Quality Corner: What Does Youth-Initiated Mentoring Mean for Mentoring Programs?

February 25, 2016

Quality Corner

Only 4% of youth 8-18 had a formal mentor according to The Mentoring Effect. Most young people access mentorship through teachers, school counselors, coaches, and neighbors. Formal mentoring programs are unable to serve every child and may not reach every community equally.

During the National Mentoring Summit I attended a workshop on Youth-Initiated Mentoring which explored how mentoring programs can tap into these natural mentors and help deepen and expand the relationship with formal programming. While there are many new and innovative ways to conduct youth-initiated mentoring, much of the presentation highlighted a pilot program happening through the Midlands Mentoring Partnership in Nebraska that helps youth select and recruit an adult they know and trust to be their mentor and then matches them in a traditional, community-based program.

There were many benefits to the pilot program in Nebraska. Youth liked having a mentor they felt knew and understood them and came from a common social context.  Youth and families felt more agency in selecting the best match in a mentor and had a higher understanding of the process. Mentors recruited in this way valued the opportunity to deepen their mentoring relationship with a particular young person and have more structured, quality time together. It was also an honor to be considered a mentor and be asked to further that role. Mentoring program staff found that mentors had greater commitment and investment right away and felt like there was a strong potential for a long-lasting, impactful connection.

However, this is not necessarily a “magic bullet” for mentor recruitment and program capacity issues. Onboarding youth-initated mentors still took a significant amount of staff time; programs still support and monitor the relationships as they would a traditional match. It might not be appropriate for many programs or young people. Nevertheless, I think it is worth reflection on how youth-initiated and “natural” mentoring can be incorporated into traditional program to enhance the number of caring adults in the lives of all young people your program interacts with. How can formal mentors help support their mentees in building a community of mentors in their lives? Could some form of youth-initated mentoring serve young people who are aging out of the program? Young people who are on a waiting list or may not get matched? Could this be part of a closure policy? How can all young people learn the skills to approach adults in their lives they feel a connection to and ask for the support and guidance they need?

I don’t have the answers, but I am excited to see where the field goes with this concept and the innovative program practices that emerge in the next few years.

Want to dig into the research? Check out: Youth Initiated Mentoring: Investigating a New Approach to Working with Vulnerable Adolescents and a summary of Community developmental assets and positive youth development: The role of natural mentors.