Mentoring Children and Youth: Principles, Issues, and Policy Implications for Community Programmes in New Zealand

Article excerpt

Mentoring is becoming an increasingly popular strategy for addressing the needs of young people who are considered at risk for failure in mainstream contexts, and many schools and social service agencies in New Zealand now conduct mentoring programmes. We suggest various psychological mechanisms for understanding the possible processes involved in effective mentoring. The literature evaluating mentoring programmes is selectively reviewed, and while the evidence is less convincing than might be expected from the confidence that some policy agencies place in mentoring, there is nevertheless indication that mentoring can have valuable outcomes, depending on how it is done. In general, the benefits for children and youth will be seen in education and the acquisition of specific life skills, rather than being a preventative panacea for all social problems. We argue that natural environments which are mentor rich are preferable to artificially designed programmes with short-term or haphazard matches between mentor and young person. Thinking carefully about the psychological processes and principles involved in mentoring should allow the development of innovative programmes that are suited to the unique cultures of Aotearoa/New Zealand, rather than simply imitating overseas models.

With nation-wide concern for the many social and familial disadvantages that place children and youth at risk for serious emotional and behavioural problems (Fergusson, Horwood, & Lynskey, 1994; Ritchie & Ritchie, 1993), policy makers have become increasingly interested in programmes that can be broadly implemented in communities at relatively little cost. Mentoring has received considerable attention-especially in the United States--as one such approach for intervening in the lives of vulnerable young people. In New Zealand, belief in mentoring as a strategy for social change is growing, and there has been an explosion of interest in schools serving low-income communities with rapidly altering demographics of traditional family structures (Adair & Dixon, 1998). The concept has popular appeal in educational, welfare, and business contexts, and various social agencies, particularly in the voluntary sector, are establishing mentoring programmes (e.g., Ave et al., 1999; Courtney, 1998). There are, however, conceptual as well as practical aspects of mentoring that need to be considered within bi-cultural Aotearoa/New Zealand. The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of these psychological and social concerns, and their implications for programme development and community-based interventions for "at-risk" children and youth.

Definition and a Brief History

In Homer's Iliad, Mentor was Odysseus' trusted friend who became the advisor to his son Telemachus. Today, mentoring refers to an enduring relationship between a novice and an older, more experienced individual who provides guidance in a particular domain. The role is different from that of a friend (whose relationship is more reciprocal), a teacher (who imparts specific skills), or a counsellor (who offers personal guidance), although it may contain some elements of all these. Natural mentoring relationships are common in successful business (Collins & Scott, 1978), work (Kram, 1985), artistic and scientific (Zuckerman, 1977) endeavours. In human services, however, the concept has come to have a more structured, planful meaning.

Mentoring as the explicit pairing of volunteers with disadvantaged youth began in 1902, when Coulter (1913), a clerk of the juvenile court in New York city, founded the Big Brother (and later Big Sister) movement. In the USA, groups like the YMCA organised activities focussed on career encouragement, such as The Black Achievers Program of Harlem. In 1906, the alumni of an African-American student fraternity became active in providing mentoring, tutoring, youth clubs, and bursaries. From these early origins, service organisations are now major initiators of mentoring programmes; in New Zealand, for example, there has been a long-standing collaboration between Penrose High School and the local Rotary, and Presbyterian Support Service in Otago has a well-established programme using mainly tertiary students as mentors. …