Research – Connectedness & Youth Mentoring Impact

A Research Summary: Adolescent “Connectedness” and the Impact of Mentoring
2010, Barry Sweeny

What is THIS – “Connectedness”?   – That sounds like an article I could skip reading. (Don’t)
Is this REALLY a Big Deal?   Yes !

Please read on and you may decide to redefine what mentor program success looks like.

Before We Understood “Connectedness” – Youth mentoring research studies and formal program evaluations have usually focused on trying to document the ultimate sign of success – positive youth outcomes, such as:

  • A. Increased school outcomes like:
    • • Attendance
    • • Increased grade point averages
    • • Increased graduation rates
  • B. Increased positive behavioral outcomes like:
    • • Improved peer relationships
    • • Improved parental involvement
  • C. Decreased negative behavioral outcomes like:
    • • Alcohol and drug use
    • • FIghting and bullying
    • • School discipline referrals
    • • School truancy

We have examined these youth outcomes for many reasons:

A. The negative ones are often those which are targeted by community and school-based mentoring programs and their community partners, like police departments and other delinquency and law enforcement agencies. These are important factors because they are the visible, tangible, and external factors we see and do not like in communities where at-risk youth programs are begun.

B. The positive factors are those we do want to see, and see more of, because our mentoring focus may be preparing youth for success in college or other such examples.

C. Grantors and program funders have insisted on a “results-oriented” approach and program evaluations to demonstrate these results.

But many, especially school-based mentoring programs, have struggled to demonstrate these positive effects for which the programs were designed. This struggle has been illustrated,  especially as recently as (Bernstein, et al.) 2009 when the Office of Drug-Free Schools (OSDFS) of the US Department of Education conducted an impact study of the 32 OSDFS Student Mentoring Programs (SMP) and found “No statistically significant effects” resulting from the mentoring. This was a huge shock, but the results had to be accepted, as the research (a carefully controled study) was of a kind that is some of the best we are capable of conducting. Sadly, those kids who received mentoring (treatment group) showed the same effects as were also seen in the control group.

The programs and federal funding were ended exactly one month later. That same cut in funds also ended the Mentoring Resources Center of that same office. This was extremely ironic, as that same agency (MRC) publishing the report on “connectedness” on which THIS document is based. In fact, the research cited by that very report had not yet been disseminated nor put to use in the evaluated Student Mentoring programs when the funding for those programs and their supporting agency were eliminated.

All of us who start or improve, or help others to start or improve their youth mentoring programs, we KNOW, intuitively and logically, that mentoring SHOULD impact many or all of the desired long-term positive youth outcomes.  So why doesn’t quality research show this is routinely happening?

We are left feeling that there MUST be a few factors, maybe even one factor, that we can affect by mentoring youth, and that will ultimately cause the expected impact on those long-range results and meaningful youth outcomes. But, what IS that elusive factor or two?

And wouldn’t it be terrific IF the one or two factors we seek where also an early indicator for youth mentoring that we could use to show shorter-term success during the shorter-than-ideal mentoring “seasons” such as are common in school-based mentoring?

If we had such a key factor, we could demonstrate progress toward those very important results.
Hold on folks. We have a very good candidate for just such a factor.

A Very Good “Candidate
Particularly during the last five years or so, youth mentoring researchers have continued to identify and focus on the factor of “connectedness” as a key earlier indicator that longer term efforts in mentoring (eg. multiyear) will eventually result in the desired positive youth outcomes we need to produce.

Researchers are concluding that connectedness has been a missing link in almost all earlier studies of the impact of youth mentoring – an internal, less obvious factor that actually promotes the more external and tangible positive outcomes we seek. Examination of the key factor is the purpose of this summary. To know more of the research behind this summary follow the link with the “Fact Sheet” citation in the References section.

What is “Connectedness”?
Previously, connectedness has been defined as a youth’s perceptions about relationships, such as of how well he or she is connected to others. Examples include, “My teacher cares about me.”, “I have many friends.”, and, “My parents are supportive.”

Recently, a different, more practical definition of connectedness has emerged. Now connectedness means both the outward expression of positive feelings AND the seeking of support from people and other resources about which one feels positive.

This understanding of connectedness makes it active – the young person must also act on their positive feelings.  Positive effects do not happen just because one feels their teachers care about them, the positive effects will occur IF youth feel able to and DO seek help from the teachers with whom they have connected. In other wors – the question is, “Do you turn to teachers for support?”  Or, “How do your feelings of caring or belonging motivate you to actively engage other persons when you need help?” This is a more realistic and practical view of connectedness since it is focused on the reciprocal and mutual nature of human relationships and how we interact with others to improve our lives. Sounds a bit like mentoring, don’t you think?

This theory of connectedness has been developed, tested, researched, and refined during this past ten years by Dr. Michael Karcher of the University of Texas – San Antonio. His work builds on two principles from the world of self-psychology (Kohut, 1977; Kohut & Wolf, 1978).

1. The first principle is the experience of being in a relationship with someone we admire, someone we view as competent, protective, and consistent. As such, we accept their feelings toward us as truth. We absorb their logic, their decision making models, and their values, and gradually make these our own.
2. The second principle is that self-development, our growth as people, is dependent on having received attention, praise, and empathy in our personal relationships. These affirmations validate our sense of who we are and help to solidify and strengthen a positive self concept.

Therefore, when someone significant to us provides us with attention, praise, and empathy, it increases our ability to do this for ourselves. In this way, young people learn to praise and value themselves (Karcher, 2005). The self-talk sounds like, “If he thinks I am important, I must be important.”

Looking at these issues of praise and attention, provided through a meaningful relationship with a valued, caring adult, we can easily see that this is the essence and the basic mission of effective youth mentoring.

Did the “bad news” 2009 (Bernstein, et al.) research examine “connectedness” when it concluded there were “no significant effects” for the 32 federally funded Student Mentoring Programs ?  No.  Mostly that research looked for grade improvement and other traditional longer term academic gains.

Why is “Connectedness a Big Deal”?

Clearly, connectedness is very important to the positive development of young people, but how does this concept relate to and inform our mentoring practices and programs?

In addition to the developmental impact noted above, connectedness is a powerful way of understanding a young person’s chances for a successful future. Higher connectedness, especially to teachers and the school itself, has been found to contribute to higher academic performance” (Karcher, 2009).

The “bottom line” is that mentoring programs that increase their mentees’ school connectedness are more likely to also eventually see positive academic gains.

How does connectedness do that? A mentoring relationship is unlikely to have much impact on the current year grades of a mentee, especially if it is school-based mentoring and only lasts part of the year. But if the mentor can increase the mentee’s connectedness, especially the “seeking support” aspects, then that mentee is positively disposed to seeking help and better positioned to get the help needed to start improving at school.

Conversely, connectedness is also a great predictor of risk-taking behaviors. It has been used to accurately predict levels of violence and substance abuse among youth. It is a critical aspect of prevention work in those two areas. For example, a large research study of substance abuse programs found that those that fostered connectedness of youth with adults and peers made significantly greater impact (Springer et al., 2004).

Connectedness has also been correlated with self-esteem, resiliency, protective factors, social interest, and school attitude (Karcher, 2005). Of course, disconnection is correlated with negative factors like academic underachievement, depression, and increased risk-taking behaviors.

In some specific ways, such as connectedness to one’s neighborhood, is not always good. If the neighborhood is filled with negative influences, this connectedness may actually indicate that the young person is getting praise and attention and is developing relationships with negative people instead of positive persons.

Connectedness is a big deal for mentoring programs because it is one of the few things about your mentees that can be influenced and shaped by the support of a mentor. This makes mentee connectedness a feasible target for improvement. Trying to impact tougher targets like improved grades and test scores require not just a caring mentor, but also a range of other positive factors, like an effective school, quality teachers, a positive home environment, and  others, all of which are beyond a mentoring program’s control.

By focusing on an intermediate outcome like connectedness, one that indicates the eventual  likelihood of other longer term positive outcomes, mentoring programs can focus their efforts and resources on what they do best, AND by doing so, they will find they are bringing their participants closer to the long-term signs of success as well. To achieve those ultimate, so very desired outcomes, they just mustL

  • Train mentors using research-based methods and content
  • have mentors meet with mentees about once a week
  • Have mentors help mentees learn to and set goals for their work
  • Have mentors and mentees meet over at least 9 months each school year(more is better)
  • in a program where such activities are monitors and supported.

How Can You Measure Mentor – Youth “Connectedness

Now that we know the significance of connectedness and an earlier indicator of mentoring success, the next logical question is how can we assess the existence, improvement of, and level of connectedness in our mentees? To understand whether program or mentoring changes are effecting this key factor or not we need to be able to assess and measure it.

Fortunately, there is a free tool available that measures changes in connectedness among your youth participants. The tool, the Hemingway Measure of Adolescent Connectedness is available in the “Tools” drop down menu on the “Assessments” List
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References

Bernstein, L., Dun Rappaport, C., Olsho, L., Hunt, D., & Levin, M. (2009). Impact evaluation of the U.S. Department of Education’s Student Mentoring Program. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

Karcher, M.J. (2005). The Hemingway measure of adolescent connectedness: A manual for scoring and interpretation (Adolescent Version 5.5). San Antonio, TX: University of Texas – San Antonio, College of Education and Human Development.

Karcher, M.J. (2009). The Hemingway: Measure of adolescent connectedness.
Retrieved 5/21/09 from http://www.adolescentconnectedness.com.

Kohut, H. (1977). Restoration of the self. New York, NY: International Universities Press.

Kohut, H., & Wolf, E.S. (1978). The disorders of the self and their treatment: An outline. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 59(4),413–425.

Mentoring Resources Center. (2009). Redefining Your Success: The Role of Adolescent Connectedness in Demonstrating Mentoring Impact. Fact Sheet No. 28. Folsom, CA.: Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. U.S. Department of Education.  Retrieved 7/27/2010 at http://educationnorthwest.org/resource/650    Author Note – This paper is the primary source for the information and research on connectedness discussed in this document.

Springer, J.F., Sale, E., Hermann, J., Sombrano, S., Kasim, R., & Nistler, M. (2004). Characteristics of effective substance abuse programs for high-risk youth. Journal of Primary Prevention, 25(2).