Rethinking Youth Mentoring: Limitations and Possibilities for Youth Work
Youth mentoring is being promoted as an intervention strategy for those at-risk. Young people are vulnerable to physical and mental health concerns during adolescence and their transition from school to work; higher mortality rates; higher rates of death from drug and alcohol use; higher suicide rates; increased likelihood of premature death from disease; and greater susceptibility to the effect of worsening socioeconomic status. However, young people are less inclined than other demographic groups to seek help.
Mentoring has appealed as a means of achieving positive youth development; school-based mentoring programs have proliferated as a way of improving retention, academic performance and behavioural issues. Many countries have active peak bodies promoting mentoring and mentoring programs are being delivered by various non government organisations. However, the evaluative evidence of efficacy is mixed. While there are reports of positive effects the size across programs is modest and there appears little consensus on how to engage the highly disadvantaged. Access to mentoring programs for high needs young people is an issue where mentors are voluntary. The modest efficacy effects may suggest that taking mentoring to scale may involve inherent practical limitations. This paper suggests that current youth mentoring iterations may be being ‘oversold’ as a simple cost effective community strategy for dealing with complex social problems.
The paper discusses whether the broader concept of ‘significant others’ is a more promising reference point when recognising the limitations of current conceptualizations of mentoring. Help-seeking behaviour in young people is more likely when there are supportive social relationships, including from non-related individuals acting as mentors or concerned family and friends. The paper questions whether current strategies directed to at-risk youth should focus more on the ecology of supportive social relationships rather than traditional mentoring.