January is National Mentoring Month and we want to take this moment to celebrate the life-changing power of mentorship and all of the men and women who have served as Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
Mentoring is a word that gets tossed around a lot lately, especially this month. But what exactly constitutes “mentorship”? Merriam Webster defines a “mentor” as “a trusted counselor or guide.” The word comes from the character "Mentor" in Homer's epic tale, The Odyssey. Mentor was a trusted friend of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, who served as friend and counsel to Odysseus' son while Odysseus was off fighting in the Trojan War.
Some form of mentoring is a critical ingredient in success for all children. In the words of Developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, The co-founder of Head Start, “[Youth] development, it turns out, occurs through this process of progressively more complex exchange between a child and somebody else—especially somebody who's crazy about that child.”
At heart, mentorship is a bridge of trust forged between two people with different levels of experience and a tacit agreement to teach and learn from each other.
Signs of the Times and the Rise of Formal Mentorship
Children typically get some informal mentorship from parents, elder family members, teachers and coaches. However today adults’ time and energy is in short supply and too many children don’t get enough adult guidance, particularly in poor families. As discussed in a report on mentorship by Public/Private Ventures:
The institutions we have historically relied on to provide youth with adult support and guidance—families, schools and neighborhoods—have changed in ways that have dramatically reduced their capacity to deliver such support. For example, there are fewer adults in families today: more than one in four children are born into a single-parent home, and half of the current generation of children will live in a single-parent household during some part of their childhood. Cuts in school budgets mean fewer adults per child. And declining neighborhood safety causes both youth and adults to keep more to themselves.1
Parents are consumed with providing financially for their family, particularly in low-income single-parent households where the sole provider strains mightily to juggle work, child care, and self care. Teachers juggle curriculum changes and large class sizes and are hard pressed to give students individualized attention. Many families cannot afford the resources and time to transport their children to sports and enrichment activities where their children might acquire informal mentors.
Increasingly, children need supplemental adult guidance beyond the family. Fortunately, formal mentoring programs like Big Brothers and Big Sisters have emerged to meet that need, and thrive because there are good, caring people who have time and energy to spare for a child.
Hard Evidence: The Benefits of Formal Mentorship Programs for Disadvantaged Youth
In the field of youth development, experts view formal mentoring as a powerful intervention to support disadvantaged youth. According to one landmark study, for each $1 invested in an effective mentoring program, there is a 3:1 social return on investment which includes savings from juvenile crime reduction, reduced drug and tobacco use, and enhanced school achievement. As stated in a report by the National Mentoring Initiative, mentoring: “is growing and, if harnessed, it has the potential to help meet a range of national challenges and strengthen our communities and economy.”
A national survey conducted by the The National Mentoring Partnership found that young people who had mentors report setting higher educational goals and are more likely to attend college than those without mentors. High expectations and higher educational attainment are key factors in life success.
Big Brothers Big Sisters’ unique one-to-one mentorship approach has been shown to dramatically improve children’s confidence and school performance, and decrease their use of drugs, alcohol and violence. A study by an independent research organization, Public/Private Ventures, found that children enrolled in Big Brothers Big Sisters for 18 months or more, compared with a control group of non-mentored peers, were:
substantially less likely to begin using drugs (46%),
less likely to begin using alcohol (27%),
less likely to skip class (50%), and
less likely to use violence (32% ).
Another study conducted by Harris Interactive in 2009 found that adults who had been mentored as children through Big Brothers Big Sisters are more likely to have
a 4-year degree
household incomes of $75,000 and above, and
strong relationships with spouses, children, and friends.
The statistics tell a broad story, but the most compelling evidence for us is what we hear from our families and volunteers. One Big tells us, “My Little’s mother told me that his most recent report card was his best ever. A year ago he couldn't tell me what his favorite subject was, and got frustrated when we talked about spelling or math. Now, his favorite subject is math and he enjoys spelling words with me.”
Another parent in our program has spoken passionately about her daughter’s improvement. “She has more confidence in herself and just glows with happiness knowing that her Big is just a phone call away!”
The Trouble With Good Intentions: Dangers of Loosely Structured Mentoring Programs
The idea of leveraging time volunteers willingly give to help children has great appeal to funders and launched a wave of loosely structured mentoring programs during the 1980s. The thinking behind these programs was that adults could “naturally” work with youth; mentors required only time and dedication, without screening, training or supervision. Those who founded such programs remembered the adults who mentored them informally as children — coaches, teachers and neighbors—and wanted to re-create that type of support for more youth. Thus, early mentoring programs typically touted a “laissez-faire” approach to mentoring.
However a poorly screened or untrained mentor can actually have a detrimental effect on a child. In his book chronicling the mentorship movement, The Kindness of Strangers: Adult Mentors, Urban Youth, and the New Voluntarism, author Marc Freedman warns of the danger of “fervor without infrastructure” in mentoring programs:
Merely hitching adults to kids, without adequate infrastructure, may create a sense of action, but is likely to accomplish little. It may even backfire. If a relationship engenders hurt or reinforces negative stereotypes, it is worse than no mentoring at all.
Mentoring programs need to not only match adults and children, but take special care to emphasize child safety, cultural sensitivity and longer-term commitment in the screening process, and provide ongoing monitoring and support of the mentor-child relationship. Many mentoring programs do not have either the staff or infrastructure to provide this kind of robust support.
Big Brothers Big Sisters’ model is built around comprehensive screening and support of both mentors and mentees, guided by a well-defined set of National Standards of Excellence. We advocate a thorough volunteer screening process that includes a full criminal background check and personal reference checks for every volunteer. Our mentors also participate in a detailed in-person interview where we evaluate each on the basis of their interests, level of commitment, maturity, demographic preference (age, language), cultural competence, geographic restrictions, and overall suitability as a mentor.
A Two-Way Street
Mentorship can change the lives of both participants for the better. A Big Brother or Big Sister can develop a deep understanding of the child’s and family’s needs and a long-lasting positive relationship, connect families with opportunities, and often provide vital adult supervision, resources and transportation. We often speak in terms of our Bigs providing an “ARC to Success”: Access to new experiences, Resources needed for developmental growth, and Consistency of a caring positive role model.
The mentoring relationship can also benefit the mentor. On a professional level, serving as a mentor evidences good qualities on a resume and can help advance the mentor’s career. On a more personal level, the process of passing on wisdom and experience helps the mentor better understand and integrate their own learnings, and can even help mentors heal from their own past traumas. The mentor’s service to a child reinforces their self-esteem, cultivates compassion, selflessness and open-mindedness, and contributes richly to the mentor’s own inner life. Further, mentors often learn new things from mentees, exploring new frontiers from technology to music.
How Do You Know A Mentoring Program Is Really Working?
Too often, organizations that initiate mentor relationships rely on assumptions and individual anecdotes to validate their belief in the positive impact, without applying a rigorous evaluation to their mentoring. It is vital that funders and mentoring programs invest in meaningful impact evaluation informed by research.
One of Big Brothers Big Sisters’ unique strengths, compared to other youth-serving organizations, is that we have adopted shared measurement across our national network of 300+ agencies. We leverage an evaluation toolkit that has been refined over a century, and the unique opportunity to compare parallel data with independent agencies across the country.
Each year we participate in a national BBBS Youth Outcomes Survey to measure kids’ progress in areas of behavior, attitude & school performance, comparing kids’ latest responses to those they gave at first intake. We assess areas such as ability to resolve conflicts without violence, positive view of their future, positive attitude towards school, and ability to exercise restraint towards unhealthy life choices.
We aim for youth participating for at least one year to show improvement or positive stability in each of the following developmental areas:
Social Competencies: strong interpersonal and social skills, and the ability to resolve conflicts without resorting to violent behavior.
Positive Identity: strong sense of self-esteem, a sense of purpose, and positive view of their own personal future.
Positive Values: sense of integrity, honesty, and responsibility, and ability to exercise restraint towards unhealthy life choices.
Commitment to Learning: more frequent homework completion, positive attitude towards school, and fewer unexcused absences.
Our national agency is currently in the process of updating this strong Youth Outcomes Survey to reflect the latest research on youth development and assess for additional areas such as growth mindset, problem-solving, bullying and depressive symptoms.
Too Many Children Waiting
Right now, too many children are growing up without sufficient guidance and support to ensure their success, despite the hard work and best intentions of parents. There have been dramatic changes to the institutions where youth used to find adult support and guidance—families, schools and neighborhoods—and we haven’t yet caught up with what those changes mean for raising children.
In a national survey of young adults, one in three young people reported they did not have a mentor while they were growing up. Applying their experiences to U.S. Census demographicsl, the National Mentoring Partnership projects that 16 million young people, including 9 million at-risk young people, will reach adulthood without connecting with a mentor of any kind.2
The same study found that at-risk youth are much less likely to report having had a naturally occurring mentoring relationship, and that at-risk youth are more likely to want a mentor. As young adults, these youth are more likely to recall a time growing up when they did not have a mentor but wish they had had one.
At Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bay Area, we currently have nearly 800 children waiting for a Big Brother or Big Sister, and many more who need the support but have not yet found their way to us. There are 90,000 children in our area who fit our service population.
The Next Era of Mentoring
Emergence of national mentoring movements and corporate mentoring programs have stirred interest from thousands of volunteers, but that solves only part of the problem. To create lasting, quality mentoring relationships that do more good than harm, funders and mentoring programs must invest in building out their capacities to thoroughly screen mentors, more carefully match them to mentees, provide ongoing training and support, and objectively evaluate their impact.
Big Brothers Big Sisters has been providing mentors for disadvantaged children for over 100 years. In that time, we’ve seen the field of mentoring evolve a great deal. We embrace the emerging research and new technologies that are shaping mentorship today as opportunities to have greater impact. As we celebrate National Mentoring Month for the 15th year, we welcome a new era in which more organizations are serving more youth through mentorship, and Big Brothers Big Sisters aims to be a seasoned veteran at the forefront of that movement advocating for quality in addition to quantity. We look forward to new learnings to come, opportunities to share what we’ve learned with other agencies, and a whole lot more lives changed through mentorship.
1. Making A Difference: An Impact Study of Big Brothers Big Sisters. Public/Private Ventures. Joseph P. Tierney and Jean Baldwin Grossman with Nancy L. Resch (September 2000)