National Mentoring Month

For the past two years, I’ve written about why mentoring is important for preteens and how everyday mentoring is important for all youth for the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health Preteen Alliance. For this year’s National Mentoring Month, I’d like to focus on what exactly makes the difference.

In terms of research, most studies have concluded that it is the relationship that makes a difference in other outcome areas. One stated, “Positive relationships are seen as the primary way that mentoring leads to improved outcomes for youth who are mentored.” Nation, M., Keener, D., Wandersman, A., & DuBois, D. (2005). Spencer (2006) says that “the presence of a strong emotional connection has been found to be a distinguishing feature of those mentoring relationships that are associated with better outcomes such as improvements in perceptions of scholastic competence and feelings of self-worth.” In Friends for Youth’s own mentoring program, where youth ages 8 – 17 are matched with adult volunteers for a one-to-one mentoring friendship for a minimum of one year, we have seen the most change for participating youth in the areas of social relationships. In other words, at the end of one year with a caring adult mentor, our mentees can physically count more people – peer friends, family adults, and non-family adults – they could turn to for support.

Why would this be important? Here’s evidence from three recent theories that support the need for children to form supportive relationships with adults for their healthy development.

Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., a leading researcher in the fields of child trauma and neuroscience, states that humans are made to be relational, meaning we are wired to develop and sustain relationships with each other. We ultimately feel safe in the context of relationships. These relationship connections influence how patterns are created in our brains. Without repetition of social relationship-building experience, we don’t adequately develop the ability to connect socially. Perry believes that children today have fewer emotional, social, and cognitive interactions with fewer people, or a poverty of relationships. With fewer and fewer relationships, children end up with relational poverty and, ultimately, feel less safe.

Social relationships are also a key component of mental health. Dr. David Satcher, the 16th Surgeon General of the United States, recently spoke at the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health Preteen Alliance’s 2008 Preteen Summit about supporting preteen emotional health. His definition of mental health includes “fulfilling relationships with others” in addition to other key factors. Satcher believes that the social environment is as important as the physical environment for child development.

Relationships are also essential for learning. In “It’s All About Relationships,” an article on Educational Leadership’s web site, Charles Leadbeater argues that “learning is best done with people, not for them.” He advocates for promoting relationships between teachers and students, among students, and between students and their families. He researched several schools in the U.K. and identified four aspects necessary to build relationships within an educational environment: building participation, offering recognition, making students feel cared for, and instilling motivation. He also mentions students having a “personal mentor” to foster achievement.

The need for positive and stable role models for youth is clear – we are endangering the welfare of our children if we don’t actively create communities that care about youth.

During National Mentoring Month, consider if you can become a mentor to a young person in need. There are so many ways to give back and make a difference with relatively little time. To find a program on the Peninsula, check out Friends for Youth; in the San Francisco Bay Area, go to Bay Area Mentoring; and for other areas across the country, look at MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership.
If you can’t formally mentor, commit this year to be like a mentor to young people you know: listen, make the time to be there, don’t make promises


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