• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Thursday 27th March, 2008

High standards mean bigs can help littles

There are lots of mentoring programs out there and typically they show only small or marginal benefits for children. So what makes Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA) stand out from the crowd and pass the mark as a Blueprints Model Program? One key attribute is its longevity. Much about the approach has changed during the intervening years but from its modern formulation in the early 1990s BBBSA can trace its roots back over a century to the Roman Catholic immigrant communities of New York.It started out as two separate organizations. In 1902 the Catholic Big Sisters of New York began befriending girls who came before the city Children's Court; they were followed two years later by a Big Brothers equivalent. Brothers and Sisters shared a common goal of enabling disadvantaged children to overcome adversity with the help of strong role models.The idea was simply to provide children with a significant adult outside their (possibly distressed, unsupportive or apathetic) families, to keep them on the straight and narrow by offering advice and a friendly ear.On the face of it, the theory is no less vague than the thinking that bedevils many mentoring programs today. But as early as 1922 the Brothers and Sisters Movements introduced “standards” – common elements to be adhered to. This marked the beginning of a more structured form of mentoring – and one that has stood the test of time.There were some big setbacks to overcome along the way. The First World War and the Great Depression forced national centers to close. Local branches struggled on, however, and weathered the storm. National offices were re-opened and in 1977 the Brothers and Sisters joined forces.Commonsense and goodwill continued to be the main driving forces, but evidence was beginning to point independently to the value of “one significant adult” outside the family. For example, a key longitudinal study on the Hawaiian island of Kauai by Emmy Werner, which tracked the progress of every child born in 1955 to the age of thirty, showed that strong involvement with a “non-parent caretaker” was a key protective factor in children’s development.During the 1970s and 80s the standards of 1922 were gradually tightened. It became clear that in order to provide a consistent and positive form of mentoring three key ingredients were necessary.First, a good match between mentor and mentored (or between the “bigs” and the “littles” as they later came to be rather tiresomely called) was crucial. All “big” volunteers were screened. All “littles” had a thorough needs assessment. Specific goals and aspirations of the child were identified and the “big” was matched accordingly.It also emerged that the program worked best in cases where children were showing early signs of problems, as opposed to anything full-blown (a perception supported in 2002 at the University of Missouri-Columbia by a meta-analysis of over 55 mentoring programs). As a result, BBBSA remodeled itself as an early intervention program rather than a treatment approach.Second, it was decided that the mentoring relationship needed be intensive: ideally three to five hours per week, every week for at least a year.Third, the relationships needed continuous supervision by a dedicated case manager, initially through weekly contact with mentors and parents, and thereafter monthly, as long as things were running smoothly. Under the present arrangement, child, mentor, parent and case manager meet every three months to reconsider the child’s goals and aspirations and how they are being supported.So, in the course of a long life, BBBSA has designed a systematic approach to mentoring. Rigorous evaluations have consistently shown positive effects in relation to drugs, alcohol, school performance, behavior and peer and family relationships. Structure, intensity, supervision – and that century of experience – mark BBBSA out from the crowd.ReferenceDuBois D L, Holloway B E, Valentine J C, Cooper H. (2002) “Effectiveness of Mentoring Programs for Youth: A Meta-analytic Review”. American Journal of Community Psychology, Vol. 30, No. 2, April 2002.Werner, E.E. (1992). “The children of Kauai: Resiliency and recovery in adolescence and adulthood”. Journal of Adolescent Health, Jun, 13, pp262-268

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