ERIC Identifier: ED306326
Publication Date: 1988-09-00
Author: Ascher, Carol
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban
Education New York NY.
The Mentoring of Disadvantaged Youth. ERIC/CUE Digest No. 47.
Adolescents in our poor urban areas can be an isolated group, deprived of
supportive relationships with adults in their families, schools, communities,
and work places. This deprivation can result in poor socialization to adult
roles, as well as a paucity of contacts and networks needed for educational and
career success. Recently, planned mentoring programs, which purposefully link
youth with someone older and more experienced, have become a popular means of
providing adolescents with compensatory adult contacts.
These planned mentoring programs for adolescents are, by definition,
structured, and their goals can be complex, ambitious, and even
grandiose--preventing students from becoming pregnant, dropping out of school,
or going to jail; helping them make a successful transition from high school to
college; or giving them some undefined but dramatically better chance at life.
The mentoring programs vary widely in the duration, frequency and intensity of
the planned relationship, and some use a single mentor for as many as fifteen or
twenty mentees. The recruited mentors rarely share the mentees' environment or
have firsthand knowledge of their daily life at home or at school. Rather, they
range from older, more academically successful students at the next educational
stage, to mothers and grandmothers, to successful businesspersons.
Obviously, the quality of mentoring relationships differs enormously, as do
the tasks that mentors and mentees agree to accomplish. Nevertheless, it is
important to set some boundaries to the phenomenon and to distinguish mentoring
relationships from other relationships that are simply a kind of help. The
following definition should clarify some essential elements in mentoring
relationships for youth:
A supportive relationship between a youth or young adult and someone
more senior in age and experience, who offers support, guidance, and
concrete assistance as the younger partner goes through a difficult
period, enters a new area of experience, takes on an important task, or
corrects an earlier problem. During mentoring, mentees identify with
their mentors; as a result, they become more able to do for themselves
what their mentors have done for them.
THE ROLES OF MENTORS
Mentors for adolescents must help
compensate for inadequate or dysfunctional socialization or give psychological
support for new attitudes and behaviors, at the same time as they create
opportunities to move successfully in new arenas of education, work, and social
life. In fact, mentoring can be said to include both psychosocial and
In their psychosocial roles, mentors act as role models and counselors,
offering confirmation, clarification, and emotional support. Because poor and
minority youth often move through contradictory worlds, an important
psychosocial role for mentors is to help the mentee understand and resolve these
contradictions. In their instrumental roles, mentors act as teachers, advisers,
coaches, advocates, and dispensers and sharers of concrete resources. An adult
who merely acts as a vague substitute for other missing adults, or who briefly
helps with a school assignment or work connection, is not providing the
sustained and directive support that is crucial to mentoring.
SALIENCE AND SOCIAL DISTANCE
Although some of the most
publicized forms of mentoring have been between extremely prominent adults and
ghetto youth, it is clear that successful mentoring generally occurs when the
older individual is not removed from the mentee by a great social distance. This
is because, with distance, the mentors' values, knowledge, skills and networks
may easily seem irrelevant or even nonsensical to the mentees, and their goals
for the mentee naive. When this happens, the adolescents will at best only
superficially cooperate, and are likely to become cynical and withdraw. However,
even apparent social distance can be breached when the mentors provide those
concrete resources that the mentees most need. A mentor who drives the mentee to
look at a prospective college, joins in studying the catalog, and helps with the
application form is both offering important psychological support and showing
that, through a series of small steps, distant goals may be within reach.
Matching mentors and mentees of the same social class, race and gender is not
the only--or even the best--way to close social distance, and ensure a
meaningful connection. Often, in fact, mentoring failures attributed to class,
race or gender differences might more accurately be described as a failure to
give teenagers the specific support or resources they need. When mentors offer
their mentees sensitive support, timely contacts, and other appropriate
resources, mentees generally find their mentors quite compatible.
A critical aspect of any developing mentor-mentee
relationship is trust. As a first step, a mentor can build trust by helping the
adolescent achieve a very modest goal. The mentor also needs to be personally
predictable, and the mentoring program itself should be of some duration.
Disadvantaged mentees come to programs with high hopes, great suspicion--or,
more likely, both. Their conflicts are only exacerbated by erratic adults,
loosely organized programs, or abandoned initiatives. All these serve to destroy
relationships and to harden mistrust.
Particularly in large, complex programs, it is important for building trust
in the mentees that the roles of the mentor are openly articulated. Mentors can
be free to use any style they want in working with the youth--and probably
should--but within a clear arrangement about what the mentoring should achieve
for the youth, both psychosocially and instrumentally.
NATURAL AND PLANNED MENTORING
So far, there are
insufficient studies of either the natural or planned mentoring of adolescents
either to derive lessons about the differences between them, or to be clear
about how best to structure planned mentoring. Drawing from natural and planned
mentoring in organizations, we can assume that the bonds between natural mentors
and mentees are stronger, because the two individuals have found each other,
rather than having been assigned, and because their relationship proceeds
fluidly over a long period, rather than being constrained by both program
content and structure.
Some mentoring programs for youth appear so short and narrow in their goals
that classical mentoring is unlikely to take place. It may be, in fact, too
difficult to develop the strong ties of mentoring in some youth programs.
However, some youth may be able to take advantage of the looser bonds of good
planned programs, if they provide an extended network of social resources in
which the adolescents can have access to ideas, influences, information, people,
and other resources they might not receive through the stronger ties to one
REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS FOR MENTORING PROGRAMS
mentoring is a modest intervention: its power to substitute for missing adults
in the lives of youth is limited. Nor can it compensate for years of poor
schooling. Still, it can improve the social chances of adolescents by leading
them to resources they might not have found on their own, and by providing them
with support for new behaviors, attitudes, and ambitions. When planned mentoring
is intensive and extended, it can offer the important help with solving the
contradictions of moving into the mainstream society.
Unfortunately, while planned mentoring can increase the availability of
adults to a greater number of adolescents, it is unlikely to serve all who need
it. Even should mentors be found for every young person, the youth must still
make their ways to the mentoring programs, want to be helped, and find the
support and resources of the mentors suited to their needs.
Nor can planned mentoring programs pluck adolescents out of poor homes,
inadequate schools, or disruptive communities. Mentoring will always be
effective only insofar as it accommodates, transforms, vitiates, or expands, the
influences of family, school, community, or job. Thus the power of other
influences in the lives of youth must be recognized in any attempt to reasonably
measure the potential accomplishments of mentoring.
This digest is based on a study, "Youth Mentoring: Programs and Practices," by Erwin Flaxman, Carol Ascher, and Charles Harrington.