Support for Youth Thriving
Evidence Rating for this Practice:
Promising (5 Tests of the Practice in 3 Independent Studies)
In three of the tests of the practice (across 2 independent studies), the practice of support for youth thriving was associated with better outcomes. In these tests of the practice, the outcome evidence and the methodology used for assessing effects of the practice satisfied criteria for a designation of Promising. For the fourth test of the practice, the methodology used for assessing the effects of the practice met criteria for rigor but the outcome evidence did not reach the threshold for a designation of Promising; the test of this practice was thus classified as Null Effect. In the fifth test of the practice (in a third independent study), the methodology used for assessing the effects of the practice did not met criteria for rigor. Overall, based on these findings, the practice of support for youth thriving received an evidence rating of Promising. This rating is based on currently available research and may change as new research becomes available.
Description of Practice:
Support for youth thriving involves intentional program efforts to cultivate attitudes, skills, and behaviors among mentees that are widely understood to be centrally important to young persons’ positive development and capacity to make meaningful contributions to their communities. Thriving has been conceptualized as a process of engaging in purposeful actions that are directed toward reaching one’s full potential and achieving important goals (Benson & Scales, 2009; see also Keyes & Haidt, 2003 for a discussion of the closely related concept of flourishing). The Thrive Foundation for Youth, for example, has proposed a framework for thriving in which youth are helped by adult guides (e.g., mentors) to identify and explore areas of personal interest or passion (“sparks”), develop a growth mindset about their abilities, reflect on indicators corresponding to the 6 Cs of positive youth development (i.e., Character, Caring, Confidence, Competence, Connection, and Contribution), and build skills for setting and effectively pursuing personal goals. Thriving also may be facilitated by many of the skills and attitudes emphasized in discussions of “soft skills” (also sometimes referred to as non-cognitive skills) and skills for social and emotional learning. Efforts to support youth thriving within mentoring programs can take several forms. These include, for example, activities that engage mentors and youth in learning together about and practicing relevant attitudes or skills (e.g., growth mindset). Other practices, such as mentor training and match support, may be designed with similar purposes. Support for youth thriving is distinguished from these types of practices, however, by its primary focus on promoting the types of attitudes, skills, and behaviors described above.
The primary goal of the practice is to promote positive outcomes for the mentee by having their mentors, with program support, engage in activities that are designed to cultivate attitudes, skills, and behaviors that foster positive development and realization of personal potential.
Targeted Forms of Mentoring and Youth Populations:
This practice is potentially applicable to all forms of mentoring and the full range of youth who may be served by programs. It is possible, however, that some thriving concepts or skills may be more relevant or amenable to change among certain age groups of youth. For example, it may difficult for pre-adolescent youth to fully grasp the concept of the relatively abstract concept of growth mindset.
The practice of supports for youth thriving draws on several theoretical perspectives on positive youth development. Benson and Scales (2009) identify the concept of youth thriving as involving a dynamic interplay between the developing youth and his or her environment, with this interplay driven by the youth’s identification of “sparks” (i.e., talents or interests that can drive motivation towards positive growth). Research suggests that sparks (alone and particularly in combination with supportive relationships and empowerment) are linked with a range of positive developmental outcomes for youth (Scales, Benson, & Roehlkepartain, 2011). A second perspective, stemming from the seminal research of Carol Dweck, focuses on the development of a growth mindset. Dweck (2007) distinguishes between a fixed mindset (the view that intelligence and abilities are fixed traits and thus unchangeable) and a growth mindset (the view that intelligence and other abilities can be developed through effort and practice). Research indicates that growth mindset is associated with a greater willingness to persevere in the face of academic and other challenges (Dweck). A third influential perspective is the 6 Cs of Positive Youth Development (Lerner et al., 2005), referenced above. Higher levels of these attributes as reported by youth have been demonstrated to be associated with better adjustment in other areas, including fewer symptoms of depression and lower levels of risk behavior (Jelicic, Bobek, Phelps, Lerner, & Lerner, 2007). A final perspective of note (among a larger number in the literature) calls attention to the development of skills for achieving goals and is grounded in a large body of research on goal-setting and motivation (e.g., Freund & Baltes, 2002). Research suggests that intentional self-regulation (reflecting the skills of selection, optimization in strategy selection, and compensation or adjustment in setting and pursuing goals based on Baltes’ model) is associated with indicators of both positive and negative development among youth in expected directions (Gestsdóttir & Lerner, 2007). Support from significant adults in the lives of youth (such as mentors) has been posited to be important for facilitating the previously-noted components and processes of thriving. Available research, although not extensive, has offered support for this perspective. With respect to sparks, for example, Scales et al. (2011) found that sparks in conjunction with relational opportunities to develop these interests (which included reporting of supportive adults) predicted more favorable levels of both academic and prosocial outcomes. Along similar lines, Erdem and colleagues (2016) found that the measures of the 6 Cs of Positive Youth Development mediated the association of mentoring support with lower levels of youth-reported emotional and behavioral problems.
Corresponding Elements of Effective Practice:
This practice is most relevant to the areas of Training and Monitoring and Support within the Elements of Effective Practice.
The successful implementation of this practice is likely to require staff to have a strong foundational understanding of models and frameworks for youth thriving and be able to effectively communicate the rationale for their use, especially as many of the concepts involved may either be unfamiliar to mentors (e.g., growth mindset) or be dependent on sustained support and practice over time for mentee skill development.
Study 1 (Two Tests of the Practice: Intent-to-Treat Design and Structural Equation Model Analysis):
Intent-to-Treat Design – Null Effect; Structural Equation Model Analysis – Promising
DuBois and Keller (2016) tested the effects of a Youth Thriving intervention within the Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) community-based mentoring program in collaboration with the national BBBS office and 10 BBBS affiliates across the country. All youth were either new enrollees in the BBBS program or were being re-matched with a new mentor after a prior relationship had ended. Eligibility criteria for youth included being 10-16 years of age and being at elevated risk for delinquency due to any of the following circumstances: family low-income status, single-parent family, or having a parent incarcerated. All newly enrolled matches (i.e., the youth, his or her mentor, and the youth’s primary parent or guardian) were offered the opportunity to participate in the study, which involved random assignment to an intervention (standard program services plus intervention activities) or comparison (standard program services) condition. The study sample consisted of 806 youth with 400 in the intervention group and 406 in the comparison group. Participating youth had an average age of 12.19 years, were 61.9% female, and were predominantly African American (50.5%) or Latina/o (27.9%).
The intervention condition used the Step-It-Up-2-Thrive model from the Thrive Foundation for Youth in which the mentors used a range of practical strategies to promote youth thriving. These included the identification of youth interests and passions to ground motivation (“sparks”), teaching that intelligence and other abilities are not innate but can be developed through effort (growth mindset), cultivation of a range of indicators of positive youth development (e.g., competence), and skills for setting and pursuing goals. Mentors of youth in the intervention condition received initial training from staff on the intervention model; youth and parents also received a brief orientation to the model during the match introduction meeting. Intervention activities included two staff-facilitated group activities for matches on topics in the intervention model (e.g., growth mindset), guided discussions and activities for matches to engage in on their own, staff briefings of parents on key concepts in the intervention model, and a 12-month anniversary meeting to reflect on program participation and youth progress.
Study outcomes were measured at baseline (prior to initiation of the match) and 15 months later. Youth-report measures assessed exposure to and response to intervention program content (for youth in the intervention condition), perceived support from significant adults for thriving, facets of thriving targeted by the intervention (sparks identification/exploration, growth mindset, 5 C’s of Positive Youth Development, and goal setting/pursuit), and problem behavior.
Intent to treat (ITT) analysis was used to test for differences between the intervention and standard services groups on outcome measures. For each outcome measure, a multiple regression analysis was conducted with study condition as a predictor, controlling for baseline scores on all outcome measures, affiliate, and several youth and mentor background variables (e.g., youth age, gender, race/ethnicity, family low-income status, and involvement in out-of-school activities and mentor age and race/ethnicity, and reported prior experience supporting youth with thriving in each of area of the intervention).
A separate structural equation model (SEM) analysis evaluated a path model informed by the intervention model’s theory of change. The model tested whether intervention activities, when incorporated substantially into the mentoring relationship combined with a favorable response from the youth, promoted increased youth reports of support for thriving from adults; these gains in adult support for thriving then were hypothesized to strengthen intrapersonal resources for thriving (such as sparks) with these improvements, in turn, contributing to reduced problem behavior. Descriptive reports from youth in the intervention condition regarding their experience with each of the six core facets of the intervention activities were examined, with youth reporting participation in at least three combined with reports of having found the activities to be enjoyable or helpful designated as having a relatively high level of engagement with intervention activities (N = 150 youth). Statistical procedures were used to identify a matched comparison group (N = 150) for these youth from those in the standard services condition drawing on the results of analyses of baseline and background predictors of positive engagement with the intervention components (see Additional Findings below).
Adult support for thriving
DuBois and Keller (2016) reported that in the ITT analysis, there were no significant effects of the intervention condition on any of the following youth reports of adult support for thriving: spark identification and exploration, growth mindset, 6Cs of positive youth development, and intentional self-regulation.
For the SEM analysis, DuBois and Keller (2016) reported the presence of a positive path in the model from engagement with intervention activities to thriving support from adults, indicating that youth in the intervention condition with a relatively high level of positive engagement with intervention activities showed improvement in their reported levels of support from thriving from adults relative to youth in the standard services condition matched on baseline characteristics.
Youth problem behavior
DuBois and Keller (2016) reported that in the ITT analysis, there were no significant effects of the intervention condition on youth reports of conduct problems or delinquent behavior.
For the SEM analysis, DuBois and Keller (2016) reported that, as predicted, positive engagement with intervention activities was linked, via improved thriving support from adults, with increased youth reports of intrapersonal resources for thriving and, in turn, with reduced reports of conduct problems. This indirect model pathway linking positive engagement with intervention activities to reduced problem behavior was statistically significant and small in magnitude.
In the ITT analysis, DuBois and Keller (2016) found no significant effects of the intervention on any of the following aspects of youth thriving: spark identification and exploration, growth mindset for intelligence, growth mindset for personality, the 6Cs of positive youth development, and intentional self-regulation.
For the SEM analysis, the indirect model pathway linking positive engagement with intervention activities to increased youth reports of intrapersonal resources for thriving was statistically significant and small in magnitude.
Logistic regression analyses examined mentoring agency, demographic and background characteristics of youth and mentors, initial mentoring relationship duration, and baseline scores on outcome measures as predictors of relatively high positive engagement in intervention activities. The strongest predictor of positive engagement with intervention activities was longer duration of the youth’s mentoring relationship, followed by higher youth reported levels of support from adults in relation to sparks exploration and youth reports of the 6 Cs of positive youth development.
Study 2 (Two Tests of the Practice: Incremental Condition and Attribution Condition):
Incremental Condition – Promising; Attribution Condition - Promising
Good and colleagues (2003) tested the effects of an intervention designed to reduce vulnerability to stereotype threat and promote academic achievement within the context of school-based mentoring provided to junior high students. The students attended a rural school district in Texas that served a largely low-income and Hispanic population. The study sample consisted of 138 seventh graders who were randomly enrolled, by school administration, into a computer skills class as part of their junior high school curriculum. Study participants were predominantly Hispanic (67% Hispanic, 13% Black, and 20% White) and 45% were female.
Students were randomly assigned to one of three intervention conditions (incremental, attribution, and combination) or a control group. In the incremental condition, participants learned about the expandable nature of intelligence and how the brain is able to form new connections throughout one’s lifetime. In the attribution condition, participants learned that all students face academic difficulty during the transition to high school but that most students overcome these difficulties and reach high levels of achievement. Students in the combination condition received both types of intervention. All students (including those in the control condition) were randomly assigned a mentor shortly after the school year began (mid-October), with the interventions beginning once students were proficient in basic computer use and emailing (mid-November). Intervention messages were conveyed to students by mentors during two in-person meetings (in mid-November and end of January) that lasted 90 minutes each and via weekly email correspondence throughout the school year. The ideas conveyed in these discussions with mentors were reinforced by requiring student to create web pages that advocated, in their words and pictures, the messages they received. Control group students were mentored about the danger of drugs and created anti-drug web pages. Mentors were available to help students with their web pages or with any school related issues, including adjusting to the new school environment and useful study strategies. Students also had access to a restricted web page unique to each intervention group and accessible to only those in the group, where they could get ideas for their web pages, helping students to further internalize the message in their condition.
Mentors were 25 college students from the University of Texas. Mentors received three hours of training at the beginning of the school year (early September). The training included content designed by the school district and also included methods of conveying each of the experimental messages. Mentors were informed that all intervention conditions were intended to benefit the students academically but they were blind to the study hypotheses. To avoid individual differences between mentors potentially biasing tests of effects of the study conditions, each mentor was randomly assigned mentoring responsibilities for one to two students in three of the four conditions, resulting in each mentor working with approximately six students.
Student outcomes in math and reading achievement were measured at the end of the school year using the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test, a statewide standardized achievement test. Outlier analysis eliminated five participants’ math scores from the 138 participants who took the math test and six participants’ reading scores from the 135 participants who took the reading test. Analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to compare the standardized test performances of students in the intervention groups with those in the control group. Information was not reported on the equivalence of students in the intervention and control conditions on demographic characteristics, pre-existing levels of academic achievement, or other potential influences on the outcomes examined.
Good et al. (2003) found that students in the incremental condition as well as those in the attribution condition scored significantly higher on both math and reading tests of achievement at post-test.
Good et al. (2003) also tested for potential differences in effects of the intervention conditions on math achievement between male and female students. These analyses revealed a significant gender by condition interaction. More specifically, although both male and female students in the incremental, attribution, and combination conditions achieved significantly higher math scores than their counterparts in the control condition, these differences were greater among female students. The net result was that a performance gap that existed among male and female students in the control group (male students performed significantly better than female students) was not evident within any of the intervention conditions. In other analyses, no differences were found between the combined intervention condition and the two other intervention conditions (incremental and attribution) on math or reading test scores at post-test, suggesting that effects of the intervention did not differ substantially across its different forms.
DuBois et al. (2014) assessed the effect of a mentor-mentee activity curriculum that was designed to help middle school students to develop a growth mindset about their academic abilities and to explore their Sparks (i.e., activities of particular interest) and connect them to their education. The curriculum was implemented on a pilot basis within youth serving organizations/programs in South King County and Seattle (south Seattle only) in the state of Washington.
An environmental scan conducted by Washington State Mentors (WSM) identified six organizations that provided one-to-one mentoring for middle school youth using a structured program, had compatibility between their mentoring program and the mentor-mentee activity curriculum that was the focus of the pilot study, and had the staffing resources required to carry out study activities. Youth in the intended age range in each program were identified by staff and assigned to the treatment condition (in which they received the curriculum from their assigned mentors) or the comparison condition (in which the curriculum was not delivered). Random assignment was used for assignment to condition, but was conducted differently at each site because of program differences in how mentors and youth were matched and interacted (for example, some programs assigned one mentor to several mentees). The final analysis included data from four of the six programs (one program was dropped from the study due to insufficient mentor attendance for training; another program had a small number of participants and thus all were assigned to receive the curriculum). All four participating programs were based in a school or other site (e.g., teen center). Further details on the study design and sample can be found in DuBois et al. (2014).
The study sample consisted of 121 youth (62 assigned to the treatment group and 59 assigned to the comparison group). Participating youth were in the 5th to 9th grades (61% in 7th and 8th grades), 56% were female, 72% were from low-income families (as indicated by student report of receiving free or reduced price school lunch), and 87% reported being from homes in which neither parent had completed a 4-year college degree. The youth in the treatment and comparison groups did not differ significantly on any of these background characteristics. Across all programs, 38 different mentors mentored treatment group youth and 28 different mentors mentored comparison group youth. Mentors of youth in the treatment group received an initial 2-hour training to prepare them for delivery of the curriculum; training was delivered in a group format. The curriculum consisted of 5 modules and associated activity challenges that the youth and mentor were tasked with completing separately after each of the first four modules. The curriculum addressed the following content areas: Spark concept definition, identification, and selection; Spark development and connection to school success and academic interests; basic brain neurology (as background for introducing the concept of growth mindset); assessing and strategies for changing mindsets; and connecting mindset to school success. Each module was designed to be completed during one 45-minute session or two 20-25 minute sessions.
Participating youth and mentors were surveyed twice, prior to implementation of the curriculum and after allowing as much time as possible for its completion within the constraints imposed by the end of the school year. This time period varied, but typically was approximately 3 months. Pre-test surveys were collected from 97 of the participating youth (for an 80% response rate), including 55 in the treatment group (89%) and 42 in the comparison group (67%). Of these youth, 80 (82%) completed the post-test survey, 40 of whom were in the treatment group (73%) and 40 of whom were in the comparison group (95%). Response rates for the pre- and post-test youth surveys did not differ substantially across programs although, as is evident from the preceding information, they did differ by study condition (treatment or comparison group). Pre-test surveys were completed by 95% of mentors in the treatment group and 86% of mentors in the comparison group. Additionally, 83% and 89% of these groups of mentors, respectively, also completed the pos-test survey.
Youth and mentors completed surveys that assessed demographic and other background characteristics as well as study outcomes. Outcomes assessed included 1) mentor support for adopting a growth mindset, Sparks exploration and development, and connecting Sparks to education, respectively; 2) mentor role modeling of growth mindset and sparks exploration and development, respectively; 3) the youth’s adoption of a growth mindset about intelligence, Sparks exploration and development, and connection of Sparks to education, respectively; 4) youth attitudes and behaviors facilitating learning and academic success (i.e., learning goals, positive efforts beliefs, long-term educational expectations, sense of belonging at school, perceived value of school/education, aspirations for educational attainment, effort on school work, perseverance and mastery strategies in school work, school attendance, school behavior, time spent on homework), and 5) overall school performance and performance in core subject areas. The latter 3 sets of outcomes were assessed via youth report only. The post-test surveys completed by mentors also collected information on their participation in mentor training and use of the curriculum, the acceptability of the curriculum, and the adequacy of support received from program staff for using the curriculum. Mentors with more than one mentee reported on their use of the curriculum with any of their mentees, rather than with each mentee. A large majority of mentors reported completing the first two modules of the curriculum and the associated activity challenges that focused on Sparks content with their mentees; substantially fewer mentors reported completing the modules and activity challenges focused on growth mindset.
Regression analyses were used to test for effects of the curriculum on outcomes. These analyses evaluated group membership (treatment vs. comparison) as a predictor of post-test scores on the outcome, controlling for pre-test scores on the outcome as well as several variables that showed evidence of differing across treatment and comparison groups at pre-test (mentor strength spotting, mentor growth mindset, youth- and mentor-reported feelings of closeness in the relationship, mentor support for Sparks, Sparks exploration, connecting Sparks to education, and educational expectations).
DuBois et al. (2014) found that youth in the treatment group reported higher levels of mentor role modeling of growth mindset at post-test than those in the comparison group, but the groups did not differ at post-test in measures of youth reported mentor support for adopting a growth mindset, Spark exploration and connecting Sparks to education and in mentor role modeling of Sparks exploration/development.
DuBois et al. (2014) found that youth in the treatment group reported higher levels of growth mindset and connecting Sparks to education at post-test than those in the comparison group, but the groups did not differ in reports of Sparks identification, Sparks exploration, learning goals, positive efforts belief, or expectations for educational attainment.
DuBois et al. (2014) found that youth in the treatment group reported higher levels of sense of belonging at school at post-test than those in the comparison group, but the groups did not differ in reports of the perceived value of school/education, educational aspirations, efforts on school work, perseverance, school attendance, school behavior, and time spent on homework.
For outcome assessed by both youth- and mentor-report, DuBois et al. (2014) also investigated the effects of the curriculum on mentor reports of those outcomes; they also tested for effects on all additional youth-reported outcomes not included above under Primary Findings, such as school performance. Results of these analyses indicated that mentors in the treatment group reported greater support for mentees connecting Sparks to education at post-test than mentors in the control group, but no differences in any of the other mentor-reported outcomes. A group difference for change in overall school performance that favored the treatment group was large enough to be considered ‘substantively important’ by the researchers, although it did not reach statistical significance.
External Validity Evidence:
Variations in the Practice
The studies reviewed predominantly have examined practices that are focused on two facets of thriving: identification and exploration of areas of personal interest and motivation (DuBois et al., 2014; DuBois & Keller, 2016) and adoption of attitudes and behaviors consistent with a growth mindset (DuBois et al., 2014; DuBois & Keller, 2016; Good et al., 2003). Efforts to cultivate other aspects of thriving (e.g., the 6 Cs of positive youth development) have limited or no representation in the research reviewed. Conclusions about the effectiveness of this practice therefore should not be assumed to extend to these additional areas.
Youth served by the programs that were the focus of the studies reviewed were from a variety of backgrounds and had varying levels of environmental and individual risks, including family low-income status or living in a single parent home. All programs in the studies reviewed targeted youth who were elementary, middle, or high school-aged; the mean ages of mentees across the studies reviewed were between 10 and 16 years. The studies reviewed, however, generally did not test for differences in effect of supports for youth thriving in relation to these types of youth characteristics, thus making the applicability of findings to different subgroups of youth unknown. In a notable exception, Good et al. (2003) tested for differences by gender, with findings suggesting that the positive effects of the intervention on math scores were greater for girls than for boys.
All of the mentors represented in the studies reviewed were volunteers. The studies included in the review did not test for differences in effect of supports for youth thriving in relation to mentor characteristics, thus making the applicability of findings to different subgroups of mentors unknown.
The mentoring programs evaluating this practice have been U.S. based, one-to-one in format, and either community-based or school-based. Positive effects of the practice have been evident in the context of both school- and community-based programs as well as in both programs using an exclusively in-person approach to mentoring and one that used a combined in-person/email-based format (Good et al., 2003). Understanding of the effectiveness of the practice of supporting youth thriving across the broader spectrum of potential program structures and settings (group mentoring and community site-based programs), however, is limited.
Two of the 3 studies reviewed (DuBois et al., 2014; DuBois & Keller, 2016) assessed youth outcomes that pertain directly to thriving (e.g., growth mindset) and two assessed outcomes relevant to academic success (DuBois et al., 2014; Good et al., 2003). Findings have been varied in relation to both types of outcomes and outcomes in other domains (e.g., mental health) have to date received limited or no consideration. There is thus little understanding of the extent to which effects of this practice may vary (or be similar) across different types of outcomes.
Resources Available to Support Implementation:
Resources to support implementation of supports for youth thriving can be found under the Resources section of this website. These resources include: the College Positive Mentoring Toolkit, Discovering the Possibilities: "C"ing Your Future, Fact Sheets on Mentoring and Youth Development, and the Ready to Go: Mentor Training Toolkit.
DuBois, D. L., & Keller, T. E. (2016). Investigation of the integration of supports for youth thriving into a community-based mentoring program. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Good, C., Aronson, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2003). Improving adolescents’ standardized test performance: An intervention to reduce the effects of stereotype threat. Applied Developmental Psychology, 24, 645-662. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2003.09.002
DuBois, D. L., Felner, J., Heubach, J., & Mayer, N. (2014). Mentoring for academic success: A pilot study. Final report submitted to Raikes Foundation. Seattle, WA.
Benson, P. L., & Scales, P. C. (2009). The definition and preliminary measurement of thriving in adolescence. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 85–104. doi:10.1080/17439760802399240
Erdem, G., DuBois, D. L., Larose, S., De Wit, D., & Lipman, E. L. (2016). Mentoring relationships, positive development, youth emotional and behavioral problems: Investigation of a meditational model. Journal of Community Psychology, 44, 464–483. doi:10.1002/jcop.21782
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Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Freund, A. M., & Baltes, P. B. (2002). Life-management strategies of selection, optimization and compensation: Measurement by self-report and construct validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 642-662. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.112
Gestsdóttir, S., & Lerner, R. M. (2007). Intentional self-regulation and positive youth development in early adolescence: Findings from the 4-h study of positive youth development. Developmental Psychology, 43, 508-521. doi:10.1037/0012-1618.104.22.1688
Keyes, C. L. M., & Haidt, J. (Eds.) (2003). Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Lerner, R. M., Almerigi, J. B., Theokas, C., & Lerner, J. V. (2005). Positive youth development. Journal of Early Adolescence, 25, 10–16. doi:10.1177/0272431604273211
Thrive Foundation for Youth (n.d.). Thriving. Retrieved from http://www.thrivefoundation.org/thriving