Mentoring matters

Examining the positive influence of a long-term formal mentoring program on child, parent, and mentor
Dan Zen, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Dan Zen, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

When I look back at my life so far, I often think of the people who have played important roles in helping me get to where I am today. I grew up in a single-parent family with little support, and my “mentors” have usually been teachers who recognized my potential and needs long before I did, and who were able to dedicate some of their resources to mentoring their students. Today, ever growing class sizes and expanding curricula seem to make it nearly impossible for teachers to take on a special role in a child’s life.

And the issues do not end there; the majority of us live fast-paced and flexible lives, regularly requiring us to relocate for jobs or better quality of life. We often leave friends and extended family behind who might have been able to support us and take on the roles of mentors for our children. Seldom do we remain in one place long enough to forge natural mentoring relationships, which have been found to be beneficial in the development of children and adolescents. This is why, in the modern world, there is a need for formal mentoring.

What makes formal mentoring successful?

Research on mentoring shows that formal mentoring can compensate for a lack of natural mentoring, greatly benefiting the children involved. The aim of the upcoming study by our team is to add to already very positive findings concerning formal mentoring and to explore new perspectives. The study will be conducted using the mentoring program implemented by biffy BerlinBig Friends for Youngsters e. V., and with the help of families and mentors organized by biffy.

The non-profit organization biffy Berlin operates a long-term mentoring program. Its services are used primarily by children living in adverse conditions and/or in single-parent families, often with no contact to the non-custodial parent and no extended family nearby. The organization provides an administrative framework for matching potential mentors with interested families and providing support after matches have been made.

The mentors, who include roughly equal numbers of men and women, are predominantly childless middle-aged adults. A large number of successful mentoring relationships have been created by biffy Berlin over the past decade, and the demand for mentors and related funding has continued to grow.

“Young people growing up under adverse conditions, and their families, can benefit a great deal from the services provided by mentoring organizations.”

To improve access to funding and demonstrate the effectiveness of this program, biffy Berlin has recruited Prof. Timo von Oertzen of the University of the German Federal Armed Forces in Munich (UniBwM), who has assembled a team of researchers from various institutions. Joana Hertwig, Charlotte Kulla and I, all of us graduate students at the UniBw Munich, will bear primary responsibility for conducting the study.

Building on information gathered through brainstorming and interviews, and adhering to the research and information requirements specified by biffy Berlin, we have compiled three extensive online questionnaires for mentors, mentees and primary caregivers. The survey will gather information about personality traits, expectations, self-efficacy, commitment, stress, resilience and anxiety, in an effort to answer three main questions:

Is successful mentoring linked to personality?

First, we will investigate the influence of the personality traits of the mentor, mentee and parent on the overall mentoring relationship and seek to identify favorable and unfavorable personality constellations. We hypothesize that there are certain types of mentor, mentee and parent personalities that particularly benefit from a mentoring relationship. We also expect that a good personality fit between mentor and mentee will lead to more successful mentoring.

What difference does the duration of a mentoring relationship make?

The second question will focus on the duration of the mentoring relationship. Unlike many other organizations, biffy Berlin does not set limits on the relationship’s duration, but allows it to continue for as long as the participants see fit. We want to know whether a longer relationship will affect bonding and the commitment between mentor and mentee, and perhaps influence future life decisions by both parties. We also want to find out whether duration has an effect on mutual trust and appreciation.

Does mentoring have an impact on parents’ mental health?

Third, we will investigate whether the mentoring relationship is associated with positive psychological health outcomes for the primary caregiver. We hypothesize that challenges faced by single parents are linked to various mental health issues and that participating in a formal mentoring program will lessen these negative effects.

Data collection started in November 2016, and we so far managed to recruit a total of 44 of biffy Berlin’s 240 active mentoring pairs and associated primary caregivers for our baseline assessment. The second assessment is currently scheduled for June/July 2017. Our goal is to obtain a diverse sample in terms of the duration of the mentoring relationship, including some participants who are just starting their mentoring program or still are on the waiting list. The results of our study will be available in the summer of 2017, when we hope to update our results on this blog.

I look forward to working on this project and taking this opportunity to “send the elevator back down,” as Kevin Spacey has put it, and help others receive the kind of help I have enjoyed. Young people growing up under adverse conditions, and their families, can benefit a great deal from the services provided by mentoring organizations. My objective is to find further evidence in support of that conclusion.

The research team consists of Prof. Timo von Oertzen and Prof. Manuel Völkle (Humboldt University Berlin); Prof. Karl-Heinz Renner (UniBw Munich) who is in charge of the mentoring program “Baloo and You” in Munich, and his postdoc Nora-Corina Jacob; Bernd Schüler who is in charge of public relations for biffy Berlin; and Joana Hertwig, Charlotte Kulla and Jennifer Singleton, graduate students at UniBw Munich.