The fantasy realm is dotted with great mentors. Good thing, too. If pitted against a dragon or foul-tempered ogre, it sure wouldn't hurt having a Merlin, Albus Dumbledore or Gandalf as a counsel.
In the real world, life guides are also needed, especially for the young, says Tina Cheng, director of general pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. Cheng says that in a society where unintentional injury, homicide and suicide are the leading causes of death among those ages 15 to 24, mentoring isn't just about giving good advice; it's preventive medicine.
Cheng, who joined the Children's Center this past April, is among a small group of Hopkins researchers leading a multidivisional effort to both develop and evaluate youth mentoring programs. Cheng and her colleagues want to determine if mentoring programs can in fact enhance positive development and decrease problem behavior such as drug use, aggression and violence.
Cheng says that without proper mentoring--meaning a relationship with someone who listens and offers guidance--today's teenager can be put at risk.
"What used to cause morbidity and mortality among kids was infectious diseases, but now it's much more behavioral and community issues that contribute to morbidity and mortality," says Cheng, who has studied youth violence for the past nine years. "Mentoring has been thought to be one of the interventions that has some hope to bring out the positives in youth and lessen problem behaviors that too often lead to injury or death."
To take the pulse of existing science on the topic, and to help celebrate National Mentoring Month, Cheng organized a Best Practices in Youth Mentoring symposium. The event, held on Jan. 7 in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, brought together national and local experts, policy-makers and mentors to discuss what works in youth mentoring, and what doesn't.
In Maryland alone, more than 12,500 adults serve 32,000 youth through 350 mentoring programs, according to the Maryland Mentoring Partnership. Almost half these youth reside in Central Maryland and the greater Baltimore area.
Cheng says that the symposium, which drew more than 160 people, served to open up a dialogue with city, state and community groups, and also initiate an effort to disseminate effective mentoring practices. Through such proactive efforts, Cheng says, Hopkins hopes to link research to practice and become a "how to" resource for youth mentoring organizations.
The event also served to highlight two new initiatives at Johns Hopkins: Steppin' Up--Violence Prevention Among At-Risk Early Adolescents and Taking Charge--Community Violence Prevention.
Steppin' Up is a middle-school mentoring program intended to increase interest in academics and reduce aggression and violence. Led by Cheng, the program hopes to provide sixth-graders with the social, developmental and academic skills needed to remain engaged in school and avoid problem behavior. Participants will be tracked for three years. The study was recently awarded a five-year $3.4 million contract from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Taking Charge, a program Cheng began as a researcher at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, focuses on 10-to-15-year-olds who are brought into the Pediatric Emergency Department with assault injuries. The youth receive a problem-solving curriculum implemented by mentors, and their parents or guardians are offered sessions with a health educator. Currently, there are 50 children participating in the program at Johns Hopkins and at the Children's National Medical Center.
The two Hopkins initiatives involve staff from the Children's Center, School of Public Health, the Johns Hopkins Center to Improve Child Health Disparities and the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute, all of whom co-sponsored the recent symposium.
Also being evaluated is Johns Hopkins Medicine's Bond to Bond program, a youth mentoring effort that partners with Dunbar High School, the Institute of Notre Dame and Tench Tilghman Elementary School. Serving 42 students, Bond to Bond includes a one-on-one mentoring lecture series, job shadowing and an adopt-a-class program, a group mentoring model in which hospital staff expose youth to careers in health care.
Cheng says that in evaluating these three ongoing programs, researchers hope to fill in the gaps in knowledge about mentoring.
"There has not been a lot of rigorous research on behavioral outcomes of mentoring programs to date. There has been plenty of process evaluation, however. Like, how many sessions occurred? Did mentors like the program? Less research has focused on the ultimate outcomes and if problem behavior was decreased due to these programs," Cheng says. "We also don't know very much about other models of mentoring, like group mentoring. So we will be testing group mentoring practices to see how effective they can be, and under what circumstances. We basically want to expand our research to understand what works well."
Philip Leaf, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, says that positive relationships between youth and adults can go a long way to that child's success. However, Leaf says that the mentoring process is not as cut and dry as pairing up a 15-year-old with a 40-year-old.
"We know that you can't just send a group of kind-hearted volunteers out with no training and say, 'Go mentor this child who has problems with aggression and violence,' " Leaf says. "Programs need to ensure that the mentors are not only motivated but that they are equipped with the types of engagement strategies and relational skills that have proven successful in earlier programs."
Leaf, who is co-investigator with Cheng on the Steppin' Up program, says that his research is concerned with trying to determine what aspects of mentoring produce the most positive outcomes for youth, and how mentoring programs can be implemented on a large scale.
"For instance, we need to know how to recruit and link up mentors. I think we also need to move beyond individual, school-based programs and look into group mentoring and even Internet mentoring," he says.
Cheng says that while parents are a critical resource, other caring adults can be an important source of support. Although urban youth and those from single-parent households are thought to need mentoring the most, everyone needs mentors, she says, and programs have been most effective for those who don't have a lot of support.
"I think we all need mentors, and hopefully, we've all had a community of mentors at different points in our life--the more, probably the better," she says. "We want to know how we can best support youth to become successful adults."