Primary Sources: Improving Mentoring Practice

Photograph of a teen looking through a microscope with his mentor looking on.

Mentoring from a caring adult may increase children’s opportunities for social and cultural enrichment, decrease behaviors such as drinking and drug use, and improve their sense of self, relationships with family and friends, and school performance. But a bad mentoring experience—one that ends too quickly or does not have consistent or frequent enough meetings—can have the opposite effect. Recent research focuses on improving mentoring practice to better help young people, including children of prisoners.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, the Family and Youth Services Bureau or the Administration for Children and Families.)

Few studies of the effects of mentoring have focused specifically on children of prisoners. In “Mentoring Children With Incarcerated Parents: Implications for Research, Practice, and Policy” (abstract), published last month in the journal Family Relations, the authors followed 57 children of prisoners and their mentors through the first six months of their relationships. Using a test known as the Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment, which was given to the children, as well as surveys of mentors and primary caregivers, the authors studied the ups and downs experienced by children and mentors. Children’s difficulties at home—including poverty and family transitions—created challenges for mentors, including concerns about children’s trust and comfort in the mentoring relationship. Still, the challenges subsided after several months (a finding consistent with previous research on mentoring), allowing mentoring relationships to progress and deepen over time. Children who participated in the program for six months and who met with their mentors more frequently than others in the survey exhibited fewer problems, such as being depressed and getting into fights. About one-third of the 57 pairs ended the mentoring relationship early; scheduling conflicts, family problems and match incompatibility were some of the reasons. Based on their findings, the authors suggest that program staff working with children of prisoners should consider how children's past relationship experiences affect their ability to trust and relate to a mentor. The authors also caution that although mentoring can have a positive impact, a relationship that ends quickly may reinforce children’s feelings that they cannot depend on or trust adults for love and support.

Though many communities, nonprofit organizations and schools use mentoring to help young people in at-risk situations stay out of trouble and do better in school, there are few guidelines that address the ethical responsibilities and obligations of adult mentors. The authors of ”First Do No Harm: Ethical Principles for Youth Mentoring Relationships” (free registration required to view abstract or purchase article), published in October in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, aim to fill that vacuum. They set forth five ethical principles for mentors, derived in part from the American Psychological Association’s “Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct” (2002).

  1. Beneficence and Nonmaleficence, or “Do no harm:” Programs routinely screen mentors to prevent sexual abuse and other types of extremely harmful behavior. The authors suggest that programs also train volunteers not to misuse power or cross inappropriate boundaries.
  2. Fidelity and Responsibility: Mentors must be trustworthy, responsible, consistent and reliable, the authors say. In particular, programs should ensure that mentor training includes stipulations for meeting frequency and match duration and instills realistic expectations and an understanding that having to end a mentoring relationship prematurely can cause negative outcomes for children, who may misinterpret the reasons for termination.
  3. Integrity: Acting with integrity means maintaining realistic expectations of what mentoring can achieve and resolving misunderstandings among mentors, mentees and their families, and program staff, the authors say.
  4. Justice: Mentors should exercise good judgment and avoid cultural biases, the authors say.
  5. Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity: Mentors should let young people make their own decisions. Programs should also train mentors in the nuances of managing sensitive information so they can both respect mentees’ rights to privacy and confidentiality and know when and to whom it is necessary to report problems.

Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of these and other publications.



9-5 pm Eastern