Notes from the 2013 Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring

During July 22 - 26 this year, I was once again fortunate to attend the Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring at Portland State University. The seventh annual Summer Institute offered another truly distinctive educational opportunity for experienced mentoring professionals (and several technical assistance partners like myself) to participate in a week-long intensive seminar with sessions led by prominent, internationally recognized research fellows. These highly interactive discussions provide an in-depth view of the research and examine its implications for program policies and practices, which I am happy to report happened. One hope of Tom Keller, the institute's founder and Director of the PSU Center for Interdisciplinary Mentoring Research, is that a sustained dialogue between experienced professionals and researchers stimulates research with relevance to the field and enhances its translation to practical application; as an annual attendee, I'm also happy to report that we are definitely seeing these results, with previous attendees becoming more involved in research and the Collaborative Mentoring Webinar Series, featuring many of the same researchers who have been research fellows.

As a general theme, this year focused on the role of risk and other personal and environmental factors that influence mentoring relationships and their effectiveness. With 15 in-depth sessions and six brief TEDtalk-syle presentations on Friday, there is clearly much to report. In fact, I am still processing many of the discussions! After the institute, I visited one of my favorite Portland stores, Cargo, and found a number of items that immediately made me think of key points from the sessions. Here's a brief look at what I walked away with from the 2013 Summer Institute:

This surprise ball - which unwinds revealing small goodies - reminded me of Carla Herrera's session (with Janet Heubach from Washington State Mentors) about their new study, The Role of Risk: Mentoring Experiences and Outcomes for Youth with Varying Risk Profiles. Once our staff members unwound the surprise ball, we found fun things like a ticket to happiness and a tiny heart to wear around your wrist. Research connection: the new tool assessing risk factors developed from this study will hopefully prove to be useful in helping program staff get a sense of who their mentees are and how they might best match them in order to make the most of the mentoring relationship. However, we can ask all the questions we can think of and we still may not truly know the "truth," as young people may not be ready to trust us with their answers or they may not even know themselves. So, surprises are always a part of this process.

Michael Karcher discussed his theories around how program staff can moderate some of those risk factors by providing better training and ongoing support to mentors so that they, in turn, can build better relationships with mentees. Dr. Karcher has developed a number of helpful tools that can help mentors learn how to better approach their mentees and how to collaborate on doing the right kinds of activities. At the top of the list: fun, creative activities help build the relationship while conversations focused on behavior and future goals may hinder it. Lesson for mentors: it always pays to have a box of crayons and some fun ready to go!

Tim Cavell's sessions addressed his research on using college students in a Lunch Buddy program and its impacts on chronically bullied children. On Friday, he titled his talk as "stacking the deck or rolling the dice." Mentoring research has increased over the last several years, but we still don't have evidence that mentoring works for any child or youth in any context because there are a lot of "moving parts" in the intervention - mentees with various levels of risk, mentors with a variety of experiences, program staff with different agendas, and families with their own issues and complexities. When I think about his title, I think of ways that programs can work to stack the deck - do their very best to understand and assess the mentee and family in order to have the maximum amount of benefit from mentoring - rather than just roll the dice and hope they made the best match.

Sarah Schwartz discussed the influence of youth relationship histories on the effectiveness of school-based mentoring, using data from a previous evaluation. One area she focused on was attachment and how mentees with different levels of attachment (as measured in the evaluation) fared with mentoring relationships. This research will hopefully prove to be useful, as knowing if a young person has insecure attachment patterns may help a program know if a.) she would be appropriate for a relationship-based intervention and b.) if so, which mentor would be best to provide a "corrective attachment experience." Of course, it's also good to know if a mentor is also attachment insecure!

Shelley Haddock and Lindsey Weiler shared the results of their innovative mentoring program, Campus Corps, and how their model resulted from doing three things everyone is told not to do in setting up a mentoring program: put high-risk youth together, use college students as mentors, and provide a match length of much less than a year, only 12 weeks. This lotus flower that is also a light illustrates this idea of taking a nonconventional path and using the structure of one thing for something else. Campus Corps' initial findings are showing many positive gains for the youth and also for the mentors. It was powerful to hear their process of making decisions in structuring the program based on research and their own experiences as well as taking risks.

Finally, Noelle Hurd's sessions provided much-needed attention on the role of race and ethnicity on relationships, as she shared her research using natural and youth-initiated mentoring. She found that relationships with natural mentors promoted more positive long-term educational success with participants; with this initial positive research, she also shared a new program, Project DREAM, that is designed to foster positive youth development in the context of supportive bonds with a non-parental adult, a mix of formal and natural mentoring. Noelle's talk on Friday also emphasized the power and privilege that occurs in mentoring relationships, reminding programs that they need to acknowledge the differences and provide support, training, and space for mentors to not only help a youth navigate the system but also learn to challenge and change it. Only by becoming aware of the potential oppressive nature of a helping relationship can mentors work to elevate into becoming advocates to their mentees.

Many, many thanks to Tom Keller and Kay Logan from the Center for Integrative Mentoring Research at PSU, the research fellows, the technical assistance providers, and practitioners for another year of fascinating research, stimulating discussions, and validation that mentoring does work - we just need to keep at learning what kind works for whom, under what circumstances, and why to give all young people the most from their mentoring relationships.


GATE said...

Great stuff! Thanks for sharing,

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