Academic journal article Journal of Juvenile Justice

COMMENTARY: Do Youth Mentoring Programs Work? A Review of the Empirical Literature

Academic journal article Journal of Juvenile Justice

COMMENTARY: Do Youth Mentoring Programs Work? A Review of the Empirical Literature

Article excerpt


Mentoring relationships represent one of the oldest community-based youth interventions, dating back to the genesis of the first juvenile court in Chicago during the late 1800s when probation officers provided guidance and supervision to youthful offenders in lieu of more damaging alternatives such as institutionalization (Blakeslee & Keller, 2012; Tanenhaus, 2004). Indeed, such formal interventions were rooted in the progressive era as a response to increased poverty at the hands of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization. The highly renowned Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBS) mentoring program, for example, began in 1904 in New York City and today consists of over 375 agencies serving more than 210,000 youth across the United States (Blakeslee & Keller, 2012). Fiowever, not until the past two decades has a growing body of empirical literature begun to develop and mature from which to better understand the goals, operations, and outcomes of youth mentoring programs. This article summarizes the literature, beginning with a brief overview of relevant theories, followed by a summary of mentoring programs' effectiveness as derived from the empirical literature. The article continues with a short examination of vulnerable populations, problems of connecting at-risk youth with mentors, guidance for future program evaluations, best practices for mentoring programs, guidance for mentors, and an international comparison of effectiveness. The article concludes with advice pertinent to researchers, program administrators, and funding organizations. This article is designed to introduce the many complexities of youth mentoring. Readers are encouraged to seek out the various sources contained throughout for more detailed information on a given subject area.

Theoretical Perspective

Youth mentoring programs did not originate within a theoretical framework of an academic philosophy, but rather from the philanthropic aims of community advocates and social work practitioners (Dubois, Doolittle, Yates, Silverthorn, &Tebes, 2006). Youth mentoring literature over the past two decades makes these origins clear. Nonetheless, attempts have been made to retroactively apply theoretical models and constructs, such as those described below, to mentoring programs to aid in our understanding of their underlying assumptions, purposes, and structures. Keeping in mind that a theory is a proposed connection between variables and their relatedness, what follows is a brief introduction to the core tenets of attachment theory, acceptance-rejection theory, social support theory, host provocation theory, oppression theory, sociomotivational theory, relevant criminological theories, and how they relate to mentoring relationships.

Attachment theory refers to the impact that close interactions and caring behaviors of caregivers can have on the quality of youths'future social relationships and behaviors (Britner, Balcazar, Blechman, Blinn-Pike, & Larose, 2006). Poor attachment and bonding with parents can lead to a variety of behavioral problems and reluctance to trust adults. Some studies have shown positive mentoring relationships can improve parentchild relationships (e.g., Rhodes, 2002; as cited in Britner et al., 2006).

Acceptance-rejection theory posits many behavioral outcomes of youth are the product of their parents'initial acceptance or rejection. Rejection, as found in various self-report studies, is associated with developmental, behavioral, and psychological problems in children, youth, and adults that may include substance abuse and delinquency (Britner et al., 2006). Acceptance, on the other hand, is associated with greater generosity, empathy, and helpfulness toward others. As such, individuals who feel accepted by their parents are more likely to have positive peer relations, higher perceptions of life satisfaction, and less psychological stress than those who perceive themselves to be rejected (Britner et al. …

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