What is mentoring?

The difference between informal and formal youth mentoring.

A mentor is an older individual who forms a meaningful, caring relationship with a young person. Many people find a mentor in their coaches, teachers, scout leaders, 4-H club leaders, leaders of faith based youth groups and a variety of other adults. Unfortunately, not every young person on the team has a mentoring relationship with the coach, not every student has the same warm relationship with their teacher and only some of the young people in 4-H would consider their club leader to be a mentor. While these people can be a mentor to some of the youth they encounter, it is not the main role the adult intends to play. A teacher is there to teach while a coach is there to guide the sport. When mentoring occurs in addition to the intended goal, the mentoring is considered to be informal. Informal mentoring occurs naturally. So how do you know when it is informal mentoring in these situations? Simple, the young person decides who their mentors are.

Formal mentoring programs evolved over time when it was clear that there were young people who needed the support and guidance from a caring adult role model. These formal relationships have some significant differences from informal mentoring. There are policies that outline the expectations of the volunteer, young person, parents and program staff. The main goal of formal mentoring is to create caring, ongoing relationships between a young person and a caring, older individual. Other activities are secondary to the relationship. We know that formal mentoring relationships can have a significant impact on a young person, just as informal mentoring has for centuries. Throughout the mentoring relationship, mentors have had an influence and can enhance the mentee’s social skills and emotional well-being. They can impact the mentee’s cognitive development through communication. They can also assist in the development of identity as young people often mimic behaviors and traits of people they look up to. Researchers tell us that compared to peers with similar risk factors, mentored youth have better attendance, a better chance of going on to higher education and better attitudes toward school. Mentoring also appears to assist in the prevention of substance abuse and reduce some negative behaviors. Some potential mentors worry about overstepping with parents, but studies have found that mentored youth often develop more trusting relationships with their parents and communicate better.

Youth development organizations like Michigan 4-H Youth Development offer mentoring programs as a way to assist young people in developing skills and assets they can use for a lifetime. Young people gain the most from a mentor when there is a strong, close relationship between the mentor and young person. It takes time to develop this kind of relationship and for that reason, formal mentoring programs require a one-year commitment or one school-year for school-based programs. Michigan 4-H Youth Mentoring has a variety of helpful tools for mentoring programs and mentors.

To contact an expert in your area, visit www.expert.msue.msu.edu, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).

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