The Role of Risk
Mentoring Experiences and Outcomes for Youth with Varying Risk Profiles
More and more, mentoring programs are being asked to serve young people who are considered “higher risk.” While mentoring has a strong research base generally, relatively little is known about mentoring programs’ capacities to serve and produce benefits for higher-risk youth. This report presents results from the first large-scale evaluation to examine how the levels and types of risk youth face may influence their mentoring relationships and the benefits they derive from mentoring programs. The study looked closely at the backgrounds of participating youth and their mentors, the mentoring relationships that formed, the program supports that were offered, and the benefits youth received — and assessed how these varied for youth with differing “profiles” of risk.
A Public/Private Ventures project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and distributed by MDRC, the study involved more than 1,300 youth, drawn from seven programs serving young people in Washington State. Oversight and support for the project were provided by Washington State Mentors.
Key findings include:
- Programs were able to reach and serve youth facing a wide range of challenges, without substantial effort beyond their normal outreach strategies, suggesting that programs were already serving many youth with significant risk factors.
- Youth with differing risk profiles (that is, levels and types of risk) had mentoring relationships of similar strength and duration and derived similar benefits from program participation.
- However, the challenges and training needs reported by mentors and the reasons matches ended differed as a function of the risk profiles of youth.
- The strongest program benefit, and most consistent across risk groups, was a reduction in depressive symptoms—which is particularly noteworthy given that almost one in four youth reported worrisome levels of these symptoms at baseline (and that past research has linked depression to a host of other short- and long-term problems for youth).
- The study’s findings also point to gains in social acceptance, academic attitudes and grades. Youth did not appear to benefit in their relationships with parents or behavior toward peers or to show reduced misconduct.
- In addition to benefits in specific domains, mentored youth also experienced gains in a greater number of outcomes than youth in the comparison group.
- Mentors who received early-match training and consistent program support met more frequently and had longer-lasting relationships with their mentees. Youth whose mentors received training also reported higher-quality relationships.
These findings have a number of important implications for practitioners and funders. Overall, the study’s results suggest that mentoring programs can be beneficial for youth with a broad range of backgrounds and characteristics. Tailoring the training and support that is available to matches based on the specific risks youth face has the potential to produce even stronger benefits.