Support for Youth Thriving

*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.

There has been considerable interest in the education and youth development fields in recent years over what are commonly lumped together (somewhat inarticulately) as “non-cognitive skills”⎯the personal skills and abilities needed to navigate social contexts, persist in the face of challenges, and work independently and with others to achieve goals. These concepts have been increasingly prominent in both the popular press and in the programming offered to youth in a variety of educational and youth development settings, including mentoring programs.

What the evidence review conducted by the National Mentoring Resource Center shows is that the findings on how well mentoring programs promote these types of “soft skills” are somewhat mixed. Many of the hoped for outcomes in the studies referenced in the evidence review did not materialize, in spite of those interventions building on proven concepts and sound theories of change. There were obviously enough positive outcomes to earn a rating of “Promising” overall, but it remains unclear as to the degree to which mentoring relationships are a proven vehicle for helping youth develop those soft skills or exactly how mentors should go about doing it.

However, the trend of mentoring programs emphasizing things like “mindsets,” “sparks,” and “grit” is unlikely to subside any time soon. So what should practitioners keep in mind as they try to weave these supports for thriving into the work their mentors do? The evidence review offers a few hints they can build on:

1. Find and use a strong curriculum with engaging activities.

While many of the concepts of “thriving” are not hard to understand, even for mentees, mentors will likely need quite a bit of training and guidance on how to introduce these topics to mentees and meaningful activities they can do together to practice and reinforce thriving skills. Almost all of the programs noted in the evidence review provided mentors with a wealth of activities, sequential learning experiences, and handouts and materials they could use when working with their mentee on these topics. Programs should plan on:

2. Note that implementing this programming might be more challenging than developing it.

There seemed to be a trend in several of the studies noted in the evidence review where positive and ongoing engagement with the thriving-focused activities and materials was a key to producing thriving-related outcomes. While picking the right curriculum or materials will certainly give your program a good start, none of that will matter if mentors don’t actually do the activities with their mentees when they meet. This may be more challenging in community-based programs where mentor-mentee outings may be incredibly diverse in terms of setting and primary focus and not always conducive to having a targeted discussion about goals or doing a sparks-related worksheet. Mentors might really struggle to weave suggested activities into more casual conversations and relational time. These problems are mitigated somewhat at site-based programs where staff can observe and support the use of thriving curriculum, but if mentors or youth are not “feeling it” it can be difficult to see the results a program is looking for. To help alleviate these challenges, make sure that:

  • Mentors get adequate training about the purpose of the thriving activities and how they can best implement them. Many of these interventions, especially around mindsets and youth attitudes, involve fairly specific messages that should be delivered to youth and detailed responses to certain situations (such as a youth expressing a defeated attitude). It can take a while for mentors to internalize these messages and implement the content as intended. So make sure they know why they are doing this and allow them opportunities to practice doing it well before working with their mentees.

  • The activities you select are fun and engaging. Luckily, most of the out-of-the-box curricula for thriving work are designed to make learning about these concepts fun and easy. But review the ones you are considering to see if they work with the resources, physical space, and staff support you have available and if they seem like they would be a good fit from a “fun” perspective for your mentors and mentees. If they feel like a burden or “tacked on” to the program, chances are that enthusiasm and engagement will wane.

  • Parents and other adults can reinforce the work you are doing. Having your mentors talk about mindsets and goals for the future might not be impactful if those messages are being subverted at home or in the school. So think about how you can get parents, teachers, and other caring adults on board with the thriving work you are doing. Mentees will perhaps internalize this better if everyone is sending a coordinated message.

3. Note that measuring changes on these types of outcomes might be challenging, especially in the short term.

Many of the types of attitudes, beliefs, and skills that these thriving interventions attempt to change are ones that can take some time to move in a positive direction. Youth may have deeply internalized negative feelings about their intellect, their abilities, and the potential of their future. In the case of identifying sparks or planning for some distant goal, many young people struggle to break free of their past ways of thinking and embrace new possibilities. And newly learned skills take time to become engrained and used in everyday life. All of that to say that mentoring programs trying to build these softer skills should exercise some patience. It may not happen in one school year. Moving forward, hopefully research can provide some insight into the value of multi-year interventions that keep reinforcing and building these thriving skills over time.

Note that some youth might exhibit meaningful change quickly, as a new strategy or mindset suddenly opens their eyes to a world of possibility. But many of the youth in our mentoring programs have experienced significant trauma and distress at home and in the community and substantial struggle at school. For these youth, emphasizing these thriving skills may even seem condescending or inappropriate in light of other challenges. Programs may want to think about how they can meet the youth they serve where they are at and prioritize these types of activities for youth who appear to be in the best position to benefit from them (keeping in mind, though, that our understanding of just who these youth are has yet to be clarified through research). So be careful with how you set expectations around program outcomes and how you evaluate the results of youth efforts to support youth thriving

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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