Family Support

*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.

One of the more common trends in mentoring over recent years is the integration of mentoring services for youth with other forms of support, both for the mentee and their parents and siblings. Programs often approach this from different perspectives and motivations. For some, offering additional services or supports to parents is a way to deepen their engagement in their child’s mentoring relationship and improve their relationship with program staff. For other service providers, offering supports to parents and siblings is just the manifestation of an inherently broader scopethe services offered parents or siblings are of equal importance to the mentoring that is being provided to the child.

So should practitioners keep in mind if they are going to be offering support to families in addition to just mentoring the child?

Note the characteristics referenced in the “Key Personnel” section of the review.The review of the literature on family support suggests several competencies that staff must possess to be effective in this work, including:

  • Family engagement strategies – Does staff have experience communicating effectively with families and getting them to attend meetings, classes, and other opportunities for support? Can they get parents or siblings excited about being more involved with the program? Do they know what will motivate families? Many mentoring programs struggle to get families engaged in just the match, let alone to start being recipients of services themselves.

  • Family-centered programming – Does the staff know how to assess a family’s needs and strengths and provide appropriate, comprehensive support? Can they design services in a way that makes it easy for whole families to participate?

  • Referral services and networks of providers – Does the staff know who else in the community can offer specific services? Have they established partnerships or agreements with other service providers to refer parents or siblings? Do they know the eligibility requirements of getting other forms of support from external organizations? Do they have a process for following up on referrals and ensuring that families get promised services? Program may find themselves having to build a lot of connections to community organizations or even generating memoranda of understanding around referrals in order for this practice to work well.

  • Cultural competency and responsiveness – This is perhaps the most critical of all: Can staff communicate effectively with families across cultures, languages, and socio-economic status. Much has been written in recent years about the ability of the average mentor to serve diverse populations of mentees. The same can be said of program staff, especially if they are going to be not just engaging parents in supporting the match, but working with them as clients and recipients of services directly. Any program wishing to offer support to families beyond just the mentoring relationship should think about how well their staff can fill these roles and what internal capacities would need to be developed to make this work.

Make sure that this type of support to families makes sense in relation to your theory of change.

There are many multi-service, wrap-around community organizations that come to mentoring late: they already offer a wealth of supports to families and have added mentoring as yet another offering. There are also, as noted previously, dedicated mentoring programs that add a family support piece as a way of strengthening mentoring relationships and improving youth outcomes, while also helping the whole family.

Programs in both camps should think about what they hope to achieve by providing this type of integrated mentoring and family support. Would providing support to parents or siblings help create an improved home environment that would enhance the gains made from the mentoring relationship? Are there critical needs inside the home that would need to be addressed for the work of the mentor to have meaning? Would helping the whole family with a challenge or issue lead to longer matches, more mentoring sessions, or better communication between the program and the family? And would serving whole families radically change the mentoring piece, changing the role, training, and support of mentors in fundamental ways?

Adding services to families, even if it’s just light referrals to other providers in the community, can be a lot of extra work. So before embarking on this, programs should really articulate how this practice makes sense within the context of their mentoring relationships and their organizational mission and vision. They may find that their reasons for considering this practice don’t make sense from a cost-benefit perspective. Or, they may find that they have unlocked a critical piece of their theory of change and that serving families in this way makes the whole program more effective.

If you can, test this practice in an evaluation!

As noted in the review of this practice, there is not a lot of research directly testing whether this kind of family support makes a difference in terms of mentee participation, match length or meeting frequency, or youth outcomes. Programs that are new to this practice may want to pilot this type of support for a subgroup of mentees and their families. Taking a group of mentees, and offering family support to a randomly selected portion of them, may allow you to test whether those additional services make a difference in terms of mentoring outcomes.

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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