Mentor-Mentee Activity Guidance

*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.

It seems that one of the more challenging questions for mentoring programs is how “involved” they should be in what mentors and mentees do together. On one hand, we have good reason to suspect that the “magic” of mentoring is often created directly between the two people who are paired together—how well they listen to each other, their ability to see each other’s perspectives, the way they tell a joke or offer a moment of consolation after a disappointment. It can often seem like beyond initial training and ongoing problem-solving, the best thing programs can do is just “get out of the way” and let the mentor and mentee figure out their relationship themselves, choosing the activities and conversations that matter to them.

On the other hand, mentoring is increasingly being approached as a targeted intervention, in which mentors are purposefully tasked with providing youth with specific experiences and knowledge that will, in turn, lead to rather specific outcomes. Such programs may provide mentors with lists of recommended activities and talking points, if not outright curriculum that guides their meetings. In the extreme, these programs may seem to cast mentors simply as a delivery system for other things, a bit of a blank slate onto which the real value of the program can be painted and delivered.

Most programs probably fall somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum: They do encourage their mentors to engage in some specific activities but don’t want to be so prescriptive as to suck the joy and spontaneity out of the experience or to overwhelm a mentor with limited skills and experience. But the question still remains at some level: Is it a good idea to provide mentors and mentees with guidance about what they should do together and what they should talk about? And what, exactly, is the best way to go about doing that? The practice review here tries to address those questions by looking at the evidence from research.

Defining the Evidence

The first thing to note about this practice review is how “activity guidance” was provided in the 8 studies reviewed. For the most part, the studies reviewed are on programs that may be described as “general mentoring” in nature (e.g., Big Brothers Big Sisters)—those where the mentoring relationship is designed to produce an array of outcomes and where the relationship itself is the primary “intervention.” In the majority of these programs, what is being tested in the evaluation is whether adding specific training and activities to these general mentoring relationships could produce a targeted outcome on a specific domain (everything from scholastic competence to healthy eating to sexual behaviors). In other words, these were broadly focused programs trying to see if they could produce a targeted outcome with just a little bit extra effort.

So most of these programs are, in a sense, differentiated from programs reviewed elsewhere on this site (such as here, here, and here) that are entirely built around directed activities. Those programs can have varying levels of success at achieving their core outcomes, but what we are examining here is the ability of more generalized mentoring programs to target specific results by providing activity guidance to participants.

It’s also worth noting that this review doesn’t include regular pre- or post-match training as part of this activity guidance. It also excludes the concept of goal setting and the associated activities that may result from helping a youth attain a self-identified goal (that practice will be covered in a subsequent review). So the narrower slice of practice being examined here is whether giving mentors or mentees guidance (optional or otherwise) on what they should do together actually works.

And based on the definition offered here, the answer seems to be “yes”—with a few caveats and cautions.

So what should practitioners consider when thinking about providing this guidance? The studies reviewed here offer some great suggestions:

If you are going to give activity guidance, make sure that mentors get the training and materials they need to do it right.

The programs studied here offered quite a bit of training to mentors, even though the topic of the activities being suggested might seem rather narrow. One example offered three hours of additional training and discussion practice around the topic of discussing healthy sexual behavior. Another offered 2 hours (and a 5 module curriculum) on helping youth identify “sparks” and adopt a growth mindset, with a focus on improving their educational outcomes. Yet another provided mentors with two hours a week of supervision by graduate students to ensure that they were delivering the activities as intended. So there is little evidence here that asking mentors to address specific topics is ever an easy “add on” to an existing program. Given that many mentoring programs struggle just to provide 2-4 hours of pre-match training to mentors in general, adding on activity-specific training to boost a particular outcome is not something that should be undertaken lightly. But the good news for these programs was that they all decided to evaluate the effort and see if it was producing impacts that would justify that increased investment of staff and mentor time and energy.

You might be better off suggesting activities rather than prescribing them.

It’s worth noting that many of the studies referenced here found that mentors had difficulty weaving the prescribed activities and conversations into their meetings with mentors and mentees. This is only natural, especially in programs where mentor-mentee outings tend to be more organic in nature and the types of activities and conversations can vary wildly from outing to outing, or even within a single outing. One can imagine that it might be difficult to shoehorn a conversation about teen sexuality or healthy eating or malleable intelligence into an outing that up until that point had been about shooting hoops or talking about summer vacation plans.

Given that mentors can find it difficult to weave directed conversations into more freeform relationships, one can surmise that giving mentors the background information and skills needed to have those targeted conversations when the moment arises might be a better approach than directing them to talk about something or do a specific activity in a rigid timeframe or sequence. There is a world of difference between making sure your mentors know the principles of, say growth mindset so they can talk about that in an appropriate moment, and directing them to do a specific growth mindset activity in week three of the program no matter what.

That’s not to say that programs can’t find success using a regimented sequence of activities and conversations—as noted previously, there are many examples of programs that have outstanding results with that kind of curriculum-based or sequential “teaching” approach. But unless that kind of thing is baked into the DNA of the program and is what every youth is offered, it may be best to simply arm mentors with activity ideas and key information and let them decide when and how it’s appropriate to weave those things into their relationship.

One pair of studies reviewed here (#2 and #3, using data from the same survey of Big Brothers Big Sisters programs) actually tested this idea in action. The studies examined the differential correlates of whether suggesting or requiring activities led to stronger and longer relationships. Several of the outcomes in these studies suggested that giving mentors activity suggestions and mild guidance was associated with more satisfying and longer relationships. In a few instances, providing a more rigid curriculum was associated with negative trends in relationship quality and duration.

Once again, this is not to say that building a program around a set of required activities is inherently a bad thing. But it does hint that it may be detrimental to mentoring relationships that otherwise have free reign in how they spend their time to impose some new structured activities on their time together. This fits in with other theoretical frameworks about the importance of “purpose, authorship, and focus” being shared fairly equally between mentor and mentee and that results can suffer when those things are thrown out of balance by a program imposing something specific and unilateral on participants. At the same time, it could be the case that more flexible and open-ended invitations to engage in particular types of activities or discussions run the risk of having the guidance provided fall so far out of immediate attention that it does not permit them to occur with a frequency or intensity needed to move associated youth outcomes. One suspects there may be a happy medium here, but more research will be needed to explore that possibility.

Think about which kids need this kind of activity focus from their mentors.

In a few of the studies noted here, the targeted activities seemed to be most beneficial for youth who needed the targeted help the most. For example, in Hairu-Joshu et al. (2010)—which taught mentors to support youth around healthy eating and exercise—the overall outcomes were largely null. But for youth who were overweight when beginning this program, they had much better results in terms of intake of calories from fat than youth who were not overweight. Both groups of youth learned the same information, but the overweight youth made more progress around their fat intake, likely because they had more room for improvement. (Although the study also found that the overweight youth still lagged far behind their normal weight peers in other areas, suggesting that overcoming challenges to eating healthy in the home environment may have contributed to their ongoing struggles in spite of their increased knowledge.) But the point remains that not all youth in a program will need to focus on eating better or adopting a growth mindset or making better sexual choices. So perhaps these kinds of focused activities would be best offered to mentors working with youth who might be in a position to most benefit from the focused attention, rather than insisting that every match participates equally.

If you do implement more targeted activities, try some variations and test them!

Study #8 in the practice review offers an excellent example of how to test some variations on a theme. This program used mentors to work with delinquent youth in a diversion program, focusing on the use of a curriculum that was designed to lead to positive behavioral changes. But rather than just guiding the mentors and setting them loose, the program tried five different variations on the model: One offered just the one-on-one mentor and the curriculum, another involved parents and siblings too, a third added supervision by a caseworker and the researcher to support the mentor, and a fourth offered a variation on the curriculum that emphasized different themes and topics (the fifth was simply “natural” mentoring with little training at all for the mentors).

While it was unclear in this instance if any of these variations outperformed the others (combined, they did not outperform the “natural” mentoring approach) this still offers a nice example of the many ways in which the same type of activity guidance can be delivered. Programs should be encouraged to try out different variations on their activity guidance and test the results. Try giving one batch of mentors more training or more guidance. Involve parents with one group, but not the other. Offer printed materials and discussion starters to one group, but have another broach these topics more organically. Whatever the variations that make sense in your programs’ context, the point is to test and refine, and not assume that something is working or failing across the board when a subtle adjustment might make all the difference or, alternatively, assume that only a minor tweak is all that is needed when a more intensive or directed approach may be required to get the results desired.

In conclusion, it’s probably a good idea for most mentoring programs to supplement their participant trainings with some activity ideas. This can help matches avoid those awkward “I dunno, what do you want to do?” moments and might just provide some much needed mentor skills or advice for when a critical conversation needs to happen. This will obviously look different for every program, but as long as you are not killing the spontaneity and flow of your matches’ outings by forcing them to do things they have little interest in doing, you are probably increasing the odds of mentoring being a “magical” experience by giving some activity guidance along the way.

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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