Youth Mentoring: Integrating Theory, Research, and Practice


David L. Myers, PhD University of New Haven

In recent decades, youth mentoring has experienced tremendous growth throughout the United States. Available estimates place the current number of youth mentoring programs at more than 5,000 nationwide, with approximately 3 million children and adolescents receiving services (DuBois, Portillo, Rhodes, Silverthorn, & Valentine, 2011; Miller, Barnes, Miller, & McKinnon, 2013; Stewart & Openshaw, 2014; Tolan, Henry, Schoeny, Lovegrove, & Nichols, 2014). Political and public support have contributed to approximately 1 in 3 adults reporting they have participated in some form of mentoring, and around $100 million per year in federal funds are dedicated to youth mentoring programs and research (Stewart & Openshaw, 2014; Tolan et al., 2014). Overall, youth mentoring is perhaps the most widely implemented and financially supported prevention and intervention strategy for at-risk youth in America. 

Both traditional and contemporary theories of delinquency, along with a growing body of research on risk and protective factors, support the expanded use of youth mentoring (Agnew & Brezina, 2011; Howell, 2009; Jenson & Fraser, 2016; Matz, 2014; Mmari, Blum, & Teufel-Shone, 2010; Murray & Farrington, 2010; Reingle, Jennings, & Maldonado, 2012; Shoemaker, 2009; Thornberry, Huzinga, & Loeber, 2004; Vanderbilt-Adriance & Shaw, 2008). Theories and research that focus on such factors as social bonds, social learning, social disorganization, and strain, along with empirical knowledge about risk and protective factors at the individual, peer, family, school, and community levels, all imply potential benefits from creating caring and sustained relationships between supportive adult mentors and inexperienced or at-risk youth (DuBois & Karcher, 2013; DuBois et al., 2011; Miller et al., 2013; Stewart & Openshaw, 2014; Tolan et al., 2014). It appears, then, that the popularity of youth mentoring corresponds well with evidence about the causes and correlates of juvenile offending.

Numerous researchers also have conducted empirical evaluations of mentoring strategies, in a variety of settings and geographic locations. This body of literature suggests youth mentoring is a “promising” or “effective” approach to preventing delinquency and increasing positive behavioral outcomes, although many research findings have been modest in size and somewhat inconsistent (Abrams, Mizel, Nguyen, & Shlonsky, 2014; DuBois et al., 2011; Matz, 2014; Rhodes, 2008; Sherman, Farrington, Welsh, and MacKenzie, 2002; Stewart & Openshaw, 2014; Sykes, Gioviano, & Piquero, 2014; Tolan et al., 2014; Wheeler, Keller, & DuBois, 2010; Wood & Mayo-Wilson, 2012). These uneven results have led various authors to question whether the popularity and expansion of youth mentoring is supported by available scientific evidence. Evaluation findings to date also suggest a need for further study of mentoring program implementation, the nature and extent of services provided, and outcomes produced. This article will review the existing research on youth mentoring, discuss the theoretical and empirical implications for mentoring practice, and suggest directions for future evaluation research.

Prior Research

A growing body of research has examined the effectiveness, and to a lesser extent, the implementation and fidelity, of youth mentoring programs. Individual evaluations, comprehensive reviews, and statistical meta-analyses generally indicate that when done well, mentoring is an effective prevention and intervention strategy for at least some young people (DuBois & Karcher, 2013; Dubois et al., 2011; Rhodes, 2008; Stewart & Openshaw, 2014; Tolan et al., 2014). However, scientifically rigorous evaluations (i.e., those with random assignment to treatment and control groups, or those employing strong quasi-experimental designs) are in short supply, and relatively little research has assessed program implementation and fidelity.

Individual evaluations of formal mentoring programs have uncovered evidence of success at reducing problem behaviors, improving academic performance, and lessening psychological difficulties (Rhodes, 2008). These evaluations vary, though, in the strength of their research designs and ability to rule out confounding factors. To illustrate, a current search of “youth mentoring programs” on ( reveals 46 individual program evaluations, with 11 programs ranked as “effective,” 23 as “promising,” and 12 as having “no effects.” Those rated as effective were evaluated with a high degree of scientific rigor (in terms of research design quality and program fidelity) and were found to produce positive behavioral outcomes. Programs in the promising category exhibit positive behavioral outcomes, but with research design limitations that reduce confidence in the findings (e.g., lack of random assignment to treatment and control groups, or lack of adequate statistical controls for pre-existing group differences). Finally, programs rated as having no effect were evaluated with a solid degree of scientific rigor, but results indicate either no effects on behavior or even harmful effects. In sum, about a quarter of these individual evaluations produced strong evidence of beneficial effects, about a quarter generated strong evidence of no effects or harmful effects, and half revealed supportive findings that are mitigated by research design weaknesses. 

In recent years, several authors examined the collective body of individual evaluations of youth mentoring programs and provided comprehensive qualitative reviews of this literature (Abrams, Mizel, & Nguyen, 2014; Karcher & Nakkula, 2010; Rhodes, 2008; Matz, 2014; Stewart & Openshaw, 2014). Based on these reviews, a number of conclusions emerge: 

  • Research designs vary within studies included in comprehensive reviews; relatively few evaluations employ experimental designs with random assignment to treatment and control groups, or strong quasi-experimental designs that adequately control for pre-existing group differences.
  • Outcome evaluation results range from ineffective to beneficial; the most positive findings indicate mentoring is associated with recidivism or “risky-behavior” reduction, academic success, and improved mental health, but these findings tend to be modest in size and inconsistently produced.
  • Authors of comprehensive reviews differ in both the inclusion standards they employ and their subjective interpretations of the strength and implications of the findings.
  • Mentoring programs vary on a multitude of dimensions (e.g., target populations, types of services and training provided, and duration, intensity, and integration of services), which can complicate global assessments of effectiveness.
  • Mentoring effectiveness appears to depend on such factors as emotional bonding between mentors and mentees; feelings of closeness, empathy, authenticity, and self-efficacy; consistency and length of time in the mentoring relationship; motivations of the mentor; and risk level of the mentee.

With the findings and limitations of individual evaluations and comprehensive reviews in mind, multiple statistical meta-analyses of existing mentoring studies have been produced (DuBois, Holloway, Valentine, & Cooper, 2002; DuBois et al., 2011; Tolan et al., 2014). Results of these studies suggest that mentoring programs typically are effective across a variety of settings, age groups, and strategies, and positive effects are common in terms of socio-emotional development, academic success, and behavioral outcomes. Tolan and colleagues (2014), in particular, focused on mentoring programs for youth at-risk for delinquency and other associated outcomes, while utilizing study inclusion criteria that required the use of randomly assigned treatment and control participants or a strong quasi-experimental design. Based on the 46 studies included, mean effect sizes were positive and significant for each of four outcome categories (academic achievement, drug use, delinquency, and aggression), as well as for the overall effect of mentoring on the combined behavioral outcomes.

Although the findings of meta-analyses generally support the positive conclusions reached in most individual evaluations and comprehensive reviews, statistical results also specify mentoring effect sizes in the range of .10 to .30, typically considered small or modest in size. Furthermore, variation in effect sizes exists based on program, mentor, and mentee characteristics. DuBois et al. (2002), for example, found more structured programs that exhibit clear expectations, a focus on instrumental goals, and ongoing support of volunteers produce the strongest effects. DuBois and colleagues (2011) later revealed greater mentoring effects for higher risk populations, as well as when matching of a mentor and youth occurs based on shared interests (which presumably facilitates a more personal relationship). Tolan et al. (2014) found larger effects when mentors express motivation for professional development, along with stronger effects when emotional support and advocacy are key components of mentoring.

In discussing the results of their recent meta-analysis, Tolan and colleagues (2014) stated, “Perhaps most notably, the collected set of articles is remarkably limited in the description of the actual program activities, what among a range of potential mentoring activities were included, and how key implementation features were organized, trained, and/or assessed for fidelity” (p. 198). They further asserted that reported detail and completeness in these areas does not seem to be improving in more recent publications, and limited knowledge about program implementation, the nature and extent of services provided, and program fidelity are major impediments to advancing youth mentoring as a prevention and intervention strategy. These are important considerations for the current proposed research, particularly when the results of several recent federally funded evaluations of mentoring programs are considered.

To begin, in a multi-year quasi-experimental study (funded by the National Institute of Justice) of Utah’s 4-H Mentoring/Youth and Families with Promise (YFP) program, Poulin and Orchowsky (2012) found no evidence that mentoring improved academic performance, strengthened family relationships, or prevented delinquency. Notably, the authors acknowledged that the comparison group employed was not equivalent to the treatment group; on average, the YFP group was higher risk and higher need. Moreover, the statistical analyses utilized were insufficient to control for pre-existing group differences. A corresponding process evaluation revealed that despite several positive aspects of program implementation and high program satisfaction among mentees, significant deviation from program guidelines occurred, and intended program dosage often was lacking. Therefore, the null findings on program impact may have been greatly due to deficiencies in program implementation and fidelity.

Similarly, three recent evaluations funded by OJJDP assessed the implementation and impact of enhanced mentoring services within existing Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) programs. Kaye and Smith (2014) evaluated the Parental Engagement Model (PEM) in the capital region of upstate New York, designed to engage parents in mentoring and increase mentors’ cultural understanding of families served by the program. Peaslee and Teye (2015) studied the MATCH Project (Measuring and Assessing Training and Coach Support) in Harrisonburg Rockingham County (VA), which sought to provide enhanced mentor training and peer support. Finally, Brezina, Kuperminc, and Tekin (2016) examined Mentoring Toward College (MTC), which sought to provide an extra layer of structured mentoring activities beyond the standard services provided, based on the delivery of a specialized curriculum.

As with Poulin and Orchowsky’s (2012) research in Utah, all three federally funded studies of enhanced BBBS mentoring services included process evaluation and impact assessment. Unfortunately, these three studies also reported such problems as incomplete implementation of the intervention, inadequate mentor recruitment and training, missing data on outcome measures, staffing challenges, smaller than expected samples, and early match closure. Perhaps not surprisingly, Kaye and Smith (2014) and Peaslee and Teye (2015) did not uncover significant improvements in youth outcomes between treatment and control groups, although there were positive effects on attitudes, match length and connectivity, and socio-emotional indicators. Brezina and colleagues (2016) did report significant improvements in both mentee attitudes and behavior, particularly among male mentees in the MTC program.

To finish this discussion, it also should be noted that early research on the standard BBBS mentoring program produced supportive findings, in terms of drug and alcohol use, antisocial behavior, academic performance, and prosocial relationships (Grossman and Tierney, 1998).  More recently, Hererra, DuBois, and Grossman (2013) completed a large-scale study of seven youth mentoring programs, five of which were BBBS programs. Using a combined experimental and quasi-experimental design, with a focus on higher risk youth, findings indicated beneficial impacts of mentoring on emotional and psychological well-being, peer relationships, academic attitudes, and grades, but not on positive behavior toward peers, skipping school, misconduct, or parent trust. These findings led Hererra and colleagues (2013) to conclude:

Efforts should continue to improve the strength and consistency of the benefits that youth derive from mentoring programs. As a whole, the findings of this study point to a positive, but somewhat inconsistent pattern of benefits for youth who had access to volunteer-centered, one-to-one community-based mentoring over a 13-month period. For example, the evaluation found no evidence that mentoring helped to curb youth involvement in problem behavior. This aspect of the study’s results underscores a need for moderation when forecasting the likely impact of mentoring as an intervention strategy. The findings also suggest, however, that by improving program supports (such as the training provided to mentors or to the staff who support the match), it may be possible to strengthen mentoring relationships and potentially, in turn, increase the impact of program involvement on youth outcomes. (p. 6)

Theoretical Rationale

As discussed by Stewart and Openshaw (2014), mentoring and its effects can be considered through a wide variety of theoretical lenses.  A number of traditional theories explain delinquent behavior as a consequence of weakened social bonds, learning from delinquent peers or criminal role models, environmental or interpersonal strain, and/or disorganized families and communities (Agnew & Brezina, 2011; Howell, 2009; Matz, 2014; Shoemaker, 2009). Modern attachment theory, acceptance-rejection theory, social support theory, host provocation theory, oppression theory, socio-motivational theory, and various developmental theories all have been applied to varying degrees in the mentoring literature (Britner, Balcazar, Biechman, Blinn-Pike, & Larose, 2006; Matz, 2014; Stewart & Openshaw, 2014). A key commonality across all of these theoretical frameworks is the expected benefit generated from creating caring and sustained relationships between supportive adult mentors and inexperienced or at-risk youth (DuBois & Karcher, 2013; DuBois et al., 2011; Miller et al., 2013; Tolan et al., 2014).

In addition to the theoretical applications discussed above, researchers have identified a number of individual, peer, family, school, and community risk factors that are associated with negative adolescent outcomes, such as school dropout, delinquency, and gang involvement (Mmari et al., 2010; Murray & Farrington, 2010; Reingle et al., 2012; Thornberry et al., 2004). These risk factors include such things as early antisocial behavior, experiencing trauma or abuse, poor cognitive development and academic achievement, weak attachment to parents and prosocial peers, weak commitment to school and conventional activities, delinquent peer association, and high levels of community crime, poverty, and unemployment. Risk factors have a cumulative effect in raising the likelihood of delinquent and other problem behaviors, but protective factors (such as a high quality and sustained relationship with a caring adult) can be effective in mitigating risk and fostering resiliency in children and adolescents (Jenson & Fraser, 2011; Vanderbilt-Adriance & Shaw, 2008). Moreover, some evidence suggests greater mentoring effects for higher risk youth (DuBois et al., 2011; Hererra et al., 2013), but this finding likely depends on the quality and duration of mentoring services provided to these young people (Stewart & Openshaw, 2014; Tolan et al., 2014).  

Although the mentoring research reviewed previously did not establish consistently strong and beneficial effects, the weight of the evidence does suggest that high-quality mentoring relationships do generate positive youth outcomes (DuBois et al., 2002, 2011; Hererra et al., 2013; Rhodes, 2008; Stewart & Openshaw, 2014; Tolan et al., 2014). With this in mind, Rhodes and colleagues (DuBois et al., 2011; Rhodes, 2005; Rhodes, Spencer, Keller, Liang, & Noam, 2006) developed a model of relationship development between mentors and mentees, which asserts successful and impactful relationships rely on the initial formation of strong interpersonal connections, based on mutuality, trust, and empathy. A positive interpersonal foundation then contributes to social-emotional development, cognitive development, and/or identify development, and the impact of a high-quality mentoring relationship on any or all of these areas is inter-related through bi-directional pathways that can evolve over time. The quality of the mentoring relationship and the pathways linking it ultimately to positive youth outcomes also can be conditioned by factors pertaining to a youth’s interpersonal history, social competence, and developmental stage; duration of the mentoring relationship; program practices involved in establishing and supporting the mentoring relationship and its duration; and the youth’s family, peers, and surrounding community.

The theoretical model proposed by Rhodes and colleagues (DuBois et al., 2011; Rhodes, 2005; Rhodes et al., 2006) appears to incorporate key parts of supported delinquency theory and research, along with much of what is known about risk factors, protective factors, and the effectiveness of mentoring. For example, mentees who perceive that their mentors care about them personally; those who experience developmental relationships focused on collaborative goals and skill building; and those receiving longer-term mentoring marked by higher levels of authenticity, companionship, and empathy also exhibit improved socio-emotional and behavioral outcomes (DuBois et al., 2002, 2011; Hererra et al., 2013; Rhodes, 2008; Stewart & Openshaw, 2014; Tolan et al., 2014). Close personal connections also may guard against early match closure, but the relational skills and abilities needed to be an effective mentor may not come naturally to all volunteers. This is why mentor-mentee relationship building, along with training and mentor support, appear to be both critical for successful mentoring outcomes and worthy of further scientific investigation through rigorous collaborative research.


The Need for Further Evaluation and Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships

Program evaluation can improve the effectiveness of youth mentoring by examining whether programs are being implemented as intended, providing collaborative feedback to improve implementation and fidelity, and assessing whether specified goals and objectives are being achieved (Markiewicz & Patrick, 2016; McDonald & Hawthorn, 2006; Rossi, Lipsey, & Freeman, 2004). In addition, sustainable collaborative partnerships between researchers and working professionals can benefit both research and practice (Bales, Scaggs, Clark, Ensley, & Coltharp, 2014; Nilson, Jewell, Camman, Appell, & Wormith, 2014; Rudes, Viglione, Lerch, Porter, & Taxman, 2014; Worden, McLean, & Bonner, 2014). By collaborating with researchers, mentoring programs can receive assistance with data collection and guidance for conducting methodologically sound evaluations of their services and outcomes.

In sum, youth mentoring is a popular and typically well-funded prevention and intervention approach that enjoys a fair amount of theoretical and empirical support. Much work remains to be done, however, with regard to investigating the complexities of this strategy and understanding the conditions most likely to produce the strongest results. As stated by Rhodes (2008, p. 41), “prevention researchers have a central role to play in comparing methods of implementation, analyzing success and failure in different applications of mentoring, and effectively communicating these findings back to the field.” Potential funders of mentoring interventions also should require researcher-practitioner partnerships as a criterion for financial support (Durlak, 2011). Mentoring likely will remain popular for the foreseeable future, but without meaningful collaboration between researchers and practitioners, the full potential of youth mentoring may not be achieved.



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