Pre-Match Mentor Training
*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.
As with the review of post-match training by the National Mentoring Resource Center Research Board, the average mentoring program staff member might be awfully confused as to the designation for this practice as “Insufficient Research.” After all, pre-match training is the cornerstone of just about any mentoring program and the idea of putting volunteer mentors into a relationship with a vulnerable child without any kind of formal training is almost unheard of in the modern youth mentoring field. But while much of the research cited here, and common sense, indicates that preparing mentors for their role with some form of training is beneficial, the designation of “Insufficient Research” here may be much more tied to the nuances of that training than it is the general applicability of the practice. Training is one of those areas of running a program where the devil really is in the details.
This evidence review focuses on nine studies that either found some evidence that training produces stronger, longer, and more satisfying mentoring relationships or failed to find such correlations. So it’s a bit of a mixed bag in these studies. But even if we accept the premise that pre-match training is important, these studies offer limited information around the training:
- Format – Although one study found some evidence supporting training delivered in a group setting, and another examined a web-based training, there wasn’t much detail comparing modes of training (e.g., in-person vs online) or suggesting an ideal volume of training (although a few of the studies suggest that mentors who participate in more training meet with their mentees more often). This makes offering global statements about the amount of training or the structure of training difficult. We simply don’t have enough information to definitively say that, for example, four hours of in-person training should be the minimum. Even if a few of these studies indicate that more hours of training are a good thing in terms of future match quality, these findings cannot be assumed to be very transferable across diverse programs and different populations of youth.
- Content – These studies did not really examine the content (or the quality of that content) in the trainings being offered. Participating in eight hours of training with irrelevant content will not help mentors much, whereas one hour of just the right information may prove invaluable.
- Delivery – Also missing from these studies is any kind of examination of how the training was delivered. We know from adult learning theory and other disciplines that we learn best when trainings are interactive, provide opportunities for participants to role play and practice new skills, and when information is presented sequentially and in formats that appeal to a variety of learning styles.
To be both fair and clear, the intended purpose of these studies was not to investigate the efficacy of mentor training or even compare one form of training to another. These studies were primarily studies of relationship duration or youth outcomes that looked at training volume (mostly) to see if it was predictive of relationship quality or youth outcomes. In some cases it was, in others it was not. But unfortunately, none of these studies dove too deeply into the types of details that would be beneficial to practitioners who simply want to know what kinds of formats, content, and delivery methods will work best in their programs. Hopefully future research will delve more into these training nuances. Emerging research on specific training content and online delivery systems may shed some light into these areas, but until that research has been through a peer review process and released to our field, these studies essentially do offer “insufficient evidence” to provide practitioners with certainty and clear “effective practices” around mentor preparation.
Tips for Practitioners
Given that direct research is limited in this area, what should practitioners take away from this review of the evidence for their own work? There are several points that mentoring program staff should keep in mind:
1. Participation in training may be predictive of overall mentor engagement. Several of the studies in this practice review found a significant positive correlation between mentors’ volume of training (in terms of hours) or frequency of participation in training (number of trainings attended) and relationship outcomes such as the frequency of meeting with their mentee or the length of their relationship. This could mean one of two things: Either the training itself is leading to those outcomes or the mentors who are more committed to participating fully in the mentoring experience are also the ones most likely to attend pre-match trainings.
From my perspective it’s likely a bit of both. Training mentors can clearly increase their feelings of self-efficacy and give them skills that can build a strong and long relationship with a mentee. But it also seems likely that mentors who are really “committed to the cause” are the ones who might show up for more trainings and participate to their fullest. So programs would be wise to track how well new mentors participate in pre-match (and ongoing) training. Those mentors who struggle to attend training might very well be the ones who struggle to meet with their mentee. Participation in pre-match training might very well be a key indicator of a volunteer’s overall engagement with the program.
2. Pre-match training offers an opportunity for ongoing screening and gathering matching information. Keeping with the theme of mentors who don’t participate or function well in pre-match training, programs would be wise to track which mentors seem uninterested in, or incapable of, developing their mentoring skills via training. In many ways, pre-match training may provide a window in to how “up to the challenge” a new volunteer is, as well as provide a glimpse as to how the volunteer might actually function in that role when matched with a mentee. Programs can use this information as a way of continuing the screening process and keeping volunteers who are not ready or who aren’t a good fit for the program from being matched. While a failure to even participate in pre-match training is an obvious red flag about a volunteer, programs can also see who struggles during role plays and other training exercises that put the volunteer in a “live” mentoring setting. Background checks, interviews, references, and all the other screening mechanisms are important. But you may not realize that you have an inappropriate mentor in the program until you observe that person in a training. Conversely, pre-match training may also be a great way of identifying mentors with unique talents, skills, and personalities—information that may be critical with making matches with specific mentees. So think about how you can use pre-match training to screen out those who are not ready to be matched, while also looking for skills and abilities that might make a mentor appropriate for a particular youth.
3. Mentors need to believe in themselves. One of the themes that emerges from not only the youth mentoring literature but from psychology in general is that our feelings of self-efficacy really do matter in terms of how well we perform tasks and how we overcome challenges. At some level, mentors need to know that they can do this that they can build a caring relationship with a young person they don’t know and that they have, or can acquire, the skills to help that youth succeed. When looking at the research on why matches tend to fail, one can see that mentors who don’t believe they can fill this role, or who doubt their ability to succeed, are often the ones that shirk their obligations to the program and child and who give up when they encounter challenges in the relationship. Believing that you can be a successful mentor might be the first step in actually being a successful mentor.
Now, this belief doesn’t mean much if a mentor lacks the time, personality, strategies, and motivation to do the work. Motivation can only carry us so far. But mentor trainings often emphasize program rules, youth needs, and specific relationship skills at the expense of building mentors’ confidence. Programs would be well advised to remember that mentoring is not only a very personal type of volunteer experience, but also, frankly, one that can be “scary” or intimidating. If we want strong, long, and meaningful mentoring relationships, then it stands to reason that we need to send mentors into that experience with high feelings of confidence and competence (and back that up with ongoing support once they are matched).
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.