Toolkit on Effective Mentoring for Youth
Facing Barriers to Success

Best practices and resources to build, strengthen, evaluate and sustain effective mentoring programs for youth considered at high-risk of under education, unemployment, homelessness, criminalization, and other negative outcomes.

Youth In or Leaving Care


The Ontario Mentoring Coalition collaborated with the Alberta Mentoring Partnership to incorporate additional strategies, practices and resources for mentoring children and youth in care into this toolkit based on information collected and learned through the Children and Youth in Care and Mentoring Project. For more information, please visit:

“Being able to maintain a stable and steady relationship with at least one person makes all the difference in the world. I’m sure we can somehow fix things so children and youth in care can have a constant in their lives, someone who is there for them.” (Youth Leaving Care Hearings, Provincial Advocate for Children & Youth)

Key Lessons

  • Screening should be more intensive for mentor candidates – mentors may benefit from having more professional skills. Programs should also be cautious to screen out mentor candidates who are assertive, reserved, looking to “save” or change the mentees, and/or unwilling to provide long-term support. Mentors may also benefit from more intensive training, including how to support youth with trauma-related issues and the importance of maintaining the relationship.2, 3, 7, 13
  • Early match closures are a significant risk for this population due to the likelihood that mentees may move or face significant challenges. Therefore, staff support must help combat early match termination.2, 3, 13
  • Caution needs to be given to ending matches in a healthy way as mentees in the care system are more likely to have experiences of abandonment.7, 8
  • E-mentoring is a promising model for youth in care as it can limit the disruptions associated with moving regularly.3

Here is a Body Map of youth in or leaving care prepared by participants (service providers) during a training day by the Ontario Mentoring Coalition.

Youth In Care Body Map 01Existing Toolkits & Resources

Mentoring Youth In Care:

Kinnections Mentoring Program for Youth – Program Policies and Procedures Templates:

Another Body Map of youth in or leaving care prepared by participants (service providers) during a training day by the Ontario Mentoring Coalition.

Youth In Care Body Map 02

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada Mentoring Youth In/ From Care Literature Review:

Effective Mentoring for Youth In or Leaving Care


Standards & Good Practices

(linked to positive outcomes for participants)

Other Pertinent Info

(from other studies & reports)

Program Planning

Conducting a social network map of supporters and service providers for youth in care can help in understanding how people are connected and give mentors some direction about whom to partner with and what gaps to work on with the mentee. Current or past foster youth can provide valuable insight into strategies for mentoring for youth in care. Any partnerships that are established should have an agreement, especially in regards to what information can and should be shared about individual participants.2, 11, 13

If your organization provides clinical services, assess whether a mentoring component could enhance these services for youth in care. One program found that combining individual mentoring with group clinical programming had very positive outcomes.12, 13

Four mentoring program models were found by the Alberta Centre for Child, Family, and Community Research to be most relevant for youth in care:

  1. Transitional mentoring focuses on fostering independent living skills and goal setting/ achievement for youth exiting out of care
  2. Cultural empowerment mentoring involves providing a role model from the same cultural group as the mentee
  3. Business mentor model matches professionals with youth in care to learn about potential careers
  4. Mentoring young parents has mentors who have been young parents mentor pregnant or parenting youth to gain positive parenting and independent living skills

New programs could choose a model above to work within based on their clientele (age, stage of care involvement, and goals of the program).2

E-mentoring is another model that is gaining popularity for youth in care because it means mentees can access their mentors at all times and the relationship is not subject to the same disruption if the mentee moves to a new care facility/ foster home.3

Different kinds of mentoring models will benefit youth as their needs change across time and life events.18 The mentoring needs of a young child in care will be distinctly different from a youth who will soon be exiting the care system. Children and youth in care may need different mentors at different times to meet their needs (ex. Adult mentor, peer mentor, career mentor).21

Many older youth in or leaving care lack long-term, supportive relationships with adults that can help with transitions out of care. Thus, it is important for youth in care to have at least one adult supporter that is not paid for their involvement with the youth.4, 5, 7

Many mentoring programs are designed to support youth aging out of care. In the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate of Alberta’s Special Report on youth aging out of care (2013), a key concern was the youth’s desire to be connected to people who would support them when they were no longer in care. They wanted to be involved with people who knew them, cared about them and would be able to develop meaningful and lasting relationships with them… Youth described their desire for connections to trusting adults who they could go to for advice and support as they transitioned to adulthood.

Some positive effects of mentoring have been found:

  • Foster parents reported that when their foster children had mentors, the children displayed improved social skills and trust.
  • Mentoring can help youth in care build connections with adults to help them transition into post-secondary education and employment.
  • Youth in care who participated in a one-on-one mentoring program were found to have a statistically significant reduction in symptoms of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and trauma.
  • Participating in a mentoring program has been found to help youth in foster care cope with the stressors associated with the non-traditional living experience.
  • Youth in care who participated in a mentoring program were found to have more stable living situations; they did not change foster homes as frequently and were more likely to be reunified with their family than the control group.
  • By providing access to caring and supportive adults, mentoring programs can help youth in care develop resiliency to cope with difficult situations.
  • Mentees in care noted positive outcomes of mentoring included: building strong relationships with their mentors, feelings that life had improved, and gaining life skills for when leaving care.
  • The goal-focused My Life program for youth in care that combines individual mentoring support and group mentoring program was found to increase participants’ feelings of control over their lives and improved life skills.2, 4, 10, 12, 13

However, results are conflicting about the effectiveness of mentoring for youth in care. One study found that there are no statistically significant differences in outcomes between matches where the mentor was paid and where the mentor participated voluntarily. Additionally, youth in care may be a more difficult population to serve through mentoring due to their more complex needs. Another study found that mentees with experiences of abuse were more likely to end matches early and thus receive neutral or negative effects from the mentoring.2, 3

Refer to Kinnections for a comprehensive manual for implementing mentoring for youth in care, which includes tools, such as permission forms and mentor applications.2, 4

Refer to Mentoring Youth in Care for comprehensive review of best practices for implementing a mentoring program for youth in care.2

Mentee Referral, Selection & Training


Mentees should be matched before major transition times to help them build strong relationships to help them cope with the challenges associated with these changes.2

A comprehensive intake assessment must be done for mentees to ensure their specific experiences of abuse and neglect are addressed.13

Mentors from one mentoring program for youth in care gave feedback that the mentoring intervention should begin as young as possible for the mentee.10

Programs should develop a process for accepting referrals from case workers, foster parents, guardians and the youth themselves.

Many youth in care have experienced the loss of significant relationships in their lives; as a result, it can be difficult to develop trusting relationships with new adults. Training may include attachment assessments, modules and discussions on how their previous experiences can have an influence on relationships with mentors and others in their lives.19

Mentor Recruitment, Screening & Selection

Consider recruiting mentors for a program with youth in care from traditional mentoring programs- they already have developed mentoring skills.2

More rigorous screening is required for mentors volunteering with youth in care. Screening must also account for individual needs of mentees and thus mentors with past involvement in care should not necessarily be excluded. The following factors may be seen as “red flags” when screening a mentor:

  • Desire to change or “save” children
  • Very reserved
  • Very assertive/imposing
  • Minimal engagement
  • Strong value judgments
  • Impatient with the process
  • Communicating with staff inconsistently
  • Not open to learning a certain component or population-specific knowledge
  • Unable or unwilling to provide long-term commitment2, 3, 7
Mentors need to be committed from the beginning if they are going to become a long-term mentor. They must demonstrate a stable lifestyle so that they can be supportive to their mentee.

Mentors must be self-aware, able to manage expectations, not trying to meet an unmet need in their own lives, youth-centered, and meet rejection, challenge and change with consistency as these things will happen in a match with a child in or leaving care.27 Mentors must be able to manage their own responsibilities (ex. job, housing, family) as well as follow through on expectations, obligations, and deadlines.27

Some volunteers who apply to mentor a child or youth in care may be better suited for a match with less complexity. Potential volunteers may self-identify as better suited for a different mentoring opportunity or staff conducting the screening may suggest the mentor become involved in other programs that are better fit for their experiences and interests.16

University and college mentors should be recruited with caution for youth who are highly transient and most vulnerable because they are less likely to be able to provide sufficiently long and consistent match.1

Mentor Training

Mentor training should include:

  • How to build relationships with youth in care and their parents/ foster parents/ caregivers given their specific challenges;
  • Awareness of challenges mentors may face working with this population;
  • The importance of their volunteering with the young person and how disruptions in the relationship could affect them; and
  • How to recognize and respond to trauma-related issues because many youth in care have experienced volatile life experiences.2, 3
Education should be provided on how trauma can affect relationship development. Mentors should be made aware of possible challenges, such as initial mistrust or distancing by youth, as well as relationship building strategies to combat these challenges.29

Refer to the Trauma Informed Practice Guide for more information about recognizing and responding to trauma-related issues:

Mentors should receive an orientation to Child and Family Services policies in their province and how the mentoring agency works in relation to this system.22 Information should also be provided on the provincial act governing child and family services and common terms and language related to foster care and adoption.

The following training PowerPoints are available from the Boys & Girls Clubs Big Brothers Big Sisters of Edmonton Youth in Care Mentoring Program:

Mentors should be educated on the warning signs of abuse and neglect, and be aware of their duty of care and the appropriate procedures should they notice these signs.22, 29 Mentors should learn about disclosure and discovery and understand how to respond to information shared by their mentees.

Mentors should be trained on the agency and community supports available to matches. Mentors should be aware of these resources and how to access them.

Matching Process

Building a strong relationship founded on trust may be easier when mentors have a similar life experience to their mentees, e.g., having been in care themselves.2, 3, 13

Matches should meet regularly for a significant amount of time. It was noted that relationships that last less than 6 months with inconsistent meeting were found to have no and even negative impacts on the mentees in care.2

Participation and matching should not be tied to a care placement so that as children and youth move or transition, they should not lose their mentor.26 Programs should plan for moves and transitions by determining how matches will reach one another in the event of a move and encouraging pairs to be creative and flexible in connecting with one another, such as calling or texting when they are unable to meet in person.26

Mentoring Relationship Development

Match activities at the beginning should focus on building the relationship.2

Mentors can play a key role in reducing stigma for mentees who have been in care by normalizing their experiences and providing unconditional acceptance. Mentoring relationships are most effective must be reciprocal and diminish power imbalances.13

Mentoring youth in care may require mentors to have more experience, contribute more time and act in a more professional-style role to address the barriers their mentees face. Mentor consistency is particularly important for youth in care because it is important to have someone on whom you can fully rely.13

Mentors for youth in care provide various important supports that may be lacking from other adults in their lives:

  • Emotional support – having someone to talk to during difficult times.
  • Informational support – helping individual mentees understand important life stages (e.g., in regards to post-secondary education).
  • Appraisal support – providing a different opinion when facing adversity.
  • Instrumental support – includes financial support and role modeling for life skills (e.g., cooking).6

Youth in care need to have a meaningful role in their mentoring relationship and thus natural mentoring (where mentees choose their mentors) may be a good fit.7

Due to experiences with unpredictable relationships with adults, youth in care may have trouble trusting and forming bonds with other adults. Additionally, foster youth were found to have a “survivalist self-reliance” meaning they did not want help or adult role models, which can make mentoring very difficult. However, these youth may also seek to build new relationships with adults.4, 13

The mentor may take on an advocacy role with youth. The Office of the Child and Youth Advocate provides a PowerPoint outlining this process:

Match Supervision, Support & Retention

Program staff should provide mentors with ongoing training and support, especially when the mentee is experiencing behavioural or mental health issues.2, 11, 13

Relationships are more likely to end early if the mentee is struggling with personal issues, so staff should monitor and support matches regularly throughout the program. Staff should also be available to help in times of crisis.2, 3

Youth in care are often living in ever-changing circumstances (e.g., moving to new foster home), which can make stable mentoring relationships difficult.2, 13

Older youth in care may require more support as they may face more complex problems.29

Children and youth enrolled in Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring programs that were part of the Children and Youth in Care and Mentoring Project reported experiencing such challenges as pregnancy, moving, entering treatment centres, graduating and changing medications.17

If program staff know there will be a transition (ex. Placement change, change in caseworker, a birth parent coming into the picture), they should be proactive in reaching out to mentors and mentees as new questions may arise or old behaviours may appear.27

Program staff can predict developmental milestones for youth (ex. Puberty, aging out of care). Staff can work with mentors and mentees ahead of time, knowing that changes can trigger a response from youth, and work with the mentor to consider what changes have looked like in the past for the mentee and the relationship, help the mentor predict what behaviours they might see, and identify which coping mechanisms were effective in the past.27

Parent/ Caregiver/ Family Involvement

It is important to garner support from foster parents about the benefits of the program.11 Child welfare workers are highly involved in the lives of youth in care and thus are a strong part of defining roles of adult supporters of youth in care.7

Program staff should arrange an interview with whomever the child is currently living with to collect current information on the child. It may also be appropriate to include the youth’s caseworker in the process. Working closely with child intervention workers will assist agencies to assess the readiness of children and youth for a mentoring relationship.16

As youth in care may move placements during the mentoring relationship, additional time should be allotted to meet new caregivers in the mentee’s life and provide an orientation to the mentoring program.

Care systems vary in their ability and willingness to collaborate with external agencies. There is a need to educate everyone involved in the life of the youth in care (ex. Caseworker, youth worker, foster parent) about mentoring and the role of the mentor.

Mentoring program staff must work to build relationships and work collaboratively with all stakeholders. Mentoring programs should reach agreements with care agencies on what type of and how information can be shared. Caseworkers and caregivers should be made aware of any critical incidents or reportable circumstances that occur during the mentoring relationship.30

It is best if mentoring agencies can develop a process with caregivers and caseworkers to ensure mentors are informed of all potential transitions. Transitions are a time when mentors need the most support and program staff should be over-communicating with mentors.27

Match Closure & Re-Matching

Ending mentor relationships for youth in care must be handled delicately due to many of these youth having past experiences of abandonment. Staff should ensure mentors have the skills to end the relationship in a healthy way which they can model to the mentees.7, 8

Policies about closures should be established so that mentors and mentees know how to end the relationships and reflect on their successes. Relationships should be celebrated when ending to promote positivity.2

Youth with abuse or neglect histories are more likely to have their mentoring relationships end early.20

Early match closure can result in negative effects for youth in care such as diminished self-reported educational, psychosocial, and risk-behaviour outcomes.20 Staff can support mentors who are discussing premature closure by asking what it will take and how they can help them to meet their commitment.27

Pairs should be encouraged to have open discussions around the possibility of closure of the relationship. These discussions prepare mentees for what to expect when the relationship ends with their mentor.15

When match closures occur, agencies need to help mentors and mentees celebrate and reflect on the successes of the relationship and move forward by setting realistic expectations for the future.18 Youth need to hear in clear and certain terms what the communication will be like moving forward. They should not be set up for disappointment.27

One study found that youth were not able to make long-term commitments to a mentoring program due to busy schedules for both mentors and mentees and lack of support of foster parents.11



Natural Mentoring

Youth must be given a say in if and how natural mentoring relationships are established in their lives.7

It is difficult for child welfare workers to assess the suitability of potential natural mentors, and thus a specific role should be established to support youth in care developing natural mentoring relationships.7

Replicating the strengths of natural mentoring relationships may help enhance mentoring outcomes for youth in care.13


Youth in care may be less likely to have positive adult relationships due to their difficult life circumstances. Since natural mentoring relationships emerge out of existing relationships between a young person and an adult, there is more likelihood that there is a crossover of social networks and thus the likelihood of the relationship continuing long-term is higher.8

Natural mentoring can help by providing youth leaving foster care with meaningful relationships with adults to support them in their development. Natural mentoring has been found to:

  • Support youth through transitions.
  • Reduce mental health challenges, including, lowered stress, fewer symptoms of depression, and lower likelihood of being arrested.
  • Reduce suicidal thoughts, sexually transmitted infections, and decrease likelihood to have been in a fight that resulted in injury.
  • Youth who had aged out of foster care who had a close relationship with an adult were more likely to have obtained employment and less likely to have recent experiences with homelessness.
  • Youth who have aged out of foster care who have a natural mentor were more likely to have a bank account and high expectations for future income.7, 8, 9

Natural mentoring is seen by child welfare professionals as important for youth in care to develop strong and supportive relationships with adults. However, implementing natural mentoring into services for youth in care may create extra work for social workers who are already have large caseloads and minimal time for each child.7

Mentoring programs may employ a youth initiated mentoring approach in which youth are trained to select a mentor from their existing social network to become their formal mentor. The program would then provide screening, training, monitoring and support.24

Real Connections – Foster Forward Program employs a youth initiated mentoring approach for youth in care.

If youth in care do not have access to natural mentors, formal mentoring programs with the capacity to recruit volunteer mentors are a good alternative.2

Children and Youth in Care Mentoring Project

In 2014, the Children and Youth in Care Mentoring Project received funding from Alberta Human Services to increase the number of children and youth in care with access to a mentor. Three established mentoring organizations, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Calgary and Area, Red Deer Youth and Volunteer Centre Foundation, and Boys & Girls Clubs Big Brothers Big Sisters of Edmonton and Area Society, participated in the project. The purpose of the project is  to foster meaningful relationships between mentors and vulnerable youth. As of November 2015, there were 139 children and youth in care matched in mentoring relationships as part of this initiative.

The Alberta Centre for Child, Family and Community Research prepared a literature review on mentoring youth in care in a Canadian context. Literature on programs that focus on mentoring youth in care were sought out, as opposed to programs that serve a range of youth including those in care. Initially academic studies of mentoring youth in care were examined. When unavailable for specific topics, grey literature was referenced. As much of the literature on this topic originates from the United States, interviews were conducted with individuals with expertise in mentoring youth in care in the Canadian context. The academic, grey literature and interview responses were then critically reviewed and summarized according to thematic categories.

View the Mentoring Youth in Care Literature Review

8000Mentors on PrimeTime

Watch Alberta Primetime’s interview with Lana Tordoff, Marketing and Communications Manager for Boys and Girls Club Big Brothers Big Sisters of Edmonton & Area and Brad Murphy, Youth in Care Mentor on the #8000 Mentors campaign and their experiences with mentoring children and youth in care.

Listen to Liz O’Neill, Executive Director of Boys and Girls Club Big Brothers Big Sisters of Edmonton & Area discuss the #8000 Mentors Campaign on CBC Radio

  1. MENTOR. (2015). Elements of effective practice for mentoring, 4th ed. Retrieved from
  2. Alberta Centre for Child, Family, and Community Research. (2014). Mentoring youth in care. Children and Youth in Care and Mentoring Subcommittee of the Alberta Mentoring Partnership. Retrieved from
  3. Britner, P. A., Randall, K. G., & Ahrens, K. R. (2014). Youth in foster care. In DuBois, D. L., & Karcher, M. J. (Eds.), Handbook of Youth Mentoring (pp. 341-355). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
  4. Rhodes, J. (2005). Fostering positive outcomes: How mentoring can help children and adolescents in foster care. Research Corner: MENTOR, National Mentoring Partnership. Retrieved from
  5. Bruster, B. E., & Coccoma, P. (2013). Mentoring for educational success: Advancing foster care youth incorporating the core competencies. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 23(3), 388-399.
  6. Greeson, J. K. P., & Bowen, N. K. (2008). “She holds my hand” The experiences of foster youth with their natural mentors. Children and Youth Services Review, 30(10), 1178-1188.
  7. Greeson, J. K. P., Thompson, A. E., Evans-Chase, M., & Ali, S. (2014). Child welfare professionals’ attitudes and beliefs about child welfare-based natural mentoring for older youth in foster care. Journal of Social Service Research, 41(1), 1-20.
  8. Greeson, J. K. P., Usher, L., & Grinstein-Weiss, M. (2010). One adult who is crazy about you: Can natural mentoring relationships increase assets among young adults with and without foster care experience? Children and Youth Services Review, 32(4), 565-577.
  9. Munson, M. R., & McMillen, J. C. (2009). Natural mentoring and psychosocial outcomes among older youth transitioning from foster care. Children and Youth Services Review, 31(1), 104-111.
  10. Osterling, K. L., Hines, A. M. (2006). Mentoring adolescent foster youth: Promoting resilience during developmental transitions. Child & Family Social Work, 11(3), 242-253.
  11. Scannapieco, M., & Painter, K. R. (2013). Barriers to implementing a mentoring program for youth in foster care: Implications for practice and policy innovation. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 31(2), 163-180.
  12. Taussig, H. N., & Culhane, S. E. (2010). Impact of mentoring and skills group program on mental health outcomes for maltreated children in foster care. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 164(8), 739-746.
  13. Garringer, M. (2011). “It may be the missing piece” – Exploring the mentoring of youth in systems of care. 2011 Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring. National Mentoring Centre. Retrieved from
  14. Wilson, J. (2010). Kinnections mentoring program for youth: Program policy and procedures for engaging youth in mentorship. British Columbia Ministry of Children and Family Development. Retrieved from
  15. Ahrens, K.R., DuBois, D.L., Garrison, M., Spencer, R., Richardson, L.P. & Lozano, P. (2011). Qualitative exploration of relationships with important non-parental adults in the lives of youth in foster care. Children and Youth Services Review, 33, 1012-1023.
  16. AndersonDraper Consulting. (October 2015). Children and youth in care and mentoring pilot: Year 1 Evaluation Summary Report.
  17. AndersonDraper Consulting. (February 2016). Children and youth in care and mentoring survey report.
  18. Berger, C., Collins, M.E., & Spencer, R. (2011, May 20). Mentoring youth in foster care: Emerging research and lessons from the field. Retrieved from:
  19. Britner, P.A., Randall, K.G. & Ahrens, K.R. (2013). Youth in Foster Care. In D.L. DuBois & M.J. Karcher (Eds.), Handbook of Youth Mentoring (2 ed., pp. 341-354). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc.
  20. Grossman, J.B. & Rhodes, J.E. (2002). The test of time: Predictors and effects of duration in youth mentoring relationships. American Journal of Community Psychology, 30, 199- and White adolescents: Culture, social class, and family networks. American Journal of Community Psychology, 30, 289-303.
  21. Hudson, A.L. (2013). Career mentoring needs of youths in foster care: Voices for change. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, 26, 131-137.
  22. New York City Administration for Children’s Services. (2005). Best practices guidelines for foster youth mentoring. Retrieved December 30, 2013, from
  23. Office of the Child and Youth Advocate of Alberta. (April 2013). Youth aging out of care: Special report.
  24. Schwartz, S. (2014, May 13). How formal mentoring programs can facilitate natural mentoring elationships. The Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring. Retrieved from
  25. Spencer, R. (2007). It’s not what I expected: A qualitative study of youth mentoring               relationship failures. Journal of Adolescent Research, 22, 331-354.
  26. Spencer, R., Collins, M.E., Ward, R. & Smashnaya, S. (2010). Mentoring for young people leaving foster care: Promise and potential pitfalls. Social Work, 55, 225-234.
  27. Swettberg, C. (2013). Mentoring youth in the foster care system: From research to practice. [Presentation]. Retrieved from
  28. The Technical Assistance and Training Program for Mentoring System-Involved Youth. (n.d., a). Mentoring youth in foster care. Retrieved December 30, 2013, from                h%20in%20Foster%20Care.pdf
  29. The Technical Assistance and Training Program for Mentoring System-Involved Youth. (n.d., b). Supporting mentors of youth involved in the juvenile justice or foster care system. Retrieved December 30, 2013, from         advopublications/MSIY_Supporting%20Mentors%20of%20System%20Involved%20Youth.pdf
  30. Wilson, J. (2010). Kinnections Mentoring Program for Youth: Program Policy And Procedures Template For Engaging Youth In Mentorship. Vancouver, British Columbia: Ministry of Children and Family Development, Government of British Columbia.
Funding provided by the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services