9684(15)30310-2
14. Stevens, C. J. (2010). Obesity prevention interventions for middle school-age children of ethnic minority: A review of the literature. Journal for Specialists in Pediatric Nursing, 15, 233–243. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6155.2010.00242.x
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21. Herrera, C., DuBois, D. L., & Grossman, J. B. (2013). The role of risk: Mentoring experiences and outcomes for youth with varying risk profiles. New York, NY: A Public/Private Ventures project distributed by MDRC. Retrieved from http://www.mdrc.org/sites/default/files/Role%20of%20Risk_Exec%20Sum-web%20final.pdf
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