What’s Different in Youth & Student Mentoring?

By Barry Sweeny, 2003


What’s the SAME?

Interestingly, the majority of the knowledge and skills that mentors need for success are the same, regardless of whether the protégé is a young person or an adult and a peer. The implication of this fact for YOU is that you should carefully review the web pages in all the other sections elsewhere on this site, especially those in the “Help / Support”, “Results”, and “Resources” and “Processes” sections of the drop down menu in the above navigation bar.

That so much of what’s needed for mentoring success is the same regardless of age, is why large parts of this web site contain information which is identified as applying in all settings. Some examples of this include:

  • Effective mentor communication
  • Effective mentor-protege relationships
  • Trust building
  • How to facilitate another person’s learning and growth
  • Etc.

These are all skills which every mentor needs.


In order to explore this question, it is best to start by considering what SHOULD be different when the primary distinction is one of the AGE of the protégé. This approach is helpful because things which may be assumed in an adult-to-adult mentoring context, may be thoughtlessly transferred to a youth mentoring context, but the unchecked assumptions may not, or definitely do not apply in the youth context.

The following is not only a good example of this problem, it is the PRIMARY difference that must be considered in the mentoring of young people.


It is generally OK to assume that an adult will be “smart” and very careful about placing themselves into awkward, compromising, or even dangerous situations. of course, some adults are not as “smart” as they should be and are naive.

However, young people OFTEN do not have the life experience to make good judgments about such compromising or unsafe situations. They are ALL somewhat naive except in their case, we’d call it “innocence”. That is why we often use chaparones and other methods when young people enter into unprotected situations and relationships away from their parents.

For example, sending your 9 year old son to the corner store? Probably not a problem. Allowing your 9 year old son to ride the train downtown to the city for the day. THAT’s likely is a major problem and most adults would never allow it, even if the child saw no concern at all. It’s just not safe.

When a young person is working in a relationship with a mentor, similar concerns must be considered, checked out, and confirmed as safe.

  • Once we have selected and matched the mentor, and a good mentoring relationship is established, we can probably count on the mentor to “watch out” for the safety and well being of the protégé.
  • However, what about questions as to the safety of the actual mentors themselves? What do we know about the mentor?
    • The mentor’s background?
    • The mentor’s trustworthiness, maturity, and sense of responsibility?
    • The mentor’s habits and moral code?
    • The mentor’s motivations for wanting to be a mentor?

Finding out the answers to these questions would be very important, and they should be answered as a routine process to eliminate risks to the health and safety of the protégé. Further, we need to think of the safety of the whole person, not just physical safety. How about protecting a young person’s:

  • Intellectual safety (from cult brainwashing or improper, narrow views of “education”?)
  • Emotional safety (as in verbally abusive relationships and demeaning treatment)
  • Spiritual safety (like in Satan worship, etc.)
  • Moral and ethical safety (such as if a “mentor” models immoral behavior as OK)
  • “Habit” safety (as when parents feel strongly anti smoking, but a mentor smokes)

As you can see there are some potentially critical things that should be checked out regarding the mentor, and the answers should become known well BEFORE the mentor-protege relationship is ever begun, even before the mentor is selected for the program.

That is why the screening, selection, and matching process for youth-oriented mentoring programs is such a big deal. That’s why youth mentoring often begins with a criminal background check on the mentor. The very life of the young person may be at-risk.

Almost everyone who applies to be a mentor will understand the need for these precautions, accept and cooperate with them. if someone balks – say NO THANKS.


The natire of your program activities are going to also dictate whether other precautions are needed.

A. Mentor-Protege Activity Times – These may be held evenings of after school, depending on mentor and parent availability. Generally, for such activities:

Middle school and elemenatry school age students – We recommend parents , family members, or guardians be at the activity and in sight of it all the time, even if program leaders are there too. This is for safety, but also cn be reassuring for students who are ounger, and it is helpful for mentors by keeping them out of a compromising situation. All it ould take to wreck a life, career and maybe even your program, would be for one child with unknown emotional problems to claim they were improperly touched.

High School Students – Handle this a bit differently. Parents , family members, or guardians can be invited anytime they want, but generally, all activities need program leader supevision, and the more kids, the more leadership should be evident and actively around.

B. Mentor-Protege Pair Meetings –  Lots of the advertsing for “be a mentor” kinds of recruitment show images of a mentor and protege at a zoo, ball game, the library, etc. These are all activities many kids would love to do with a caring, fun adult like a mentor. Yet there are some mentoring programs which would never allow such isolated and unsupervised situations to occur, both for the child and the mentor’s protection. Generally, such fun activities are very important, but should be planned as group activities.

Even when mentors and proteges get together over a soda or a pizza to talk about their dreams, their career or career goals, school work and tutoring, most programs will structure these as group activities, but where the space is big enough and quite and comfortable enough for pairs to have a good conversation and enjoy their time together. Finding such a space is sometimes tough and can be limited to a community center, local library, school, or church, but with some advance planning, a little furniture arranging, even a few pillows provided it can work fine.

C. Mentor – Protege Communications – What about the mentoring pair communicating between meetings and activities? How about private phone calls, private email, texting?   Be careful. Even these can, at one time, be very important for the mentoring pair to build and stay connected and working on their goals and relationship, and inanother view, can be a concern.  This will depend on the age of the youth. Generally, for elementary and middle school aged kids, many programs use specially set up technology to accomplish both the need for communication and the safety desired.

One example of a good solution is also, unfortunately expensive – but it is well worth it AND it provides some added benefits in terms of program monitoring and evaluation. The example is the use of the iMentor Interactive software program from iMentor comapny of new York City. The program facilitates mentor-protege email contacts, logging each one and the text and other contents sent back and forth. When participants know this is the case, the potential problems evaporate. The need for communication is meet. AND program leaders can monitor the traffic and content as often as needed to ensure safety.

Lastly, the captured data is very useful to show how often how long, and what the mentoring meetings are about. Themes can be drawn out from the discussions and these topics used to assess the quality and practical nature of the mentoring, and to map the transitions in the relationships, mentor and protege insights, etc.  Another benefit of iMentor is built-in survey capability to mentors and proteges. This is great for periodic questionnaires to monitor and assess growth, concerns, etc. A BIG part of your program evaluation work is done for you!

Several programs this author knows use this system and like it. One is such a low-budget program that the two staff persons hardly ever are paid a wage, but they did deveop and win a grant from a local busines that allowed them to use the imentor system. So… Everyone with a youth mentoring program can consider this option. of course, there may be other such software programs which this author does not know of, but which are as good or better.


A related issue is advocacy for the young person. A mentor must realize that a child may be very easy to intimidate or sway, and so the mentors should also “watch out” for situations when they need to step in and intervene on behalf of their protégé, especially in peer situations.

Another more positive aspect of advocacy for the protégé occurs when a mentor seeks opportunities, contacts, and experiences on behalf of the protégé.  This is the more common role of mentors as advocates. An example might be taking a student protégé to work with the mentor so the protégé can experience opportunities and learn things about careers they might not learn otherwise. An even better example is a protégé whose goals includes going to college, when no one in the protégé’s family has ever done so. The mentor can advocate with a colleague who the mentor may know in college admissions, to help create an opportunity for the protégé.

Some adult mentoring relationships include advocacy too, but that may not be the case in many adult relationships where the protégé may be able to advocate for themselves. In youth programs, that is definitely not something to assume.


That a mentor should provide the protégé guidance for thinking and decision making is rather obvious. Could we assume that an ADULT can decide for themselves whether another person’s guidance makes sense and is worth following? Yes, we could assume that.

However, is it safe to assume the same thing about a young persons? Can young people make the finer distinctions between “propaganda”, opinion, and facts, or adequately evaluate the appropriateness of a mentor’s advice regarding a career or other kind of choice the protégé must make? That is probably NOT a safe assumption.

In youth mentoring, a well meaning mentor builds trust within their mentoring relationship. When the protégé comes to trust the mentor, part of the implicit nature of that trust is the assumption that the mentor cares about the well being of the protégé, and has the eventual success of the protégé in mind when offering advice or making recommendations. But what if that is NOT truly the motivation of the mentor? Or, what if the mentor’s own judgment is impaired or skewed in some direction so that the advice the mentor offers is tainted with a bias the protégé or even the mentor cannot recognize?

The fundamental issues here are to:

  • Ensure that the mentor has the judgment to assess the age appropriate need for guidance and adjust the mentoring appropriately
  • Ensure that the mentor’s own judgment is sound and appropriate.

This is a bit tricky, but can be managed during mentor training by having mentors role play exactly these kinds of situations, and then observing them. next, have the group of mentors discuss the varied challenges and decisions necessary to make age apporpriate mentoring choice. Be cautious if someone balks at the role plays or says nothing during discussions.


Closely related to the previous point is the topic of developmentally appropriate challenges. Age and development are similar issues. The difference is in the word ” challenge”.

Part of the work of a mentor is removing, or helping the protégé toremove obstacles to learning and growth. Another part of mentoring is supporting and guiding a protégé during that learning process. A third element happens as a mentor ischoosing the level of difficulty or challenge that a protégé is ready for in an activity.

  • If the activity chosen is too difficult, the protégé learns frustration and failure.
  • If the challenge is too minimal, the protégé learns a false sense of accomplishment and ability, or feels bored and loses interest.
  • If the degree of the challenge is”just right”, it is balanced between:
    • sufficiently challenging to prompt the protégé to grow through involvement in the experience
    • carefully designed so that with guidance about his/her strengths and how to apply them, the protégé has a reasonable opportunity and expectation of success.

When a challenge is developmentally appropriate, the balance between too hard and too easy, is just right.

How does a mentor know how to design or select developmentally appropriate challenges? Such judgment comes from experience. That’s why checking a mentor’s experience and background makes sense regarding this issue. A mentor who has been a parent,a baby sitter, or child care provider for example, knows what children or a teen can and cannot do, and will be able to make the right decisions regarding the challenges the mentor offers.