Last spring, I had the chance to speak with Jean Rhodes, a leading researcher in the world of mentoring, and author of the book Older and Wiser: New Ideas for Youth Mentoring in the 21st Century

For schools managing yet another year of pandemic upheavals, Rhodes’ findings offer a roadmap for broader, evidence-based thinking about relationship strategies that keep students connected and supported. 

Supporting young people, Rhodes argues, is not just about care and friendship, but also evidence-based interventions shown to boost everything from attendance to mental health. For too long, Rhodes argules, the field has assumed that either mentors are capable of leading a wide spectrum of evidence-based interventions (which they may not always have the expertise or training to do), or, alternatively, that only highly-trained, expensive professionals can deliver evidence-based interventions, rendering volunteer mentors irrelevant. Rhodes offers a third way forward: pairing caring volunteers with high-quality, evidence-based resources and curriculum (often delivered online). These types of arrangements, she argues, could yield more consistent and lasting benefits than many in- and out-of-school mentoring programs have managed over the past decades. 

Deploying these approaches in schools, she argues, can also complement teacher-student relationships that are all too often taxed by punishing adult-to-student ratios. Rhodes’ notion of “supportive accountability” (described below) could be especially powerful as schools navigate the social and academic costs that everything from teacher shortages to interrupted schooling are exacting on students this year. 

Here’s a few highlights from our conversation, which you can listen to below:

  • Friendship is necessary, but not sufficient:.  Older and Wiser is something of a referendum on the mentoring movement. Rhodes highlights how data on efficacy of mentoring programs is uneven at best. “Looking at the past 20 years of youth mentoring, we’re not really improving the effectiveness overall of traditional youth mentoring programs where the goal is to form a bond as a means to an end and the end being improvement in youth development. That is not necessarily addressing the needs and challenges of today’s youth,” Rhodes said. 

    For her, mentoring needs to get more specific in terms of both goals and tactics in order to put relationships to work. “A relationship, a friendship, is necessary, but not sufficient. What makes it more effective is when you not only build a friendship, but that you work on something tailored to the needs and challenges of the individual young person with whom you’re working,” she explained. 

    The book explores alternatives to the friendship model of mentoring and highlights how mentoring programs and schools alike could take a more targeted approach to pairing friendly relationships with evidence-based interventions. It also explores the role that technology could play in that more targeted approach.
  • Technology can scale supportive accountability: In detailing a new approach, Rhodes offers a fresh take on what has long been part of the premise of blended learning in the academic realm: the immense potential pairing high-quality online curriculum and interventions with caring adults who may not be experts in academic or social emotional learning, but who can offer what Rhodes dubs “supportive accountability.” 

    “I came to the conclusion that mentoring is the most effective when the mentor can deliver or support evidence-based care. Then I hit up against the problem that big programs or even schools can’t possibly have evidence-based tools for every single thing that comes their way and continuously maintain those manuals of tools,” Rhodes said. But luckily, more technology tools have emerged in recent years that integrate evidence-based approaches to academic and social support. Pairing those tools with volunteer mentors, Rhodes argues, kills two birds with one stone: “One is the problem that there are all of these great tools, but really nobody to support them, because parents and teachers are overtaxed. And two, there are all of these volunteers who have the best intentions and time. Put the volunteer who has time and the evidence-based tool together and you create a context for the young person to be supported as they learn new skills,” she explained. 

    Rhodes is careful to point out that through that arrangement mentors, rather than technology tools alone, play a critical role: they can get to know young people well enough to be attuned to when and how to support them in ways that tech tools can’t. She’s pushing more programs and schools to embrace the notion of mentors providing “supportive accountability”: “That’s the idea that there’s ways to support a young person who is trying to improve that are more effective than others,” Rhodes said. “It’s not just a linear relationship where the more you nudge them, the more they’re going to respond. You do it right. You figure out what it is that’s blocking them and you apply the right pressure at the right time.” 
  • Curriculum to arm students with skill and mindsets to foster networks: One of the other reasons I was excited to interview Rhodes was that she and her colleagues have developed one of the few evidence-based networking curricula for low-income, first-generation college students to help them build and maintain support networks on campus. The curriculum and approach, called Connected Futures, draws on the concept of “youth- initiated mentoring”—–that is, the skills, mindsets, and confidence young people need in order to recruit a network of mentors into their lives. It’s a critical piece of the puzzle in more holistic and equitable approaches to building students’ social capital. It also puts them in the driver’s seat, rather than “networking” amounting to something that is done to, rather than with, students.

    Thus far, Rhodes’ team has seen promising results among students exposed to the curriculum: “We find that if young people learn how to value, recruit, and maintain caring adult connections, a year later, the ones that were randomly assigned to learn this had a higher grade point average, were more likely to be recruiting adults, were less avoidant to seeking things,” Rhodes said. 

    Rhodes and I went on to discuss myriad other challenges and opportunities in the world of mentoring: troubling gaps in students’ access to natural mentors, the impressive evidence emerging around peer-to-peer mentoring, and the strategies that schools and mentoring programs alike should consider for the year ahead. Take a listen!


  • Julia Freeland Fisher
    Julia Freeland Fisher

    Julia Freeland Fisher leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of Disruptive Innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres through its research.