Chapter Three

Orientation and Training for Mentors

A person's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.

— Oliver Wendell Holmes —

The increased use of mentoring in youth programs can be, at least in part, attributed to the success of this type of intervention, particularly during the adolescent years of great change, risk, and opportunity. Research on traditional one-to-one mentoring has shown that protégés make significant gains in academic achievement and relationships with peers and parents as a result of frequent interactions with volunteer mentors who are primarily expected to provide support and friendship. Mentors help protégés solve problems they are currently facing, as well as avoid potential problems in the future.

Key to forming effective relationships within a mentoring program is the development, over time, of trust between the individuals involved, just as it is in naturally-forming mentoring relationships. Effective mentors:

  • involve youth in deciding how they will spend time together
  • are good listeners
  • give protégés a great deal of control of topics for discussions
  • are understanding and patient
  • make a commitment to being dependable, maintaining a steady presence in the young people's lives
  • recognize that relationships with protégés may be fairly one-sided for some time and may involve periods of unresponsiveness from the protégés
  • take responsibility for keeping relationships with protégés alive
  • pay attention to protégés' needs for fun and understand that enjoyable activities can provide valuable mentoring opportunities
  • respect the viewpoints of youth
  • point out various viewpoints regarding a situation and the people involved, propose various solutions, and facilitate discussions of alternatives
  • offer expressions of confidence and encouragement even when talking about difficult situations
  • find ways to show approval of young people and some of their ideas
  • are sensitive to the different styles of communication of young people
  • seek and utilize the help and advice of the mentoring program staff

Less effective mentors tend to:

  • try to transform or reform young people by setting specific goals early on
  • emphasize behavior changes more than the development of mutual trust and respect
  • do not communicate with protégés on a regular basis
  • demand that youth play an equal role in initiating contact
  • act as authority figures or make judgmental statements about the attitudes of the young people involved
  • attempt to instill a set of values that may be inconsistent with those the young people are exposed to at home
  • preach to participants, telling them the one best solution to their problems
  • ignore the advice of program staff about how to respond to difficulties in the mentoring relationship (Sipe, 1996)

Mentoring is a challenging job. Mentors can benefit from instruction and support in their efforts to build trust and develop positive relationships with young people.

The concept of mentoring is simple; the implementation of a mentoring program is challenging. Successful programs standardize procedures for the screening, orientation, training, and support of participants, including the mentors. Providing young people with mentors without giving sufficient direction to the mentors is unlikely to generate the long-term positive impact you desire.

Administrators of mentoring programs should consider including the following content and activities to train mentors:

  • Provide information about program goals, requirements, staff roles, and other resources.
  • Inform mentors of characteristics of the young people who are in the program.
  • Make sure mentors understand that mentoring takes ongoing time and effort.
  • Encourage mentors to ask questions of the administrator and of other mentors.
  • Help mentors understand the scope and limits of their role as mentors.
  • Help mentors understand that they are responsible for building relationships with participants; focus on establishing a bond with a feeling of attachment, trust, and mutual enjoyment; and that trust building is a gradual process.
  • Build the confidence of mentors, and help them understand the value of their unique contribution to the lives of young people in the program.
  • Inform mentors of how their support can nurture internal qualities that guide choices and create a sense of purpose. For example, Search Institute (Scales & Leffert, 1999) has identified twenty internal assets for young people as characteristics of people on the road to personal, academic, and professional success. These assets are grouped into four categories—commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identity—that can be used in training mentors.
  • Introduce mentors to general strategies for positive youth development and support. Help them focus on the overall development of young people and value the diverse backgrounds, experiences, attitudes, and abilities of participants.
  • Help mentors develop the communication skills and attitudes they need to perform well in their roles.
  • Prepare mentors for the frustrations they may encounter and the limitations of their impact on the young participants; help them have realistic expectations.
  • Encourage mentors to find ways to have fun with their protégés as a way to help young people relate to them and feel that they value their company. Enjoyable activities include talking about interesting topics, sharing humorous experiences, pointing to interesting online resources, talking about current events and community service opportunities, sharing challenges in succeeding in college and getting a job, and talking about personal goals.
Photo of DO-IT staff assisting Scholar with a computer problem.

For additional guidance in this area, consult the publication Training New Mentors at

Since many of the DO-IT Mentors are not local to the DO-IT Center in Seattle, orientation and training occurs online. When applicants are accepted as Mentors, they are sent a series of orientation email messages designed to introduce them to mentoring goals and strategies and to the workings of the DO-IT electronic community. We include in the training specific rules and procedures of the program; responsibilities and expectations for mentors; the background, characteristics, and needs of the young people involved; relationship skills; email communication skills; and typical challenges mentors encounter. DO-IT Mentors are encouraged to read Building Relationships: A Guide for New Mentors at

As you begin to develop your own mentor orientation and training program, you may wish to use some of the following messages whose titles begin with Mentor Tip. They can be sent to an individual new mentor or to a discussion list or web-based forum for mentors to help them develop strategies for working with protégés. They are designed to provide guidelines to mentors before their full participation in the online community with protégés. Note that some of this content is published in Taking Charge: Stories of Success and Self-Determination (Burgstahler, 2006c).