Youth-Initiated Mentoring

*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.

Youth-initiated mentoring (YIM) is an innovative idea that has drawn increasing attention over the last several years. Although there is limited hard research on this topic, there are several considerations and possible practices that practitioners can keep in mind as they think about whether YIM applies to their programmatic settings and whether this is an idea worth integrating into their services.

  • YIM may work best when used on older populations of youth⎯those high school age or older. To effectively implement a YIM strategy, youth need to be able to:
    • Nominate adults that they have an existing relationship with and whom they think will be able to support them in some specific ways.
    • Be comfortable asking the adult to take on this role (or at least be comfortable having a staff member or parent do it on their behalf)
    • Be able to take an active role in growing this relationship and getting what they need out of it over time

Those are all tasks that a younger child might struggle with and it’s no surprise that most applications of YIM in the field to date have been with youth transitioning into young adulthood (with the accompanying career and educational challenges ahead) or youth transitioning out of a continuum of care where they find themselves needing to take the lead role in procuring the support they need to move forward. So at the most basic level, YIM may be best viewed as a strategy more appropriate for use with older adolescents or young adults who have the capacity to take an active role in seeking and maintaining supportive relationships. (Alternatively, it stands to reason that there may be value in teaching youth of all ages the value in, and skills for, seeking out supportive relationships throughout their lives.)

  • If your program serves youth who are old enough to navigate the challenges of YIM, there are several options to consider when implementing this concept:
    • Have the mentors whom youth are to recruit be part of the core intervention being offered to these young people o Have the mentors be supplementary to other services being offered
    • Have the mentors be a post-intervention support system

There are several examples of these options currently being employed in the field: The National Guard Challenge program integrates YIM mentors into existing services and gives them a post-intervention support role; the Youth-Nominated Support Team model has YIM mentors at the core of an intensive suicide prevention model that is intended to supplement traditional mental health services; and YouthBuild USA integrates YIM mentors into current and post-program activities.

  • There is a temptation to see YIM as a way of relieving the burden on program staff to recruit competent and committed volunteer mentors⎯the one task that can be most time-consuming for mentoring programs. But programs should note that YIM still requires a significant outlay of staff time, just in different ways than traditional volunteer recruitment:
    • Programs must teach youth who would serve as an appropriate mentor to them, as well as skills around asking an adult to take on this role. Teaching youth to nominate their own appropriate mentors may be just as time consuming as general volunteer recruitment.
    • In most YIM models, staff still must screen and train any mentors identified by youth. This may prove more challenging than training staff-recruited mentors as programs have less control over the types of individuals youth nominate.
    • Programs should also be prepared to do traditional recruitment for those youth who struggle to identify or nominate an appropriate mentor who is willing to take on the role. Related to this, programs must take care to ensure that practices are in place to help youth navigate the disappointment and possible feelings of rejection that youth may experience when their nominated mentors do not agree to take on this role.
    • And post-match, programs should still anticipate some level of follow-up or match support, particularly in cases where outcomes are being tracked closely. YIM removes some level of control from programs over the relationships that they are, in theory, fostering to achieve an outcome. So programs may want to question whether YIM is the easy solution to the burden of mentor recruitment that its proponents often claim it to be.

This all being said, YIM has considerable appeal and promise for the mentoring movement. It seems likely that there is much to be gained by teaching youth how to identify the areas of life in which they could benefit from some additional support and by encouraging them, and building their skills, to seek out deeper connections with adults who can help them in these areas. In fact, there may be few gifts a program can give young persons more than teaching them how to find mentors throughout their lives, long after they have left their program’s doors. If only all youth had the opportunities and skills to find the mentoring they need. But therein lies the conundrum for the mentoring field, which exists almost entirely because these relationships are something that youth struggle to find or facilitate on their own. But for those older youth who are ready to take a leading role in securing the support they need from caring adults, YIM is an appealing idea and initial evidence of promise. Hopefully the coming years will produce more research that clarifies both the effectiveness and viability of YIM across different applications, thus laying the foundation for evidence-based scaling up throughout the mentoring field.

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 "Resourcessection of the National Mentoring Resource Center site.

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