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.

The Effectiveness of Mentoring for Youth Deemed High Risk

Overall Findings including for Different ‘Risk Profiles’

For young people in general, research shows that common formal mentoring program models (community-based mentoring, group mentoring, and cross-age peer mentoring) that develop strong mentoring relationships can yield positive effects for mentees. Meta-analyses report small, modest positive outcomes for youth comparable to other similar, well-developed formal interventions with youth.1 These outcomes relate to positive academic, emotional, behavioural and social development, including:

  • Mentor-Mentee Matchincreasing confidence, healthy self-esteem and respect in mentees;
  • developing more positive attitudes, values and beliefs;
  • developing the capacity to see other options and to make positive choices;
  • promoting more pro-social behaviour;
  • improving emotional well-being;
  • improving attendance in school and academic achievement in some areas;
  • developing the ability to think constructively and positively about the future; and
  • defining short- and longer-term goals.1, 2, 3, 4, 5

There are also benefits for mentors, which can include:

  • the satisfaction of being useful to someone else;
  • the pleasure from contributing to positive change in the mentee;
  • improved listening, communication and leadership skills;
  • better understanding of young people and the problems they face;
  • the satisfaction of making a difference;
  • personal growth through relating across economic, social, cultural, and personal differences; and
  • the recognition and gratitude of teachers, staff, and parents.3

The evidence is less common, conclusive or definitive for the overall effectiveness of mentoring for youth deemed at higher-risk of negative life outcomes. The first large-scale, rigorous study of how varying youth risk profiles affect a mentoring relationship and outcomes was conducted by Herrera, DuBois and Grossman in 2013. 

The study reveals that:

  • Youth with different levels and types of risk profiles had mentoring relationships that were similar in strength and in duration, and experienced similar positive benefits from participating in mentoring.
  • The challenges reported by mentors and the reasons matches ended prematurely differed in relation to the youth’s risk profile.
  • The strongest and most consistent benefit for youth regardless of their risk profile was a reduction in symptoms of depression (where almost 25% of youth reported depressive symptoms at intake). Noteworthy improvements were also made across risk profiles in social acceptance, academic attitudes and grades.
  • There was a trend toward somewhat stronger and more consistent benefits for youth who were relatively high on individual risk but not on environmental risk.
  • No significant improvements were found across risk profiles in the areas of positive or negative behaviours, and relationships with parents.
  • Mentors with early match training and consistent match support throughout the program met more often with their mentee, and had longer-lasting mentoring relationships. Mentees’ ratings of the quality of their mentoring relationship also coincided with the level of training their mentor had received.6

Finally, the researchers suggest that mentoring programs may be most effective when they support youth who experience relatively high levels of individual risk (challenging behaviours, academic struggle, significant health needs), but it may be less effective when supporting bothg individual and environmental risk factors (e.g., poverty, unsafe housing, low parental support).

“Don’t tell youth they are high-risk, even “youth” is patronizing. Participants is ideal.” (Covenant House Youth Consultation)

The Effectiveness of Mentoring for:

a. Youth with Academic Challenges

There are conflicting results about the impact of mentoring for youth with academic challenges, perhaps due to the fact that most mentoring that has been evaluated focuses on relationships as opposed to academics. However, various studies have found positive (low to moderate) impacts on academic outcomes resulting from mentoring interventions (i.e., achievement and drop-out).7 Many researchers have pointed out that relationship building can lead to positive results in other areas of the young person’s life.

Mentoring for youth with academic challenges should begin with a relationship NOT academic support/ tutoring.8, 9

b. Youth In or Leaving Care

Adequate mentoring can have many positive outcomes for youth in or leaving care, including reduced mental health symptoms and more stable living environments.10, 11 Information and research regarding the use of mentoring programs with youth in or leaving care is at an early stage.47 Systematic research is minimal in this area; current research is primarily qualitative studies with small samples and individual evaluations of programs.12  These studies indicate positive impacts on interpersonal skills, healthy relationship skills, self-esteem, independent living skills, and high school completion.45, 48, 49 More information is needed on how mentee characteristics, including time spent in care and the types of adverse experiences, may influence the outcomes of a mentoring relationship, as well as what dosage of mentoring is required to produce positive outcomes for youth in care.

Interest in mentoring for youth in or leaving care is growing. Government of Alberta Human Services recently funded the Children and Youth in Care and Mentoring Project in partnership with three mentoring agencies to increase the number of children and youth in care with access to a mentor.

Program staff and mentors should work hard to sustain matches because early match termination is a high risk for youth with transient lifestyles and experiences of abuse, such as youth in or leaving care.12

c. Youth Involved with the Criminal Justice System

Research is promising but not conclusive on the impacts of mentoring for youth involved in the criminal justice system.7 One systematic review found moderate positive outcomes overall for mentoring programs on the prevention of youth aggression, drug use, and criminalization.13, 14 Another systematic review found that when mentoring was offered in combination with other re-entry supports, re-offending rates for youth following release were somewhat lower (small to moderate effect).13, 14, 15, 16, 17

Further research is required to determine:

  1. Whether mentoring is effective at reducing criminalization as a stand-alone strategy or as a part of a larger strategy with other interventions (employment, counseling, and/or tutoring) requires further research; and
  2. At which stage of youth involvement in the criminal justice system mentoring is most effective (i.e., pre-arrest, diversion, post-arrest, reintegration).7

d. Youth with Mental Health Needs

There is limited research in the field of mentoring for youth with mental health needs. In the literature that exists, mentoring was found to be a promising intervention when supported by a mental health team.18 Some research has found that youth with mental health needs with a mentor are more likely to become involved with, successfully participate, and stay in treatment.19

Mentors are not mental health professionals, although they may need to assist in times of crisis. Thus, they should receive rigorous training in crisis response and have information about resources in the community to refer the mentee.20

e. Newcomer Youth

Mentoring can provide positive social relationships and help the young person integrate into their new culture and decrease negative mental health symptoms.21, 22

f. Youth with Substance Use Issues

There is promising evidence that mentoring can have modest effects on the prevention of youth substance use. However, best practices in this area are less clear. Some research suggests that where community-based mentoring occurred for more than 12 months, there was a direct impact on reducing the frequency of substance use, improvements in how adolescents perceived their relationships with their parents, improvements in peer relationships, and higher youth self-worth.7

g. Youth with Developmental or Other Disabilities

Mentoring can help normalize a disability, which may not only help the young person feel more able, but also help them develop a positive disability identity.23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29

One promising strategy for youth with disabilities is online mentoring as it may be a safer, more accessible place to connect.23, 29, 30

Matching youth with disabilities to mentors with similar disabilities can assist the mentee in learning skills for self-efficacy and independent living.

h. Homeless Youth

There is minimal information available about mentoring with homeless youth. Similarly, there are conflicting results about its impact.31, 32, 33, 34 These results may be due to the fact that it is more difficult to sustain formal mentoring with young people living transient lifestyles and thus the mentoring relationship may not have adequate time to develop and elicit positive results.35

i. Indigenous Youth

The effectiveness of mentoring for Indigenous youth has not been studied in-depth. However, a few elements have been found to make mentoring more successful for Indigenous youth, including: focusing on natural mentoring instead of formalized matching; using a small group mentoring approach instead of one-on-one matching; ensuring cultural appropriateness of program activities; and finally matching based on similarities and respect for differences.36, 37, 38

j. Racialized Youth

Mentoring for racialized youth targeting academic challenges has been found to have multiple positive effects. Following a school-based mentoring intervention, racialized youth had better grades and greater perceived teacher support, school belonging, decision making, and were less likely to be involved with school disciplinary system.39, 40 Cross- or same-race matching can make a significant difference of outcomes, although the research is conflicting. Mentees in cross-race matches were less likely to begin using alcohol than those in same-race matches, yet boys in same-race matches had better educational competence and self-esteem than those in cross-race matches.41

k. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Pansexual, 2 Spirit, and Asexual Youth

There is a large gap in the research about mentoring for LGBTTQQIP2SA youth. Perhaps this is due to the limited mentoring programming available for LGBTTQQIP2SA youth, which may be rooted in systemic discrimination and poor handling of diversity issues.42

l. Girls

Longer lasting relationships are important for success in mentoring girls as opposed to boys.43 There are conflicting results about the importance of same-gender matching for program effectiveness. Some research has found potential benefits of same-gender matching, while two meta-analyses did not find evidence for increased effectiveness of same-gender matching.44


  1. DuBois, D., Portillo, N., Rhodes, J., Silverthorn, N. & Valentine, J. (2011). How effective are mentoring programs for youth? A systematic assessment of the evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 12(2), 57-91.
  2. DuBois, D. L., Holloway, B. E., Valentine, J. C., & Cooper, H. (2002). Effectiveness of mentoring programs for youth: A meta-analytic review. American Journal of Community Psychology, 30, 157-197.
  3. Davis, R.R. & Fagans, G.P. (n.d.). NPS Mentorship Program: Making the Difference! Norfolk, VA: Norfolk Public Schools.
  4. Rhodes, J. E. & DuBois, D.L. (2006). Understanding and Facilitating the Youth Mentoring Movement. Social Policy Report, Vol. XX, Number III, 3-19.
  5. Wheeler, M.E., Keller, T.E., & DuBois, D.L. (2010). Review of three recent randomized trials of school-based mentoring. Social Policy Report, 24(3), 1–21.
  6. Herrera, C., DuBois, D. L., & Grossman, J. B. (2013). The role of risk: Mentoring experiences and outcomes for youth with varying risk profiles. New York, NY: Public/ Private Ventures project distributed by MDRC.
  7. The Indiana Youth Institute (2013). Youth Mentoring: Best Practices, Quality Standards and Evidence-Based Model Programs. Indianapolis: The Indiana Youth Institute. Retrieved from www.iyi.org/resources/mentor/pdf/IYI-Mentoring-Best-Practices-2013.pdf
  8. Cannata, A., Garringer, M., MacRae, P., & Wakeland, D. (2005). Making the grade. A guide to incorporating academic achievement into mentoring programs and relationships. Folsom, CA: U.S. Department of Education, Mentoring Resource Centre.
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  10. 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 http://albertamentors.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Mentoring-Youth-in- Care.pdf
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  17. Waller, K. S., Houchins, D. E., & Nomvete, P. T. (2010). Establishing a school-based mentoring program for youth who are transitioning from a secure facility. Beyond Behavior, 19(3), 30-35.
  18. Leahy, M., & Robb, C. (2013). Building a better school environment for youth with mental health and addiction issues. The New Mentality, & Children’s Mental Health Ontario. Retrieved from http://www.kidsmentalhealth.ca/documents/res-building-a-better-school-environment-for-youth-with-mental-health-and-addiction-issuesv2.pdf
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  23. Axelrod, E., Campbell, G., & Holt, T. (2005). The best practices guide in mentoring youth with disabilities. Partners for Youth with Disabilities. Retrieved from http://www.pyd.org/editor/images/resources-best-practices-for-mentoring-youth-with-disabilities.pdf.pdf
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  28. Shem, K., Medel, R., Wright, J., Kolakowsky-Hayner, S. A., & Duong, T. (2011). Return to work and school: A model mentoring program for youth and young adults with spinal cord injury. Spinal Cord, 49(4), 544-548.
  29. Burgstahler, S. (2012). Opening doors: Mentoring on the internet. E-mentoring and individuals with disabilities. University of Washington. Retrieved from http://www.washington.edu/doit/opening-doors-mentoring-internet
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  42. Gastic, B., & Johnson, D. (2009). Teacher-mentors and the educational resilience of sexual minority youth. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 21(2-3), 219-231.
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Funding provided by the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services