How Youth Mentoring Programs Give Teens a Second Chance

Teens in a circle speak with a mentor.

Teens who come from unstable home environments can face many challenges, including drug abuse disorders, mental health issues and homelessness. Those who have already encountered the criminal justice system are uniquely vulnerable. However, mentoring programs can help support children and teens as they navigate adolescence and prepare for independence as adults. An online Master of Social Work program provides social workers with the education and training they need to help at-risk youths.

What Are Youth Mentoring Programs?

Youth mentoring programs build relationships between a teen and an unrelated adult. The goal of these programs is to provide emotional support and life skills to teens in a structured environment. They’re usually part of established government agencies or not-for-profit organizations and are run by social workers, counselors and other professionals with a background in adolescent development and the specific needs of at-risk youths.

Program funding comes from federal grants, such as from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), as well as from state and local governments and nonprofits.

The goals and effectiveness of youth mentoring programs vary. A program designed to help incarcerated youths transition back into society, for example, and a program aimed at teens who are in danger of dropping out of school will have different objectives. Mentoring programs may have success in some areas but not in others; results may differ depending on age, race, gender and risk factors, among other variables.

About 4.5 million teens are in community-based mentoring programs, according to a review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The review identified the following factors as having a potential impact on the effectiveness of a mentoring relationship:

  • Mentor training. Mentors who haven’t been well-trained or peer mentors who aren’t good role models can result in poor outcomes for mentees.
  • Length of the relationship. Teens who had a mentor for longer than 12 months showed a boost in self-worth and school success and a decrease in drug or alcohol use.
  • Quality of the relationship. Teens who trusted and liked their mentors had better social outcomes than those who reported negative feelings toward their mentors.
  • Activities. Recreational mentor-mentee activities may have better outcomes than ones that focus on education, though studies have been inconclusive.
  • Personalities and characteristics. The success of mentor-mentee relationships could be impacted by age, gender, race and a teen’s risk status. For instance, data showed that older mentors maintained longer-term relationships with mentees. Teens who had disrupted attachments to their families could find it difficult to trust a mentor.

Examples of youth mentoring programs include:

Big Brothers Big Sisters

In 2020, Big Brothers Big Sisters served more than 109,000 children — 70% of whom were between the ages of 11 and 18. Community-based matches last more than two years, which is an indication of a more effective mentoring relationship. The organization reported improvement in the following areas: academic performance, emotion regulation, family connectedness, bullying, school discipline and risky behaviors such as substance use, running away, skipping school, and participating in a gang.

YMCA Reach & Rise

The YMCA Reach & Rise One-to-One Mentoring Program receives funding from the OJJDP. It uses the Elements of Effective Practice for mentoring — a resource from MENTOR, an organization that seeks to promote evidence- and research-based youth mentoring programs. Elements include mentor training, screening, matching, monitoring, support and closure.

Quantum Opportunities Program

The Eisenhower Foundation’s Quantum Opportunities Program, for teens in grades 9-12, focuses on education and community service. The program is evidence-based and provides mentorship training to ensure that mentors follow best practices. Quantum programs are in seven cities across the country. Compared with control groups, teens in Quantum programs have lower high school dropout rates and higher rates of college education or career training.

The New York Foundling

The New York Foundling serves 30,000 children, adults and families in New York and Puerto Rico every year. The organization’s Adolescent Mentoring Program serves teens who have been involved with the juvenile justice or foster care system. It focuses on providing educational mentoring and support to keep teens on track to graduate. The program is based on the Quantum Opportunities Program.

Social Work and Youth Mentoring

Social workers are an essential part of youth mentoring programs. Their education and training in individual and group therapy, combined with their knowledge about adolescent development and youth risk factors, support the work of these programs. Many states include social workers in their juvenile justice systems and on defense teams for young defendants.

The following are some of the skills that social workers use in developing youth mentoring programs and guiding mentors and mentees alike:

Clinical Theory

Social workers possess a foundational understanding of psychological theory and methods that support mentoring programs. For example, social workers are well-versed in attachment theory, resilience theory, social support and other therapy frameworks that are essential to a young person’s development. They also understand the effectiveness of different types of mentoring (one-on-one, group and peer) and delivery (in-person and electronic).

Clinical Support

Social workers may work directly with youth mentoring programs and mentors, especially if a program provides mental or emotional services. In other situations, social workers provide clinical resources for youths, while mentors provide emotional support and life skills training. This structure maintains a teen’s privacy while they participate in mentoring programs.

Evidence-Based Research

Social workers conduct studies on the impact of mentoring and mental health programs for at-risk youths. A study published in the Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring found that informal mentoring programs could alleviate social isolation in young adults and that social workers play a significant role in the success of these programs. Social workers are positioned to identify teens who are at risk of social isolation. They have the experience and knowledge to advise programs and mentors on best practices.

Training Mentors

Mentoring programs that work with at-risk youths turn to social workers and other professionals to train their mentors. This training makes sure that would-be mentors are properly screened and prepared for the realities of mentoring teens. It also provides information about developmental expectations, risky behavior, appropriate behavior and other best practices.

Help Give At-Risk Teens a Second Chance

Social workers are on the front lines of helping at-risk teens build a better future. They have the tools and experience to help youth mentoring programs provide the best possible resources for the populations they serve. Students who are excited by the idea of working with teens should explore the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Nevada, Reno. With coursework in social work methods, evidence-based practice and therapeutic interventions, it’s an excellent foundation for a career centered on helping young people. Find out how we can help you embark on a career giving at-risk teens a second chance.

Recommended Reading:

What Drew You to Services for Homeless Youth and Young Adults as a Social Worker?

Impact of Social Media on Youth Mental Health: Statistics, Tips & Resources

Mental Health Awareness for Teens


Big Brothers Big Sisters, 2020 Big Brothers Big Sisters of America Annual Impact Report

The Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring, “The Significance of Formal Youth Mentoring in Reducing Social Isolation”

The Eisenhower Foundation, Quantum Opportunities Program Evaluation Summary

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, “Unpacking Community-Based Youth Mentoring Relationships: An Integrative Review”

MENTOR, Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring

National Institute of Justice, “Mentoring Programs for Youth: A Promising Intervention for Delinquency Prevention”

National Mentoring Resource Center, “The YMCA’s Reach & Rise® Program Delivers Trauma-Informed, Therapeutic Mentoring”

New York Foundling, Adolescent Mentoring Program

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Mentoring

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “Youth Mentoring and Delinquency Prevention”

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Mentoring Prepares Foster Care Youth for Adulthood”

Youth Collaboratory, “The Role of Program Staff: Mentoring Youth in the Foster Care System”

Youth Collaboratory, “Training Mentors to Work With Youth in the Foster Care System”