In the United States, parents are the central source of emotional, financial, and social support for their children. Many youth are also fortunate to be part of larger networks including grandparents, other relatives, neighbors, and community and religious organizations. Adults in these networks can offer youth extra attention, affection, guidance, and a sense of direction--all of which are increasingly important given the wide array of outside influences, not all of them positive, that face our youth today.
However, family, community, and civic life in this country are changing. Fewer people know their neighbors. More households are headed by a single parent. And the time pressures facing working families can limit their community involvement. This means that these networks of non-parental resources may now be harder for children and parents to access. In addition, many youth live in families that are under tremendous pressure because of poverty, divorce, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, violence, or stress. These troubled families are often isolated from the larger community and, as a result, the youth in the greatest need of help from outside the family may be the least likely to get it.
Percent of Children Under 18 Years Not Living With Two Parents,
by Race: 1970 and 1994
Today the number of youth who could benefit from having a caring adult mentor has been estimated to range from between 5 million and 15 million young men and women (Walker, 1996). Research indicates that students who are successful academically, in addition to support from parents and teachers, usually have sustained access to other knowledgeable and caring adults (Clarke, 1989). For youth who are academically at risk, a mentor can fill this need and may make the difference between whether or not a youth gets on track for future success.
Going to college is seen by the vast majority of students and parents as a key to a good future in the 21st century. A mentor can provide critical assistance, including extra encouragement, academic help, and most importantly--for students who may not have access to an adult who has been through the college application process--guidance about which courses college-bound students need to take and how to prepare for and apply to college. For example, while research indicates that students who take challenging mathematics and science courses in high school are much more likely to go to college than students who do not, low-income students are much less likely than their higher income peers to take these courses (see Getting Ready for College: How Mentors Can Help). Mentors can also serve as a vital link to resources which students and their families may otherwise be unaware of, including help in applying for financial aid for college.
Mentoring programs are one of the best means of bringing a person who can represent the concern and support of the larger community into the lives of youth. In many ways, mentoring also represents a return to tradition, calling upon the community to provide our youth with care and guidance, and to nurture and challenge them. While mentoring programs cannot remove all of the obstacles facing youth, they can have a large, positive impact on young lives. By offering youth friendship, guidance, and a positive perspective on life over a sustained period of time, mentoring programs clearly show that someone cares.
The Critical Years: Middle School
Preparing a child for all of the opportunities and challenges that the future holds is a big job, and it is a job best begun early. Ensuring the sustained presence of a caring adult in a youth's life is especially critical during adolescence. The transition from elementary school to middle school can be a very challenging time for youth, but it is also a time at which they must begin to make important choices that can influence the rest of their lives. Students face serious decisions about which courses they will take, what activities they will engage in, and how seriously they will take their schoolwork. Yet despite the importance of the course-taking decisions students make during the middle grades, in the United States it is common for guidance counselors at the middle school level to be responsible for more than 500 students (Carnegie, 1989). For the most at-risk youth, the presence of an adult mentor can be essential for reinforcing the importance of school, fostering good work habits and study skills, and providing youth with the information they need to make the right choices.
Mentors are kind, concerned adults--young and old and from all walks of life--who offer youth support, guidance, and encouragement. Mentors provide the sustained presence of a positive, caring adult role model, and while they are neither foster parents nor responsible for solving all of a youth's problems, they are more than simply an older friend. A mentor seeks to help a youth navigate through the everyday challenges of school, society, and the community by drawing upon his or her greater knowledge and experience, and genuine concern for the youth.
Although the specific roles of mentors vary quite a bit, every good mentor must do two things: make a connection and use that connection to convey a positive message.
Making a connection means to gain the trust of the youth and foster mutual respect. The essential factor involved in making the connection is that the mentor like and respect youth and be willing and able to make a sustained, intensive personal commitment.
Using that connection means to let the youth know by word and deed that he or she is worth the mentor's time and effort because that youth is a valuable human being. And that the mentor can offer the youth--through knowledge and experience or by example--ways to expand his or her horizons and to increase the likelihood that he or she will achieve success.
There are a thousand ways to express this message. Whether the mentoring program focuses on increasing academic skills or career preparation, reaches out to teen mothers to provide encouragement and support, or takes a young girl to her first play or a boy to his first museum--the message is the same: "You are important and I care what happens to you."
What mentors do is determined by the focus of the mentoring program and the specific needs of the youth that the program works with. Like the mentoring relationship itself, a program may have multiple and related goals. Mentoring programs commonly focus on:
Although most parents want their child to go to college, and most teenagers say they want to attend college, students often do not take the courses they need to prepare academically. Data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS) reveal that among students who were in the 8th grade in 1988, students who took challenging mathematics and science courses were much more likely to go to college than students who did not take these courses. For example, students who took algebra I and geometry in middle or high school, regardless of their income level, were more likely to go to college than students who did not (Figure 2).
College Attendance, by Income and Course-Taking
While taking these courses was especially important for youth from low-income families, low-income children were much less likely to take algebra I and geometry than were their peers from higher income families (Figure 3).
Percent of Students Taking Algebra I
and Geometry, by Income
Mentors can provide help in several ways. First, many students and their families may not be aware of which courses a student needs to take--and by when--in order to get on track for college. Mentors can help make sure that students get on track for challenging courses beginning in middle school. Students taking college preparatory courses may also have greater need for tutoring and academic assistance from a mentor, because these courses are generally among the more challenging courses that a school offers. Lastly, a mentor can help provide the encouragement to "stick to it," and act as a reminder that hard work in middle school and high school does pay off--in the form of going to college, and having more and better job opportunities as an adult. Of course, there are many other ways mentors can help students aspire to and prepare for college, including providing information about the availability of financial aid and how to apply for it, and the different types of postsecondary education students can pursue.
Mentoring programs attract people from every conceivable background, representing every socioeconomic level: blue-collar workers, white-collar professionals, school volunteers, professionals from the community, college students, and retired people, to name a few. Volunteers come from large corporations, small businesses, church groups, utility companies, hospitals, charitable institutions, and "mom-and-pop" stores.
These diverse individuals can work successfully with the equally diverse population of children who need mentors. For example, research on mentor programs has found that retired people make excellent mentors. A study conducted by Public/Private Ventures, Partners in Growth: Elder Mentors and At-Risk Youth, found that many older people easily formed friendships with youth because of their patience and empathy and their eagerness to share their wealth of accumulated knowledge and experience. Elderly mentors from less advantaged backgrounds were especially effective in working with hard-to-reach youth. The mentors could relate to the children on a personal level because the mentors themselves
had endured strained family relationships, struggled at low-paying jobs, and battled personal problems, such as alcohol abuse. Partly as a result of surviving--and surmounting--such difficulties, these elders seemed to understand the youth, were able to communicate with them from their own experience, and established strong, constructive bonds (Freedman, 1988, p. v).
Other programs rely on college students who have come from backgrounds similar to those of the children in the program, or who can represent a living example of the benefits of going to college and the work that goes into accomplishing this. Individuals recruited from business organizations can serve a similar purpose, by discussing their experiences in the working world and demonstrating the importance of specialized knowledge, like mathematics or science, or higher education in general.
Regardless of their backgrounds, what all good mentors share is the ability to reach out to children who need support and guidance and to provide them with one-on-one attention for a sustained period of time. The mentors' personal investment in the lives of children allows each child to look beyond the present to envision a future full of promise.