Youth mentoring is a popular youth development intervention that serves approximately 4.5 million youth in nearly 6,000 programs throughout the United States. Such widespread and developmentally-focused intervention, typically targeting youth with myriad risk factors, ranging from living in poverty, to single-parent households, to parental incarceration, creates potential for broad social change. Unfortunately, not all mentoring programs are equally effective, and nearly half of mentoring relationships close prematurely, often because they lack a strong connection.
Process oriented research suggests that mentor-mentee matches that include more attuned adults are associated with higher relationship quality, which subsequently contributes to positive behavior changes for the youth. These findings have informed translation efforts to promote attunement by training practitioners using the Mentoring FAN (Facilitating Attuned Interactions), a practical navigation tool that operationalizes the attunement process critical to mentoring relationship quality. This training has had promising results; however, the field to date has limited understanding of the nature and experience of attunement from the youth perspective. This project seeks to address this gap through a participatory-action project that engages youth as co-researchers and co-designers in responding to and further developing attunement tools for adult practitioners.
In partnership with adolescents and emerging adults as co-researchers, we engaged in a qualitative, co-designed project to garner youth voice in understanding the attunement construct as applied to adult-youth partnerships within youth development programs. In-depth interviews, were conducted with 20 young people of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. Through this process, young people provided insights on characteristics of their own adult-youth partnerships, and offered feedback on how currently available depictions of these relationships, as conveyed by videos and training materials, miss important aspects of their experience. All members of the research team engaged in reflexive thematic analysis of the interview data and regular team meetings between researchers and youth co-investigators served to affirm understanding of the youth perspective.
Key themes emerged regarding how strong relationships with adults are experienced by young people, and how attunement matters. The co-research/design team translated these insights into scripts for video-based training materials to reflect youth understanding of how strong adult-youth partnerships function. In so doing, young people served as experts with respect to the communication styles that they find most effective in helping relationships, and ensured the incorporation of an adolescent perspective in advancing understanding of the attunement construct.
Conclusions and Implications:
Involving youth in research translation efforts, a rarity to date in mentoring research, generates new possibilities for increasing program impacts. Lessons learned from this project can more deeply inform efforts within youth development programs to build strong adult-youth partnerships, both in mentoring and after school programs, as well as child welfare. Insights also inform efforts within other social work contexts (e.g., home visitor-clients) reliant on strong relationships as a key component of social change. Future work will examine the link between attunement and client engagement/relationship quality across sectors. Methodological implications in terms of how to engage young people in responding to well-established, adult-formed constructs, will also be discussed.