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Theories & Approaches

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Designing a Mentoring Program: Four Dimensions

As the popularity of youth mentoring programs increases, so does the number and kinds of programs. While the growing availability of mentoring programs has the potential to positively affect the lives of youth people, several caveats should be considered before selecting or designing a mentoring program for your community.

The most established and well-researched mentoring model involves a caring adult who mentors a single youth in a community setting. While there is data demonstrating that a community mentoring program might impact youth health risk behaviors, there is no evidence, as of yet, that other innovative forms of mentoring such as email-based e-mentoring can have the same impact.

Several noted researchers have commented on variations of this core mentoring model (i.e., caring adult mentoring a single youth in a community setting), stating, "to assume that all of these newer types of relationships will offer the same benefits as the well-run, community-based, one-to-one mentoring programs that researchers have studied most intensively is shortsighted (Rhodes, Grossman, & Roffman, 2002, p.18)."

In order to better understand the essential elements of an effective youth mentoring program, four dimensions of program design are described here.

1. Relationship

At the most basic level, mentoring is defined by the relationship created between the mentor and mentee. The majority of youth mentoring literature is based on the one-to-one, adult-to-youth relationship (Grossman, & Teirney, 1998; Grossman, 1999; Sipe 1996; Teirney, Grossman, & Resch, 2000). However, it should be noted that other forms of mentoring relationships exist including group mentoring (Herrera, Vang, & Gale, 2002), team mentoring (Saito, & Blyth, 1992), and peer mentoring (Sheehan, DiCara, LeBailly, & Christoffe, 1999). Depending on the program approach, there are varying degrees of evidence supporting the use of alternative relationship formats.

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2. Context

There are three basic contexts for mentoring. The first context is community-based mentoring programs in which the mentoring activities occur in the community. The community-based context typically implies that mentors and youth engage in a range of unstructured activities (e.g., going to the movies, museums, zoos, parks, etc.) that might be supplemented by structured activities of the mentoring program (e.g., group recreation or community service activities).

The second context is site-based mentoring, typically school-based (Herrera, Sipe, McClanahan, Arbreton, & Pepper, 2000) or workplace-based (Hamilton, & Hamilton, 2002). Site-based mentoring limits the mentoring activities to a specific location, and as implied by the settings of schools and workplaces, often has narrowly-focused program goals (e.g., academic improvement, career guidance).

The third context is technology-based telementoring (Alapati, Fox, Dockter, & Muller, 2003; Muller,2002), most often in the format of email mentoring. The telementoring context also introduces constraints to the mentoring relationship and program goals because contact is limited through electronic communications.

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3. Structure and Support

The third dimension to designing mentoring programs is program structure. There is evidence supporting informal or natural mentoring relationships between an adult (i.e., aunt, uncle, neighbor or teacher) and youth, outside of the context of a formal program (Zimmerman MA, Bingenheimer JB, & Notaro PC. 2002; Rhodes, Contreras, & Mangelsdorf, 1994).

However, the majority of mentoring program evaluations focus on structured formal mentoring programs in which the mentoring relationship between adults and youth includes appropriate screening, matching, training, oversight and evaluation of the mentoring relationships. Within these formal programs mentoring can be a solo intervention strategy, or in other cases, is one of a cluster of services provided to youth.

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4. Outcome-focus

The fourth dimension to consider is the set of outcomes associated with the program goals. For example, a mentoring program designed to achieve increases in academic grades will take a different program focus than a program seeking to prevent pregnancy. Program goals and outcomes play an important role in determining program structure.


Within these four dimensions, there are a variety of ways in which a youth mentoring program can be designed. A variety of mentoring programs has the potential of expanding the reach of mentoring to a larger number of youth in a broad array of settings. However, it is important to keep in mind that the largest body of knowledge on mentoring focuses on the one-to-one, adult-to-youth mentoring relationship that is community-based and is administrated through a structured mentoring program.

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