Post-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.

When one is first confronted with the rating that post-match training of mentors rated here as “Insufficient Research” it can seem like a bit of a head-scratcher. After all, don’t we know that providing mentors with ongoing training is beneficial? Haven’t studies consistently shown that helping mentors out with additional skills as their relationship progresses is a good thing? How can our understanding be “insufficient”?

Well, there are a few things to consider when thinking about this rating:

  1. This review process only looked at training, not other forms of match support, such as check-ins, conversations, advice-giving, and problem-solving, all of which are commonly regarded by mentoring professionals as vitally important to helping mentors feel like they have the information they need to be successful while also smoothing out issues that have developed with the mentee or their family (a forthcoming review will focus on the practice of match support for mentors). So it’s important to remember that this review is not factoring in all of the other supports that might supplement formal training of matched mentors.

  2. The review only looked at post-match training, meaning the benefits of providing pre-match training before setting mentors loose were not considered (a forthcoming review is focusing on this practice). The review here looked only at training delivered after the match was made. One possibility, for example, is that post-match training may be less consequential when lots of pre-matching is provided and vice-versa. Hopefully future research can take a more holistic look at training provided to mentors and begin to answer some of these kinds of more nuanced questions.

  3. This review process was limited to the studies in the youth mentoring field that specifically looked at whether the provision of ongoing training was predictive of improved match characteristics (closeness, longevity, etc.) or of youth outcomes (better grades, improved behaviors, etc.). And as we can see, only four studies specifically examined this practice in a way that allowed for our Research Board to draw meaningful conclusions.

  4. In some of these instances, it’s unclear whether the mixed results are the product of a poorly designed or delivered training or whether there is anything that can be gleaned about the value of ongoing training globally from the examples of evidence provided.

Thus, this is mostly a rating framed by just how young the field of mentoring research is. We simply haven’t had very many studies looking at this specific practice, let alone looking at how it works for different programs serving different kids to achieve different outcomes. So while our Research Board applied their best judgment to the research we have as a field, the reality is that our evidence really is “insufficient” at this point.

So, given that practitioners mostly want to know what big picture conclusions can be drawn from an evidence review, what can we say about ongoing mentor training and the value it has to our field?

Ongoing training of mentors may well matter.

A lot. In order to succeed in their role, most would agree that mentors need proper motivation, applicable skills, a feeling of self-efficacy that they can fill the role, and assistance in solving problems that arise in the match and reinforcement of key program concepts over time. We also know that most mentoring programs provide only a few hours of pre-match orientation and training, not because that’s all mentors need, but mostly one suspects out of a fear that more extensive requirements for up front training may depress volunteer recruitment, which is already a challenging proposition in most cases. Thus, most practitioners seem likely to recognize that there may be more a mentor needs to ultimately know than can be stuffed into that initial training.

What is unclear, based on this review, as to how that additional transfer of knowledge and overall mentor support may best happen. In some cases, it may be effectively delivered through case manager check-ins and individual conversations. In other program settings, additional print or online materials may be sufficient in keeping mentors primed for success. But in many cases, mentors may benefit from ongoing, formal training that helps build needed skills or reinforces critical components of the programs theory of change and intervention.

Given that many matches fail to reach their intended duration, and that mentoring relationships can grow more (not less) complicated over time, any program that sees this review as an excuse to stop doing ongoing training may be doing their mentors and youth a disservice. What programs should do is think about the role that ongoing training plays in supporting their theory of change and why ongoing training might be critical to their efforts.

Ongoing training may just as easily complicate mentoring as it can support it.

The nation’s mentoring programs often find themselves in a never-ending battle to prove to their stakeholders that their program produces strong, consistent outcomes. This naturally leads to a desire to control for all the variables that could keep a program from hitting its outcome goals and has inspired many a program to adopt a set of sequential mentoring activities, or a formal curriculum, that mentors must in turn deliver during meetings with their mentee.

There is nothing wrong with programs going this route and asking mentors to be deliverers of specific curricula or messages. In fact, many of the programs reviewed here on the NMRC site are ones that treat mentors as deliverers of something beyond just the relationship.

For these types of programs, ongoing mentor training may be critical in keeping mentors aligned with the sequence and content of the curriculum (fidelity). It may also be instrumental in delivering the next “batch” of content that the curriculum or theory of change requires (such as in a program that starts with basic career exploration conversations before moving into more direct support around the college application process). So depending on what your program is trying to achieve, it stands to reason that ongoing mentor training could be absolutely critical, as it might represent the only opportunity to ensure fidelity to the program model or deliver information about the next “step” in the mentor’s task.

But, in general, mentoring programs should be wary about stuffing too much information into mentors’ heads during ongoing training. If we believe that mentoring is, at its heart, about a genuine, mutual, and caring relationship between an adult and a child, then turning that mentor into a robot that just repeats the messages the program wants them to seems almost counterproductive (of course, though, post-match training could just as easily be focused on further developing the relational skills of mentors). We may be doing our best job when we allow mentors and mentees the space to simply be with one another, to connect organically, and to have the ups and downs that any human relationship does. So while ongoing training may well matter in the context of many programs, it’s also seems possible for programs to grossly overdo it and undermine the growth-promoting potential of less planned or orchestrated aspects of mentoring. Once again, programs that think carefully about how ongoing training supports and supplements the relationship (rather than supplanting it) seem most likely to get this balance right.

The quality of training is critical.

Running a mentoring program takes a lot of skills and talents, but one that is often overlooked is training development and delivery. There is a real art (and science!) to helping adults learn. We have extensive literature on how adults learn best: it should be interactive, provide varied instructional methods to engage learners of different styles, and offer opportunities to practice new skills. But mentoring programs often struggle to do this kind of adult learning well. This becomes even more complicated because volunteers come to mentoring programs with such varied skills and abilities when it comes to forming effective relationships with mentees. The complexity and nuance of the ongoing training content can also make this a challenge.

But regardless of how critical ongoing training is to your program’s theory of change or the complexity of the content, programs should work to develop staff skills around training delivery. A strong understanding of adult learning principles seems a must, as is having some redundancy in staff skillsno mentors should get substandard training just because one trainer happens to be on vacation.

Otherwise, it’s impossible to understand the value of your training. It’s hard to tell if the training content, the training delivery, or the entire premise of the training in this context was to blame for those ineffectual results. At the very least, delivering the training well eliminates one possible reason for it not having the intended results. Take Kaufman (2010), for example. In this research, audio-tapes of all training sessions were reviewed carefully for quality assurance.

Evaluate your trainings!

And here we don’t just mean a quick post-event “did-you-like-it?” kind of survey. Programs should consider analyzing the impact of ongoing training on relationship and youth outcomes. Think about how and when you could collect data that helps show whether your training makes a difference. Consider trying to answer questions such as:

  • Are our mentors feeling more efficacious as a result of our training?
  • Do youth report better relationships with mentors who have attended trainings?
  • Does participation in ongoing training seem to impact match length?
  • Is ongoing training helping our mentors deliver key messages to youth?
  • Or is our training giving them too many things to weave into their meetings with their mentee?
  • Are their topics that come up in match support where ongoing training for groups of mentors could be beneficial?
  • What happens if we increase the amount, or change the content, of our ongoing training?

Programs may want to consider doing “in-house” comparison or control groups to test these kinds of questions. Give one set of mentors more or less training and see what happens. Change the content of training and see if it produces different outcomes. Vary the style of training delivery to see what works best for your mentors. Consider working with a formal evaluator or researcher who can help you design these experiments in a way that will be revealing. Returning to Kaufman (2010), one of the intriguing findings of this evaluation is that mentor confidence in discussing sexual health topics improved for youth in both the group that received training focused on this goal and those in the “control” group who received training in discussing issues relating to bullying and peer pressure. As the author of this study notes, perhaps there was a significant benefit to participating in a training that addressed communication skills in general such that Bigs in either group ended up more prepared to discuss sensitive topics with their mentees. Clearly, as this illustrates, there is much to be gleaned from a carefully conducted evaluation that goes well beyond whatever the “did it work” question.

As we’ve seen, more research is needed in establishing the importance of, and clarifying the nuances around, ongoing training of mentors. So figure out how you think this practice will improve your program, test your theory, and share your results so that others in our field may learn. .

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.

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