A Message from the Research Director
Achieving the Promise of Youth Mentoring
The vision behind this joint alliance between MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership and UMass Boston is simple: to “give mentoring research away.” Evaluations of youth mentoring programs have provided evidence that high-quality, enduring relationships can improve academic, behavioral, and psychosocial outcomes. And, importantly, researchers have identified the conditions under which youth mentoring is most effective and the types of volunteers, youth, and activities that are associated with positive developmental outcomes.
In recent years, however, researchers and practitioners alike have increasingly felt the limits of such research evidence as a guiding force in the field. Mentoring strikes deep emotional chords and has attracted powerful constituents who, at some level, look to research and evaluation findings only to confirm what they intuitively hold to be true. Likewise, practitioners tend to value pure and simple findings that can be used to for action. Consequently, the field of youth mentoring has taken on a public life of its own ---a life that is, at times, removed from empirical and theoretical grounding. Despite expansive goals, there is no clear road map for how to scale up this intervention approach in ways that provide children with the high-quality mentoring relationships they deserve. Instead a focus on increasing the number of new matches served by programs has necessitated that mentoring be delivered more efficiently. This, in some instances, has diluted the strength of the intervention.
Bringing youth mentoring to scale, while also prioritizing match longevity, quality, and effectiveness, is possible. To meet this challenge, however, a better alignment of policy, practice, and research is desperately needed. At present, channels of communication between researchers and practitioners are inefficient. Although scholars are reasonably adept at writing for each other, technical jargon and esoteric statistics can render their work virtually incomprehensible to practitioners and policy makers. Even when clear and relevant, it can be difficult to actually put research findings into practice. Likewise, many practitioners have neither the technical savvy nor the time to decipher the scientific merits and limitations of research findings. And, because academic journals remain largely inaccessible to decision-makers, policy makers and practitioners are left to accept abstracted summaries and handed-down interpretations of findings.
Making research findings more accessible, and increasing practitioners’ skills and knowledge in applying evidence-based practice to their work will greatly advance the practice of youth mentoring. Philip G. Zimbardo, emeritus professor of psychology at Stanford University described how, on hearing APA President George Miller’s exhortation to “give psychology away“, realized that, “It was time to stop talking only to other psychologists. It was time to stop writing only for professional journals hidden away in library stacks. It was time to go beyond the endless quest for experimental rigor in the perfectly designed study to test a theoretically derived hypothesis. Maybe it was time to begin finding answers to the kinds of questions your mother asked about why people acted the way they did. Perhaps it was acceptable to start considering how best to translate what we knew into a language that most ordinary citizens could understand and even come to appreciate.”
In doing so, researchers can ensure that their findings lead to evidence-based practice in the field and, ultimately, better outcomes for youth. Policymakers and funders also have an important role to play in this regard. They must hold programs to higher standards, rewarding not only growth but the quality and sustainability of extant mentor-youth relationships. Greater accountability, dialogue, and, importantly, adherence to evidence-based practices can and will better position us to harness the full potential of youth mentoring relationships. I look forward to joining and supporting the vital work of researchers, policy makers, and practitioners, and appreciate of the generosity of the Board of Directors of MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership as we work toward achieving this important goal.
Jean Rhodes, Ph.D.
Frank L. Boyden Professor of Psychology
Department of Psychology
University of Massachusetts, Boston