Mentoring Research: Why Big Brothers Big Sisters Works


Mentoring Research: Why Big Brothers Big Sisters Works

Posted November 21, 2013

Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) has been around for well over 100 years, but youth mentoring is a fairly new field for researchers. In the past 20 years, the field has grown exponentially as more researchers (and funders) have focused on the importance of understanding what’s happening in mentoring relationships. This focus on research follows with the trend of Evidence Based Practice (EBP), which has grown at the same time in the fields of social work, medicine and psychology. In accordance with EBP, BBBS uses mentoring research findings to guide our programming; from how often matches meet to how we evaluate “successful” matches.

As a Match Advocate, I often find myself saying something like “our experience and research show…” when trying to explain to a Big or parent why we make certain recommendations or requirements for matches. If we truly want to follow EBP, we need to share research more effectively, which is the goal of these blog posts.  Fortunately, BBBS and our agency in particular have very strong relationships with mentoring researchers so there are lots of relevant findings.

How Did They Do It:

The study was a randomized controlled study (the gold-standard in the behavioral sciences) that included 959 youth.  The youth were either matched with a Big in Community-Based Matches (the experimental group) or put on a waitlist to be matched at the end of the study (the control group).

What Did They Find:

After 18 months, the youth who were matched with a Big were 46% less likely to start using drugs and 27% less likely to initiate alcohol use.  Littles were about 30% less likely to hit someone.  Littles had improved school attendance and performance as well as attitudes about completing school work.  They also had better relationship with peers and their parents, mostly due to improved trust in the parent (Grossman & Tierney, 1998).

What We Did With That Info:

The outcomes from this study are now the basis of our Youth Outcomes Survey (YOS).  All Littles (over age 9) take the YOS before being matched and each year on their anniversary.  The survey allows us to track changes in individual Littles over time, although we mainly use it to look at our Littles as a whole. Since the YOS is given out at BBBS agencies all over the country, we can also compare how our Littles are doing with other agencies.

 An Important Find:

A follow up study with the same data showed that the length of the match matters! The real benefits for youth start to show up around 12 months of being matched- yes there’s a real reason why we ask you to commit for a year.  Change takes time!  Further, when relationships end early, especially within 6 months, there are no benefits, and often setbacks, for the youth (Grossman & Rhodes, 2002).

What this means for your match:

  1. Seeing outcomes for Littles takes time.  It can be hard to see changes in attitudes or trust from outing to outing or even month to month. Make sure you keep the big picture in mind and take it slow.
  2. Showing up and sticking with it matters!  Consistency over a long time is important for building a relationship.  These are the first steps in seeing positive outcomes for your Little.
  3. These outcomes are from friendship.  These Bigs didn’t do anything different than you- they weren’t tutoring their little, mediating family conflict or driving their Little to school every morning. Being there makes a BIG difference!
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