Family Engagement

*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.

If it’s true that, as Search Institute founder Peter Benson once famously said, relationships are the oxygen of human development, then there is one set of relationships in most children’s lives that are pumping more air into the room than any other: the relationships with their parents. Beyond their widely agreed upon status as the core contributors to the development of every young person, parents (or other primary care givers) also serve as an intermediary between their child and the broader world. Until a child reaches adulthood, parents inevitably have a large role in determining the activities their child engages in and their access to, and engagement with, other caring adults.

For many youth mentoring programs, effectively engaging parents and other caregivers in the service of fostering a stronger and more beneficial mentoring experience for their children can be viewed as a “mission-critical” aspect of the work. Given the amount of control and influence parents have over youth, failing to effectively engage parents can often be the same as failing to engage the mentee themselves. Even in site-based programs where parents are not required to actively facilitate mentees’ participation, a parent that is disconnected from, or even hostile to, the mentoring experience can severely limit what their child gains from the relationship. Researcher Jean Rhodes theorized well over a decade ago that the outcomes of mentoring relationships were mediated (in significant part) by improvements in mentees’ relationships with their parents and others. So at the very least, a failure to engage parents might be keeping a program, and the youth they serve, from achieving maximum impact.

Unfortunately, the direct research on this aspect of running a program has provided limited evidence of its importance or in the most effective strategies for increasing parent engagement. As noted in the NMRC review, this practice has been rated as “Insufficient Research” at this point. But ask most practitioners and program staff and they will tell you that parent engagement strategies are near the top of their list in terms of pressing needs. Preliminary results from MENTOR’s 2016 National Mentoring Program Survey show that parent and family engagement is the third largest area of need reported by programs (after fundraising and sustainability planning and mentor recruitment). While the hard evidence may be elusive, the field recognizes that their engagement of parents can be improved.

So what can we draw from the research that will help mentoring programs do this more effectively? There are a few hints at effective strategies in the studies referenced in the main review:

Communicate clearly at key points in the match

Many of the programs studied in this review brought parents into main decision points and key moments throughout the lifecycle of program participation: facilitating their child’s enrollment in the program, being involved in the matching process, participating in post-match support, and supporting the eventual closure and dissolution of their child’s mentoring relationship. Each of these points represents a chance for parents to have some agency and direct involvement in how their child experiences mentoring. Programs should look at how youth participate in their services, from initial recruitment through matching and eventual transition out of the program, and think about ways they can maximize parent input and communication.

Communicate through a variety of formats

The programs studied in this review also employed a wide variety of communication strategies:

  • Orientation sessions for parents (and their children) where program goals, culture, and expectations can be clearly communicated and initial excitement about the experience can be built.
  • Parent handbooks and other materials that can provide rich and detailed information (even more potentially effective if this content is available in a variety of languages spoken in mentees’ homes).
  • Publicly posted event calendars and other key information mailed to the home.
  • Open houses and other group events throughout the year that give even parents of site-based mentees an opportunity to engage with program staff and their child’s mentor.
  • Ongoing check-ins, ideally in person, throughout the year. These check-ins can gather critical feedback about the program and are widely observed by those in the practice community to have considerable potential to add value to the mentoring relationship and associated youth outcomes by addressing parent fears, troubleshooting issues in the mentoring relationship, maximizing the communication between mentor(s) and the mentee, and serving a key risk management function by getting other perspectives on the safety and suitability of the match.

    In fact, the 4th Edition of the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring™ specifies some core topics to check in with parents about on a frequent basis using a formal and documented procedure:

    • The mentoring activities their child has been engaged in
    • Growth they are seeing in their child as a result of the relationship
    • The quality of the mentoring relationship
    • Safety concerns
    • The quality of their communication with the mentor

    It’s worth noting that research on the importance of this practice and these specific topics is, as covered in the review, is quite limited and that the findings to date are not sufficient to designate family engagement as a “promising” practice based on evidence review standards employed by the Research Board of the National Mentoring Resource Center. But future research may confirm that these common staff-parent discussion points are helpful in helping parents facilitate their child’s participation and build a true “working alliance” with both program staff and their child’s mentor.

Exercise caution when thinking about how collaborative to be with parents

There are some hints in at least one of the studies in this review (Wheeler & DuBois, 2009) that giving parents too much say over match goals and activities may be detrimental to the relationship being as close or as long-lasting as one would hope. In that study, one of the strategies employed was to give parents a set list of ways they could support the mentoring relationship, which wound up, surprisingly, being negatively correlated with match retention at six months. Another strategy was to involve parents directly in helping the match set goals and determining how they would work towards those goals. This was also negatively correlated with match length. Programs face a tricky balance between giving parents opportunities to be involved in their child’s match without inserting themselves into the bond between the mentor and mentee or by being overly prescriptive about match goals or activities. The ideal state of parent engagement might be described as “supporting the duo without making it a trio.”

Put in the effort and don’t assume your mentors can handle all this collaboration themselves

One of the studies in the review (BBBS Canada, 2016) used an interesting approach: Providing mentors with a lengthy list of strategies they could use in better communicating and collaborating with parents. Not only did this approach fail to correlate with better outcomes in terms of match length, youth outcomes, or mentor retention, it was actually negatively associated with mentors’ perceived support from the program. One can imagine that these mentors may well have felt an increased burden to not only pour their time and energy into befriending a child, but then also do targeted strategies to build a deeper relationship with the youth’s parent or guardian.

This may be one area where program staff have to do some real hand-holding and facilitation to get the parent-mentor alliance up and running smoothly. Ideally, mentoring programs might have a dedicated “family liaison” who can help these working alliances thrive (although this practice by itself was not supported as effective in the Wheeler and DuBois study that included this approach). The good news is that the Herrera, DuBois, and Grossman “Role of Risk” study found that youth and family level of risk did not appear to negatively impact programs’ ability to do more frequent or meaningful parent communication and collaboration. An important take-away here may be that no matter who you serve in your mentoring program, the parents of the youth you serve can best be seen as potential allies and true partners in making the program a success. But, again, the available studies seem to hint that the level of effort and outreach by staff may play more of a significant role than simply arming mentors with more parent engagement strategies and setting them loose.

Implementation Resources

As noted in the review, there are several resources in the NMRC Resource Collection that can support the development of local-level parent engagement strategies, including:

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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