Round Up: National Mentoring Month 2024

By: Leslie M. Booren


  • January is National Mentoring Month and we are revisiting our archives from the last year.
  • Summarized are the news stories, blog posts and research articles published in the last 12 months, each advancing our understanding of effective mentoring.
  • Highlighted below are resources associated with youth mentoring, the various sources of mentoring, and adult professional mentoring.
Source: Canva

Researchers at Youth-Nex and the UVA School of Education and Human Development are contributing to a growing body of research on how and why effective mentoring works, as highlighted in this 2024 national mentoring month round-up.

Youth Mentoring

  • Addressing Youth Loneliness: Close youth mentoring relationships can improve mentees’ relationships with other people and their sense of loneliness. In this study, researchers evaluated the relationship between youth mentoring participation and peer social acceptance. Findings suggest that mentoring relationships are the most beneficial for mentees who have fewer relationships but do not necessarily feel lonely. Read Blog Post.
  • Young Women Leaders Program: The Young Women Leaders Program (YWLP) is a community-based mentoring program that pairs undergraduate women with middle school girls. Olivia, a 19-year-old, participated in the program as a middle schooler mentee and now as a UVA undergraduate college mentor. In a Vlog, Olivia shares more about her experiences in YWLP, and some advice for adults and youth who may want to participate in mentoring programs. Watch Youth-Nex Vlog.
  • Caregivers & Natural Mentoring Relationships: A change that occurs during adolescence is the development of close relationships outside of the immediate family unit. This study examined pathways between Black adolescents’ attachment to their parents and the quantity of natural mentors, or other youth and adult relationships in their pre-existing social networks. These Youth-Nex researchers found that more secure parent-adolescent attachment predicted a greater quantity of natural mentoring relationships. Read Article.

Sources of Mentoring

  • Community-Based Mentoring: Youth today face challenges of loneliness and isolation, impacting mental health negatively. Community mentoring programs are one possible solution. In this post, a Youth-Nex & EHD graduate student share more about how mentoring programs should consider the limitations of one-on-one relationships and adopt a comprehensive approach to maximize their impact. Read Blog Post.
  • Informal Mentors & Academic Success: There is little research recognizing pathways through which schools promote human capital development – by fostering informal mentoring relationships between students and their teachers, counselors, and coaches. This study, conducted by a Youth-Nex researcher and colleagues, used longitudinal data from a nationally representative sample of adolescents. Findings suggest that informal mentoring supports students’ long-run academic success, especially for students of lower socioeconomic status. Read Article.
  • Social Support in Mentoring Relationships: Social support is associated with positive physical and psychological health outcomes for youth. This qualitative study examined the sources, forms, and functions of social support youth receive from natural mentoring relationships in their lives. Findings suggest that different types of adults had the capacity to provide different types of support, and their support differed based on the adult’s role with the youth. Read Article.

Adult Professional Mentoring

  • Telementoring: School-based mental health providers play an important role in supporting students, especially at a time when evidence suggests students have increasing needs. This year, a team of our researchers published an article about a telementoring model that is a low-cost, flexible way for school mental health professionals to access professional learning. The findings support the use of telementoring to improve school mental health professionals’ understanding and application of the evidence-based school counseling model. Read Article.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Leslie M. Booren is the Associate Director for Communications and Operations at Youth-Nex and the Youth-Nex blog editor. In this role, she manages operations, HR, events, communications and marketing for the center. Previously she has worked at the Center for Race and Public Education in the South (CRPES), EdPolicyWorks, and the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) in various roles from research faculty to managing director. She has a strong interest in community and youth development by bridging applied and research-based practices.

Mentoring Matters, Especially for Young Women

By: Olivia, 19-year-old


  • The Young Women Leaders Program (or YWLP) is a community-based mentoring program that pairs undergraduate women with middle school girls.
  • I participated in this program as a middle schooler mentee and now as an undergraduate college mentor.
  • In this video blog for National Mentoring Month, I share more about my experiences in YWLP, and some advice for adults and youth who may want to participate in mentoring programs.

My name is Olivia and I am a mentor in the Young Women Leaders Program (or YWLP). YWLP is a community-based mentoring program that pairs UVA undergraduate women with middle school girls from the Charlottesville area. I have participated in YWLP both as a mentee in middle school and now as an undergraduate mentor while I’m studying at UVA!

YWLP is unique because it combines one-on-one mentoring with group activities that address girls’ sense of self, scholastic achievement, body image, peer relationships, and healthy decision-making. I know firsthand how YWLP empowers middle school girls as leaders in their schools and communities!

Importance of Mentoring Programs

From my experience, I think that mentoring programs are important because it helps ground both youth and the adult mentors. Being a mentor allows us to reconnect with parts of ourselves that we may have forgotten or lost along the way. For example, giving yourself time to live in that childish energy and relate to young people can be important. When we get older, we forget to do that!

So by being a mentor, youth can remind you how to relax and have fun. But also for the youth, they have someone to help ground and guide them. Mentoring is important for both adults and young people!

My Advice for Adults

To the adults out there that are hesitant in joining a mentoring program, I say just get involved and just do it! Although you may be nervous in the beginning, you have to trust yourself that you are going in with the best intention. Trust that the youth will also go into a mentoring relationship to learn with you.

To ensure you have a positive experience, my advice before going into a mentoring relationship is to:

  • Reflect on yourself.
  • Ask yourself why you want to get involved.
  • Think about what you want to gain from this experience.
  • Consider what you have to offer.
  • Avoid being nervous!

Remember, just have fun! Mentoring is supposed to be an enjoyable experience; it can help you connect with others, and it doesn’t have to always be serious. It is OK to just spend time with youth just so they have a better day, and it doesn’t have to be that you are changing their life. You can learn a lot by just having fun!

This approach actually does exist today, when people discuss varied cultural backgrounds. People allow for differences in attitudes, traditions, foods, clothing, and practices, without trying to force their own views. It has been hard to allow for such debates in the political sphere since the discussion there seems to want to define the “uniquely best American way”. It’s time that the schools taught us again that we are all Americans, even if we have different views.

YWLP, and their big brother program the Men’s Leadership Project (MLP), are accepting mentors or bigs for their programs next year! YWLP is open to marginalized genders including anyone who identifies as a woman or girl, and non-binary and gender non-conforming people who are comfortable in a space that centers the experiences of women and girls. We encourage students from a variety of backgrounds and identities to apply to the Young Women Leaders Program! For more information about YWLP or to donate, please visit their website.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: My name is Olivia Thompson and I’m a second year at UVA majoring in Sociology and hoping to double major in Spanish. I’m from Louisa, VA. I grew up in a small town and moved around a lot. I plan to go to grad school in the future and hope to eventually become a licensed clinical social worker. I want to live a life based around service and use what I’ve learned from those who have guided me to give back to not only my community, but communities that exist outside of me.

Supporting Youth Loneliness & Social Isolation through Community-Based Mentoring

By: Westley Fallavollita


  • Youth today face challenges of loneliness and isolation, impacting mental health negatively. Reports from the U.S. Surgeon General emphasize changing ways of building relationships, leading to issues like depression and substance use.
  • Community mentoring programs are one possible solution, but challenges like trust issues and diverse backgrounds require a personalized approach. Inclusive training for mentors and activities promoting community engagement can help address these issues.
  • To maximize the impact, mentoring programs should consider the limitations of one-on-one relationships and adopt a comprehensive approach. This includes recognizing the importance of peer relationships during adolescence, integrating community activities, and providing evidence-based support to empower lonely and isolated youth.
Source: Canva

Loneliness and social isolation are big challenges facing youth today. The U.S. Surgeon General recently released reports on the importance of protecting youth mental health[1] and the epidemic of loneliness and isolation[2]. One common theme between these reports is that typical ways of connecting and building relationships are changing, and youth mental health is suffering as a result. This has important implications because youth loneliness and social isolation are associated with negative outcomes such as depression, substance use, and suicide attempts. For other youth, the desire for a sense of belonging and acceptance can lead to associating with delinquent peer groups or antisocial behaviors, leading to early and avoidable encounters with the juvenile justice system. There’s a growing interest in how community-based programs like youth mentoring can provide support. Researchers have suggested that community-based mentoring programs could be a good strategy to prevent youth loneliness and social isolation because of the focus on building strong mentor-mentee relationships[3]. However, loneliness and social isolation are complex and influenced by many individual factors among young people. A strong mentoring relationship alone may not be enough to fix loneliness and social isolation, but engaging in specific mentoring program practices and activities could help. Such approaches could also enhance community-based youth mentoring programs by making them more inclusive, and creating more opportunities for youth to build relationships with peers and become involved in their community. The following discussion will describe some of the challenges of close mentoring relationships alone and opportunities for specific mentoring program practices to support lonely and socially isolated youth.

While mentoring relationships have the potential to help prevent loneliness and social isolation from taking hold, there are limitations to how much a close mentoring relationship can help mentees who are particularly vulnerable or already experiencing these challenges. Youth who have been bullied by peers or experienced difficult relationships with adults may be uncomfortable forming a relationship with a mentor due to trust issues, fear of rejection, or low self-esteem. Mentors and mentees with dissimilar backgrounds, life experiences, and racial identities may encounter additional difficulties such as differences in perspectives on handling life challenges, communication styles, and social networks. Other youth whose feelings of loneliness derive from neurodivergence or other developmental differences might struggle with the social communication differences needed to form new connections, sensory sensitivities that make mentoring activities uncomfortable, or social anxiety that impacts their ability to engage in mentorship. For LGBTQ+ youth, fear of discrimination, absence of parental support, or mentor lack of understanding can contribute to difficulties achieving a safe and affirming mentor-mentee relationship. All these individual circumstances can contribute to feelings of loneliness and social isolation, so addressing these challenges requires a thoughtful and individualized approach. While mentors can not be trained to work with all possible intersections of youth identity, they can be trained to approach their mentoring relationships with cultural humility, openness, and a commitment to fostering safety and belonging.

Mentoring programs play a crucial role in preparing mentors to effectively engage with vulnerable youth. To support mentors in their efforts to engage with youth who are prone to loneliness and social isolation, community-based mentoring programs should focus on training mentors in inclusive and affirming practices. Cultural humility training is crucial for efforts to build trust and effective communication with mentees, and training in this area can help mentors address stereotypes, identify their implicit biases, and navigate microaggressions. Similarly, trauma-informed mentorship training can help mentors approach their mentees with sensitivity and understanding, creating feelings of safety and trust, and supporting appropriate responses to personal disclosures. Such toolkits can be found online, such as the trauma informed-mentoring toolkit offered by the OJJDP (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention)[4]. Mentoring programs can also support mentors through regular check-ins and the creation of support networks with other mentors. Regular meetings with program coordinators and other mentors in the program create the opportunity to share challenges, receive feedback, and enhance collective knowledge. While it is a challenge to prepare mentors for the many different ways youth may come to struggle with loneliness and social isolation, inclusive program design and support for mentors’ ongoing professional development will help mentors be sensitive to the unique needs of their mentee and tailor an individualized approach to creating a close relationship.

Another important factor to consider when employing mentoring to support lonely and socially isolated youth is the developmental shift towards same-aged peers that occurs during adolescence[5]. Beginning in late childhood and early adolescence, acceptance or rejection by peers, not adults, becomes central to feelings of belonging and self-esteem. Even with a close mentoring relationship, feelings of loneliness and social isolation will still exist if there are challenges with peer relationships. These feelings can be particularly pronounced for bullied or otherwise peer-rejected children, where a close mentoring relationship will not alleviate the negative effects of ongoing rejection by peers. Similarly, peer relationships can be disrupted by significant life transitions, such as entering a new school or relocating to a new home. Other youth face systemic barriers to peer relationships, such as poverty that contributes to less opportunities and out-of-school activities, or having a different identity in a highly homogenous community. Such structural challenges suggest the need for additional supports to help some mentees develop peer relationships. To support such lonely and socially isolated mentees, mentor-mentee relationships need to extend beyond the individual mentor-mentee pair, and build a network of peer and community connections.

Community-based mentoring programs can support peer relationships and community connectedness by integrating specific activities and approaches into their mentoring programs. Mentoring activities that involve community engagement and service-learning opportunities, such as volunteer work or participating in community events, can alleviate loneliness and social isolation by fostering a sense of purpose, connection, and social responsibility. If done in tandem with other mentor-mentee pairs, this approach can create a shared experience and relationships among mentees, which mentors can support by facilitating reflections and peer discussions. In general, group mentoring and joint outings create opportunities for mentees to network with each other, build a sense of community, and for natural peer-mentoring relationships to emerge. If mentee’s have challenges during these activities, the close relationship with their mentor can be a “secure base” for safety and emotional support, in line with the importance of attachment in a close mentoring relationship.

In tandem, mentoring programs can incorporate empirically supported activities into their programming. These evidence-based activities would support mentee interpersonal effectiveness, which could help with feelings of loneliness and social isolation, in addition to supporting positive development more generally. The type of curricula could be selected by program administrators to meet the needs of the mentee population. Some youth might benefit from a social-emotional learning curricula[6], whereas others may benefit more from support for emotional regulation challenges such as through DBT Steps-A[7]. While these programs could theoretically be administered individually by mentors, training individual mentors in evidence-based curricula would be difficult in practice. Instead, instruction could be facilitated by mentoring program staff (in a group setting!) or through an online curriculum, and mentors could support youth through follow up conversations that emphasize skill-building, goal setting, tracking progress, and other positive youth development approaches. Mentee investment in such activities would benefit from a close mentor-mentee relationship, and mentors could encourage mentees to apply these skills to peer relationships and community involvement to reduce loneliness and social isolation.

By acknowledging the limitations of the mentoring relationship in certain contexts and supplementing it with complementary strategies, community mentoring could become an important service to address youth loneliness and social isolation. However, the mentoring relationship alone may not be a powerful enough corrective experience for youth already experiencing such feelings[8]. To maximize mentoring’s potential, it may be important to adopt a comprehensive approach that combines mentoring relationships with complementary strategies to help youth to build relationships with peers and become involved in their community. This approach may be especially important for youth who are particularly vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, or require additional support due to structural disadvantages like poverty. By adopting inclusive training practices and complementary activities, mentoring programs can foster supportive relationships and community connections, while also empowering lonely and socially isolated youth with resilience, coping strategies, and a sense of belonging.

This post originally appeared on the National Mentoring Resource Center website.


[1]The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory. (2021). Protecting Youth Mental Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

[2]The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory. (2023). Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

[3]Keller, T. E., Perry, M., & Spencer, R. (2020). Reducing Social Isolation Through Formal Youth Mentoring: Opportunities and Potential Pitfalls. Clinical Social Work Journal, 48(1), 35–45.

[4]Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. (September 2019). Trauma-Informed Mentoring.

[5]Standford Medicine Children’s Health. (2023). Teens: Relationship Development.

[6]Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (n.d.). Program Guide.

[7]DBT is Schools. (n.d.). DBT STEPS-A Curriculum: DBT Skills in Schools: Skills Training and Emotional Problem Solving for Adolescents.

[8]Fallavollita, W. L., & Lyons, M. D. (2023). Social acceptance from peers and youth mentoring: Implications for addressing loneliness and social isolation. Journal of Community Psychology, 51(5), 2065–2082.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Westley Fallavollita is a doctoral student in Clinical and School Psychology in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia. Before beginning his studies, he served for two years in the national service programs AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) and City Year Washington, DC and is a recipient of the President’s Volunteer Service Award. Working with his research mentor, Dr. Mike Lyons, he has published several articles on youth mentoring, including an examination of mentoring and social acceptance from peers and implications for addressing loneliness and social isolation.

Youth-Nex Job Market Candidates 2023

Source: Youth-Nex

Youth-Nex was founded in 2009 to expand and apply the science of positive youth development to address fundamental challenges facing societies around the world. Youth-Nex supports junior scholars and their professional development throughout their career. Learn more about the current candidates on the job market for 2023-24! These candidates are in alphabetical order by last name, including Maria Guzman Antelo, Dr. Jessica Forrester, Dr. Pamela Nicholas-Hoff, Dr. Toshna Pandey, Ariana Rivens and Jieun Sung.

Maria Guzman Antelo

María Guzmán Antelo (she/her) is a Ph.D. candidate in Curriculum and Instruction in the School of Education & Human Development at UVA. She is a bilingual speaker of Spanish and English with transnational teaching experience in Argentina, China, and the US. 

Her work focuses on preparing and supporting pre-service teachers to work with multilingual learners and their families and the role mentor teachers play in the preparation of future teachers. 

Research Interests: Teacher learning and development for teaching multilingual learners; practice-based pedagogies of teacher education; reflective teaching practices; core practices for teaching multilingual learners; advocacy, and social justice.

Faculty Advisors: Dr. Chris Chang-Bacon and Dr. Peter Youngs

Dr. Jessica Forrester

Jessica Forrester (she/her) earned her Ph.D. in STEM Education from the University of Minnesota, where she combined her interest in STEM engagement with justice-oriented practices in education. For her dissertation, Jessica created culturally responsive mathematics activities for an after-school tutoring program by authentically connecting the traditionally rigid content area of mathematics with the beauty, brilliance, and histories of communities not always seen through an asset-based lens. Jessica’s passion for equity, community engagement, and participatory research methods is grounded in amplifying the voices and solution-driven ideas of historically marginalized communities and youth, especially in academic and research settings. In addition, Jessica embodies a culture of care and considers how adults can use their power to support youth as leaders of change.

Jessica is currently a postdoctoral researcher with Youth-Nex’s youth participatory action research (YPAR) initiative, Youth Action Lab. Jessica’s work with Youth Action Lab focuses on three key areas: 1) supporting existing community partnerships, including school-based YPAR classes and out-of-school programming; 2) developing a line of research on the processes and outcomes for all participating YPAR stakeholders (high school youth, teachers, youth organization leaders, undergraduate students, graduate researchers, affiliated faculty); and 3) challenging traditional research dissemination approaches (e.g., including youth and community voices in scholarly publications). In addition to her research endeavors, Jessica supports multiple research labs on implementing YPAR practices in their unique contexts and mentors graduate and undergraduate students as they navigate their research journeys.

Research Interests: Participatory action research, bridging theory and critical practice, culturally responsive mentoring, community engagement, qualitative methods, positive youth development, and decolonizing research methodologies  

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Nancy Deutsch

Dr. Pamela Y. Nicholas-Hoff

Pamela Nicholas-Hoff is a postdoctoral research associate for the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development’s Youth-Nex Center and Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education. Pam earned her B.S. in Middle School Education and M.Ed. in Physical Education with a concentration in Exercise Physiology from the University of Virginia. Before matriculating to the University of Virginia to earn her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, Pam taught in the Health, Physical Education, and Recreation Department of a historically Black institution. Prior to teaching at the collegiate level, Pam taught middle school. While teaching middle school, she developed a Health, Physical Education, and Social Emotional Learning curriculum that she implemented with her students attending an alternative middle school. Pam is interested in how pre- and in-service educators’ increased levels of mindfulness and social emotional competency may eliminate disproportionate rates of exclusionary discipline consequences for Black students by mitigating educators’ implicit racial bias. Her dissertation research, funded by an American Educational Research Association-National Science Foundation Dissertation Grant, employed zero-inflated negative binomial regression modeling to analyze and compare counts and incident risk rates of out-of-school suspension using federally-funded, national datasets spanning the Obama and Trump administrations.

Research Interests: Interventions for eliminating racial discipline disparities, Educators’ implicit racial bias, Educators’ social emotional competency, Focused awareness practices as interventions to mitigate implicit racial bias, Caring/compassion practices as interventions to mitigate implicit racial bias, Relationship between educators’ levels of mindfulness and implicit racial bias, Relationship between educators’ levels of social emotional competency and implicit racial bias, and Critical Race Theory.

Faculty Advisors: Nancy L. Deutsch, Ph.D. and Patricia (Tish) A. Jennings, Ph.D., M.Ed.

Dr. Toshna Pandey

Toshna Pandey earned her Ph.D. in Special Education from Virginia Commonwealth University. She is currently working as a postdoctoral research associate with Catherine Bradshaw, Jessika Bottiani, and Katrina Debnam on projects that seek to prevent challenging student behaviors, facilitate positive student-teacher engagement, and improve teachers’ equity stamina and racial literacy. Pandey’s research focuses on optimizing coaching to enhance teachers’ implementation fidelity of evidence-based practices. Specifically, she serves as the Co-PI on an internal research grant that explores the core components of classroom-based coaching models that lead to high intervention implementation fidelity. She is interested in supporting teachers’ use of social, emotional, and behavioral school-based interventions to reduce students’ challenging behaviors and consequently, exclusionary discipline. Concurrently, she is working on a NIMHD-funded grant that uses a school-level randomized controlled trial (RCT) design to test the integration of a universal, classroom-based evidence-based social-emotional learning program for Anne Arundel County Public Schools students with elements of from the Double Check professional development framework and an equity-based coaching component. She has extensive experience collecting classroom data using observational measures and has served in leadership roles to train members of various research teams in similar measures. At present, she serves as a project coordinator for an IES-funded follow-up study that seeks to explore teachers’ practices, attitudes, beliefs, and personality traits that influence their use and perceptions of the Good Behavior Game intervention and MyTeachingPartner. She has proficient interviewing skills and extensive experience using qualitative and mixed-methods research designs. She also serves as a project coordinator for an NIH-funded grant that aims to generate new theories regarding the context and development of romantic relationships for young Black women using grounded theory.

Research Interests: School-based preventative behavior interventions, classroom management, classroom observations, teacher professional development using coaching models, implementation fidelity, cultural-responsiveness, disproportionate exclusionary discipline among racially and ethnically minoritized students, school mental health, qualitative research methods, mixed-methods research.

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Catherine Bradshaw

Ariana Rivens

As a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia and predoctoral intern at the University of Pennsylvania, Ariana Rivens has received substantial clinical science training and clinical experience. These experiences have informed her commitment to being a clinical psychologist who conducts rigorous research and evidence-based clinical practice. Her research program leverages qualitative and mixed methodology to examine the multifaceted experiences of Black adolescents and emerging adults, with a particular focus on mental health service utilization and higher education. She is passionate about using research findings to reduce racial health disparities, inform the adoption of culturally responsive clinical practices, and address structural inequalities in behavioral health systems. As a clinician, Ariana seeks to continue working among the most marginalized individuals experiencing psychological distress by focusing on pathways to care.Thus, Ariana is seeking postdoctoral positions that will facilitate her growth as a clinical psychologist who utilizes empirical research coupled with evidence-based assessment, intervention, and supervision skills to improve mental health service use. She is particularly interested in working in multidisciplinary team environments where she is able to leverage and refine the clinical and research expertise she has developed throughout her doctoral training, as well as contribute to equity efforts.

Research Interests: Black youth and emerging adults, culturally responsive practice, pathways to care, mental health service utilization, trauma-informed practice, collegiate mental health, community engagement, higher education, applied research, mixed methods, qualitative methods, 

Clinical Interests: Pathways to care,evidence-based treatment, cultural adaptations and considerations for those with marginalized identities (i.e., racial/ethnic, LGBTQ+, low-income), suicide prevention and treatment, trauma-focused care

Faculty Advisors: Dr. Noelle Hurd, Dr. Joseph Allen, & Dr. Seanna Leath

Jieun Sung

Jieun Sung is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Social Foundations program at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development. Her work is concerned broadly with ways that education, schooling, ethical formation, and the preparation of individuals to participate in social, cultural, political, and civic life are interrelated. She is particularly interested in the educational experiences of newcomer families and the significance of non-school contexts as influential sites for youth development. Her current research explores how immigrant families’ experiences of education, cultural adaptation, and overall adjustment are shaped by interactions with significant community organizations and networks. Her dissertation focuses on efforts by Korean American and Korean immigrant parents to navigate the formal education of children, and on the role of Korean ethnic church communities in shaping families’ relationship to schools.

Research Interests: Youth development and non-school contexts, community engagement, education of newcomer youth, immigrant integration, global migration and diaspora, ethnic and racial identity development, belonging, and ethical formation

Faculty Advisors: Dr. Rachel Wahl

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Mentoring Children with Traumatic Experiences

By: Dana M. Sox & Helen Min


  • Research suggests there is a potential increase in child adversity exposures, or trauma, post-pandemic.
  • In general, mentoring relationships may help because they can lead to greater self-esteem, stronger connections to school, peers, and family, lower levels of depression, and less involvement in bullying and fighting (January is Mentoring Month).
  • Mentoring relationships involving children with past traumatic experiences need to be trauma-informed and last for at least a year.
Source: Youth-Nex

On the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, many have begun to focus on the pediatric mental health crisis. According to researchers, this crisis has been years in the making but was exacerbated by stressors related to the pandemic1. One primary concern within the pediatric mental health crisis is child traumatic experiences.

Defining & Measuring Traumatic Experiences

Many definitions describe traumatic experiences, but the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) definition is the most inclusive and outlines how traumatic experiences can impact an individual. The SAMHSA defines individual trauma as resulting “from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is expressed by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”2 Children with traumatic experiences are more likely to disengage from school3, repeat a grade4, drop out of school5, be involved in the juvenile justice system6, and have a decreased IQ and reading achievement7.

A common tool for measuring traumatic experiences, used by trained professionals, is the ACE (adverse childhood experience) questionnaire8, which scores an individual on the number of different adverse experiences an individual has during childhood. These experiences are based on two categories:

  • Abuse (i.e., psychological, physical, or sexual), and
  • Household dysfunction (i.e., substance abuse, mental illness, mother’s abuse, criminal behavior in the household).

Here are some additional resources if you are interested in learning more about the ACE questionnaire and childhood traumatic experiences.

Increases in Trauma Experiences & How Mentoring Can Help

In 2019, before the pandemic, the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative found that approximately one in five children had at least one ACE9. A post-pandemic study of high school students found that 73.1% of participants reported at least one ACE during the COVID-19 pandemic10. This large number of child adversity exposures calls for mechanisms that can support children with traumatic experiences.

One such mechanism is mentoring. Mentored students have been shown to have higher levels of self-esteem, a more positive and stronger connection to school, peers, and family, lower levels of depression, and less involvement in bullying and fighting11,12.

Through the consistent support of a nurturing mentor, an individual with past trauma could begin to see themselves more positively and may begin to realize that positive relationships are possible.

However, not all mentoring relationships are equally effective. The length of the mentoring relationship is very important. Specifically, mentoring relationships that last longer than one year are most effective for all children regardless of their background and previous experiences13,14. However, children with a high ACE score are more likely to have a mentoring relationship end prematurely15,16. Mentoring children with traumatic experiences can be challenging, and mentors can feel ill-equipped to handle these challenges without proper training and support. Trauma-informed training for mentors could mitigate these challenges and better support mentoring relationships.

Trauma-informed programs are meant to serve all individuals by acknowledging the impact of trauma, recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma, and responding to trauma using trauma-sensitive practices and policies while actively seeking to avoid re-traumatization2. Developing a trauma-informed mentorship program could help support mentoring relationships and lead to fewer premature relationship closures.

Other Forms of Mentoring

Natural occurring mentoring relationships are formed organically within a child’s preexisting community. Some examples of natural mentors are family members, teachers, coaches, and neighbors. Naturally formed mentoring relationships have been associated with positive social, emotional, and academic development in children17. These naturally formed relationships also tend to last longer18,19. Still, these mentoring relationships often lack formal training. As a teacher, I was a natural mentor to a variety of students with different experiences, challenges, and needs. This proved challenging not only because it was an additional role, but because I was not trained in trauma-informed practices or mentoring strategies. I often felt like I was doing my best while wondering if my best was enough. Trauma-informed training could be offered to a wider audience to help support individuals in these non-traditional mentoring roles, thereby supporting more adults and students alike. If you are interested in learning more about trauma-informed practices, here are a few educator resources:

Peer mentoring also supports children with traumatic experiences. A recent study found that older children with traumatic experiences were eager and willing to mentor peers with traumatic experiences20. These relationships benefited both the mentor and mentee by providing opportunities for each pair to rewrite their story and construct a more positive self-identity. Allowing peers to mentor one another could be a very effective mentoring strategy, particularly for communities with limited resources and access to formal mentoring programs. However, before implementing a peer mentoring program, it is important to acknowledge that these student mentors must be intentionally supported and protected. The following are some recommendations for how to support your student mentors:

  • Become trained on how to train students for peer mentoring programs.
  • Develop a student mentor training process that is trauma-informed.
  • Make sure students are interested in acting as peer mentors. Just because a student has exposure to a traumatic experience does not mean they will always want to support another student through mentoring.
  • Learn how to identify signs of retraumatization and work to not retrigger students.
  • Make sure adult supervision is always present.  

More investigation is needed to determine the most successful conditions, but trauma-informed mentoring relationships (i.e., formal, natural, peer-to-peer) could be a strong mechanism for supporting children with traumatic experiences. Additionally, several factors can buffer against the negative consequences of ACEs and bolster resilience. The following are some resources that detail these factors:

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Dana M. Sox is a graduate student in the Educational Psychology and Applied Developmental Science Ph.D. Program at the University of Virginia. Before beginning her studies, she was a high school educator for six years. Her research interests are in mechanisms that help support students with traumatic experiences and the adults that interact with these students (e.g., teachers, coaches, after-school educators, mentors, etc.). Dana hopes that this research will have a broader impact on students, educators, families, and communities.

Author Bio: Helen Min is a Ph.D. candidate and Dean’s Fellow in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development (UVA) with a research focus on evaluating trauma-sensitive pedagogy, understanding the impact of stress on teacher well-being, and assessing the extent of vicarious trauma on teachers. She is the recipient of several grants for her research and service at UVA, including Dean’s Research and Development Fund Innovative, Developmental, Exploratory Awards (IDEA), Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Small Grant, and Inclusive Excellence Grant. Before starting her Ph.D. program, she taught for six years in Baltimore, MD, Osaka, Japan, and Cairo, Egypt. She received her B.A. from the University of California Davis and her M.S.Ed. from Johns Hopkins University. 

Familial Mentors May Help Promote Close Parent-Adolescent Relationships in Black Families

By: Janelle Billingsley


  • While close parental relationships may promote positive outcomes among Black youth, parents’ ability to support their children may be complicated during adolescence due to increased conflict and strain.
  • However, support from adolescents’ familial mentors has the potential to mitigate strains in the parent-adolescent relationship.
  • In this blog, we highlight ways that familial mentors may support the parent-youth relationship during adolescence.
Source: Pexels

Studies show that a strong sense of connectedness to parents may protect Black youth from experiencing negative outcomes associated with exposure to anti-Black racism and structural inequality. [1,2] However, parents’ ability to support their children may be complicated during adolescence as parents and youth often experience increased conflict and strain while attempting to negotiate youths’ growing autonomy. [3] While scholars studying mentoring have long suggested that mentors may be a key resource for helping youth improve their social relationships with other adults, notably their parents, the question remains:

How are mentors supporting the parent-adolescent relationship?

This question is particularly useful for understanding Black adolescents’ family-based mentoring relationships given that (1) non-parental adult relatives comprise the majority of Black adolescents’ mentoring relationships; and (2) familial mentors are uniquely positioned to mediate parent-child conflict as they are likely to hold personal relationships with both youth and their parents.

Mentors Support of the Parent-Adolescent Relationship

In a recent study, [4] we identified three ways that Black youths’ familial mentors supported the parent-adolescent relationship through both youth- and parent-directed means:

1. Mentors Acting as Sounding Boards – Familial mentors listened to parents and youth discuss challenges they experienced in the parent-adolescent relationship. These mentors provided a space for youth and parents to process their thoughts and emotions when experiencing conflict with one another.

“[She] bring up stuff ‘well momma don’t understand or daddy don’t understand.’ So I said ‘well, tell me your version of it.’ So, we sit down, and I just listen to her talk.” – Grandmother mentor of a 14-year-old girl

By providing youth and parents the space to talk through their emotions, familial mentors were likely helping both to better understand and express their feelings. These practices may have promoted more effective communication between parents and their adolescent children.

2. Mentors Coaching Positive Communication Strategies – Familial mentors suggested positive communication and response strategies to youth and parents to help them navigate conflict in their relationship. For instance, familial mentors advised youth to not argue with their parents when they were upset and also encouraged parents to refrain against harshly disciplining their children.

“you have to be calm and tell [her]in a different way. . . you got to keep a calm voice. You have to calm down and they might get it rather than you screaming at them.” – Grandfather mentor of a 11-year-old girl

By helping parents and youth calibrate their reactions, familial mentors were likely able to promote more effective communication between youth and their parents.

3. Mentors Promoting Understanding – Lastly, familial mentors promoted understanding in the parent-adolescent relationship by advising parents and youth to perspective take. Familial mentors also encouraged youth to share information with their parents and encouraged parents to give their adolescent children appropriate space and autonomy.

“[my mom] reminds me that I cannot protect [my son] from everything. I can give him advice but she’s really the one trying to get me to release a little bit and relax and let him make his own way. . . [she reminds me] that he is a young man and to let him be young man even with all my fears and worries. Not to stifle that.” – Mother of a 14-year-old boy

By advising youth to share information with their parents, and encouraging parents to give their children the space to grow, familial mentors may have helped parents and youth negotiate adolescents’ growing desire for autonomy.

Together this work highlights familial mentoring relationships as a naturally occurring resource in Black families. Even further, by working to strengthen parent-adolescent bonds, familial mentors may help to ensure that parents are well positioned to support their children through the ups and downs of adolescence.


[1] Seider et al., 2019

[2] Wilson, 2009

[3] De Geode et al., 2009

[4] Billingsley et al., 2021

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Janelle Billingsley is a Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellow and a doctoral candidate in the Community Psychology program at the University of Virginia (UVA). She received her B.A. in Psychology from North Carolina Central University and her M.A. in Psychology from UVA. Janelle’s program of research integrates ecological and developmental frameworks to uncover the ways Black adolescents leverage their familial networks to promote their healthy development in the face of contextual risk. Her scholarship primarily focuses on two areas of exploration: 1) identifying factors that promote close and supportive intergenerational relationships between Black adolescents and their parents and adult relatives, and 2) better understanding how Black adolescents’ supportive intergenerational familial relationships facilitate adolescents’ social and emotional development.

The Power of Intergenerational Activism

By: Celina Adams


  • In spring 2021 I worked with the Teachers in the Movement project during my final semester as an undergraduate.
  • During this time, I reviewed and conducted oral history interviews that explored teachers’ ideas and pedagogy inside and outside the classroom during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
  • In this original blog post, I reviewed an interview with Mrs. Flora Crittenden and reflected on the power of intergenerational activism.

Mrs. Flora Crittenden is a remarkable woman who positively impacted her students and community throughout her lifetime. She worked as an educator, guidance counselor, and politician during the Civil Rights Movement. Her incredibly deep involvement in her community speaks to her determination to facilitate racial justice in every aspect of life. I reviewed an oral history interview from Mrs. Crittenden during my involvement with the Teachers in the Movement Project, and a major theme that arose in the discussion of her career is the importance of support systems. This yielded intergenerational progress that is evident in the lives of Mrs. Crittenden, her family members, and her students.

Role Models & Background 

While attending the only school that accepted Black students in her county in Newport News, Huntington High School, Mrs. Crittenden interacted with teachers who maintained high standards for her. This high school was established around 1920 with the intention of providing quality education to African American students, and in Mrs. Crittenden’s experience, it did exactly that. Mrs. Crittenden specifically recalls the impact her high school biology and chemistry teacher, Mr. Hines, had on her. While in his class, she was assigned projects that she found uninteresting. She was determined not to complete her assignments; however, Mr. Hines pushed her to conduct the necessary research. Mrs. Crittenden believes that educators like him were the reason she attended college and excelled academically. Mr. Hines was one of the many resources Huntington High School afforded Mrs. Crittenden, and his impact in her life extended beyond his classroom. Years after she graduated, Mr. Hinesbecame the principal of George Washington Carver High School which is located in Newport News. He alone was responsible for the school’s opening and operations due to the lack of resources provided by the School Board. As a result, he recruited Mrs. Crittenden to help develop the school’s curriculum and hire faculty. Mr. Hines garnered her support prior to the school’s unveiling in 1949. He went to her home, and he said “Mrs. Crittenden, get dressed—we got to go make a school.” This simple statement coupled with his guidance radically affected Mrs. Crittenden’s life. It gave her the opportunity to invest in a school in a way that most teachers are unable to do.

Educating during the Civil Rights Movement 

Even though the subject matter Mrs. Crittenden taught (girls’ physical education and occasionally biology) did not easily align with the ideas promoted by the Civil Rights Movement, Mrs. Crittenden made an effort to remind her students that they were valued, citizens. She wanted them to know that neither their age nor race made them inferior to anyone. Mrs. Crittenden worked predominantly with young women since “physical education classes were separated by gender but not the academic classes.” It was not until 1972 that all classes were required to be coeducational as a result of Title XI. Therefore, the majority of Mrs. Crittenden’s students had to navigate a society that praised whiteness and masculinity. This challenging situation made the affirming messages Mrs. Crittenden taught increasingly necessary. Additionally, she encouraged her students to be an active member of their communities despite social norms. This approach was rooted in her belief that:

Educational institutions have the ability to strengthen both families and nations by producing educated and thoughtful citizens.

Mrs. Crittenden was determined to ingrain these ideals in her students. Her teaching style suggests that activism can occur in any environment. It is not limited to certain subject matter, locations, or age groups. She suggests that “it just so happened that [she] was a teacher” who used her career as a platform to promote Civil Rights. Mrs. Crittenden’s work suggests that activism is rooted in an understanding of the humanity of people.

Life Beyond Teaching 

Mrs. Crittenden sought opportunities to enact change in the lives of young people and community members beyond teaching. This led to her decision to become a guidance counselor. This new position allowed her to counsel students in a more personalized manner; she could tailor her approach to individual students rather than classrooms with multiple people. Mrs. Crittenden was invested in the lives of her students. Furthermore, she was able to engage directly with students and parents creating an environment that fostered student success. Thursa Crittenden, Mrs. Crittenden’s daughter, recalled an experience in which a student received a scholarship to an excellent university, but he did not want to attend that institution. Mrs. Flora Crittenden knew the school would afford him numerous opportunities, so she traveled to the students’ homes to speak to his parents and compel him to accept the university’s offer. He ultimately decided to attend the university, and he attributes his success to Mrs. Crittenden’s persistence. This situation highlights Mrs. Crittenden’s deep desire to support her students.

Read more in the original blog post on how Mrs. Crittenden’s family shaped her view of education and ultimately led to her deep appreciation of teaching, her educational background, her life after retiring from teaching which include becoming a representative for the Virginia House of Delegates, and references.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Celina Adams recently received a Bachelors of Science in Education in May 2021 from the University of Virginia. She double majored in Youth in Social Innovations and American Studies. She currently works on the Counseling and Equity team at ReadyKids, a local nonprofit that provides educational, developmental, and counseling support to children and families. This position embodies Celina’s interests in racial justice, culture, and mental health. She hopes to continue her studies in order to learn how to highlight the stories of marginalized people and promote positive racial identity development. 

Mentoring for Enhancing Educational Attitudes, Beliefs, and Behaviors

By: Michael Lyons


  • Mentoring programs have long valued academic-related goals for their services, where many target academic enrichment or emphasize college access and educational attainment as outcomes.
  • To understand this connection better, I co-authored a report that examines research addressing the potential influence of mentoring for youth on their educational attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors (or EABBs).
  • In this blog, I highlight some of the conclusions from this report and share practice recommendations that focus on actions that mentors or program staff could take to support development of positive EABBs, including supporting growth mindsets, persistence skills, and more.

Can volunteer mentors really help improve students’ engagement, attitudes, and behavior about school? To help mentoring programs and mentors understand the answer to this question, I recently co-authored a review, called Mentoring for Enhancing Educational Attitudes, Beliefs, and Behaviors (see the full report for additional findings and recommendations) for the National Mentoring Resource Center. I am revisiting this review for National Mentoring Month.

School-based mentoring programs match adult volunteers with K-12 students so that students have access to another supportive adult in their life. The rationale is that positive youth-adult relationships (e.g., relationships students develop with teachers, coaches etc.) are important for helping youth be successful in school. So, mentoring programs that match students with volunteer will have the same effect, right?

In this review, we found that mentoring programs that use volunteers and match them with students tended to help students feel more connected in school, increased their engagement, and promoted positive attitudes about school.

However, we also found that, on average, these positive effects tended to be small and variable (some students had better outcomes with a mentor compared to others).

Although we do not know all the reasons that explain the variability, we did find that some studies suggested that the school and community environment might influence the effectiveness of mentors. For example, historically marginalized youth who experience racism and discrimination in school might benefit from mentors who acknowledge the reality of their experience in school.

Implications for Practice

My colleague Michael Garringer, Director of Research and Evaluation for MENTOR, provided implications for mentors and mentoring programs to promote positive EABBs in mentees. Based on the review, he concluded that programs should consider the following principles:

  1. Make sure you understand the root causes of negative EABBs – There are lots of reasons why youth might have difficulty engaging in school and mentors may be able to address only some of these. In some cases, mentors and mentoring programs may need to address systemic factors contributing to negative EABBs.
  2. Recruit (or train) the right mentors to address EABBs – Training is needed to teach mentors how to best respond to, and address, the various reasons youth might be more or less engaged in school.
  3. Consider mentoring models that emphasize youth voice and engagement – Youth participating in mentoring often know more than we (adults) give them credit. Asking youth directly may be one successful approach.
  4. Draw from evidence-based intervention when possible – There are some formal mentoring curricula shown to promote student success in school. Some mentoring programs may wish to integrate these into their current services.
  5. Train mentors on goal-setting strategies and the art of giving back – Mentors and mentees who jointly set goals and track progress toward those goals is one specific skill that tends to be associated with greater improvement in student engagement; mentoring programs may wish to emphasize these skills in program-provided training.
  6. Reinforce positive EABBs through parental engagement – Parent and families are another important support mentors can use to understand and facilitate student engagement in school.

For links to relevant resources and training for these take-home points, please visit the full report available online.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Dr. Michael Lyons is an Assistant Professor of Education and faculty affiliate at Youth-Nex. He is interested in the social-emotional development of middle and high school students in a positive psychological and traditional mental health framework. Specifically, his research reflects an interest in understanding the mechanisms and practices in a school setting that promote student well-being and school-relevant outcomes (e.g., grades and behavior) through an ecological model. Dr. Lyons is especially interested in school-based mentoring programs as one approach for promoting student well-being and enhancing academic outcomes. He also co-directs the Virginia Partnership for School Mental Health which aims to support the provision of school mental health services in Virginia.

Understanding Factors Associated with Intimate Disclosure Between Black Youth and Non-Parental Familial Adults

By: Ariana Rivens


Question: What would you say is the main takeaway from your article?

Rivens: I would say the main takeaway is about non-parental adult relatives and how intentional they are about making space for youth in their lives to disclose. Not only making space, but also staying engaged throughout the disclosure process. The paper describes how these adults encouraged youth to share by creating a positive atmosphere, being really supportive when youth were disclosing, and then, afterwards, taking steps to honor youth disclosing by validating them, giving them advice, and advocating for them. That’s the biggest takeaway—adult relatives play an active role in the process.

Question: You talk about reciprocity and how people may be more willing to share their thoughts and feelings with others who also reveal personal information about themselves. Is this the case in relationships between youths and trusted non-parental adults as well, or is this something that occurs more so between youths and their peers?

Rivens: Yes! In our study, both youth and non-parental adult relatives talked about times when the adults self-disclosed to the adolescent and participated in reciprocal sharing. This was really interesting to us, because adult disclosures were typically age-appropriate and relevant to what youth were sharing. When asked, relatives also talked about being really intentional about making sure that what they shared had the maximum positive impact on youth. They weren’t overburdening the youth by asking them for emotional support or looking to them for advice. It was more along the lines of: “You brought up a topic, so here’s a time that I’ve experienced it growing up” or “Here’s how I’m experiencing it right now as an adult”. It really speaks to what we believe—and research suggests—is one of the key reasons why having non-parental adults in youths’ lives is so helpful. It’s because they can pull on that lived experience and wisdom and can also share how they currently navigate situations. These adult relatives do that not by minimizing what kids are going through, but by emphasizing how this might be something that happens throughout life.

Question: The findings from this study are also incredibly powerful when put into the context of prior research, which, as you mentioned, suggests Black youths’ relationships with natural mentors may be protective of psychological distress associated with racial discrimination. Do you think that youths who lack such relationships face the risk of greater vulnerability to racial discrimination?

Rivens: Previous research suggests adults can be really helpful when youth are experiencing all types of marginalization. We’re focusing on racial discrimination and the effects of racism in this study, but these relationships could be really helpful for other marginalized groups such as LGBTQ youth who might be experiencing rejection or difficulties with their parents. Having a family member or another adult outside act as a buffer against these negative effects from interpersonal issues as well as the more systemic ones. To answer your question more specifically: yes, we know that these supportive relationships have buffering effects against the impact of racism, and we know that youth who experience racism-related stressors in our world and don’t have supportive connections that they can turn to process the event, get support, and to be reminded how important and valued they are, are more likely to feel isolated. While supportive relationships are so important and a rich resource, though, the cumulative adverse impacts of things like racism and other structural inequalities aren’t really offset by having these supportive relationships—that’s not going to solve it all. Even the most supported Black child is at risk for some adverse outcomes based on these issues, so, regardless of their mentor status and whether or not they have these relationships, youth are going to benefit from the dismantling of racism and other inequitable systems.

For more from this Q&A, please see the SRA blog. For more on these research findings, please see the Journal for Research on Adolescence article entitled “Understanding Factors Associated With Intimate Disclosure Between Black Youth and Nonparental Familial Adults.”

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Ariana Rivens (she/her/hers) is a clinical psychology PhD student in the Promoting Healthy Adolescent Development (PHAD) Lab at the University of Virginia. Her clinical and research interests include the mental health of Black youth and emerging adults, supportive intergenerational relationships, and positive institutional climates within higher education

Re-Engaging Youth in Out-of-School Spaces

By: Ashlee Sjogren


  • Engaging students in out-of-school spaces is critical to supporting the whole student. Peers, families, program content, and a fun environment all serve as sources of engagement that programs can optimize on.
  • However, both interpersonal tensions and repetition of content can be reasons that middle school students decide not to engage in afterschool programs.
  • In this blog, we provide recommendations for afterschool stakeholders as they consider how to encourage youth engagement.
Source: Youth-Nex

The role of afterschool and summer learning spaces is perhaps even more critical in our mid-/post-pandemic world than ever before. With the rise of online learning, social isolation, and student mental health issues,[i] afterschool spaces serve as a needed additional support to students’ achievement and development.[ii] However, as we re-embark on in-person learning environments, one question stands out: How do we re-engage students, particularly middle school students from historically marginalized communities[iii], in productive afterschool programs?


In a recent report of middle school students’ engagement in afterschool programs, students identified three key sources and two key barriers to engagement[iv]:

  1. Program Content – Variety in program content is initially appealing for students who are interested in trying new activities that are not traditionally offered in schools. While some students feel that their afterschool program “is fun because you have activities you would be interested in that you can do, like gym kind of things;” others focus on how afterschool programs expose them to new activities, skills, and classes that they wouldn’t ordinarily get to explore. In this way, afterschool programs can provide space for students to explore new interests, gain new skills, and continue to invest in their personal identity development.
  2. Friends & Family — Personal relationships with peers and family also serve as an additional source of engagement for many students. While many elementary-aged students engage in afterschool spaces because their parents sign them up, middle school students tend to “vote with their feet.” In this way, some may choose to engage based off of parental encouragement whereas others are highly influenced by their peers’ engagement decisions.
  3. Fun Environment – Finally, afterschool spaces are different from school. There are fewer rules, more opportunities for student choice, and ultimately often more fun than a traditional school-day environment. This is critical for many adolescents who are seeking autonomy in their decision-making and opportunities to spend time with peers. If we are seeking to promote afterschool engagement for our middle school students, we must be meeting them with fun environments comprised of various activity options, freedom to select their activities, and opportunities to learn new skills and meet new people.


Even in the presence of a well-designed and thoughtful afterschool program, there is still the risk of creating unintentional barriers to adolescent engagement. For example, the following two barriers rose to the surface:

  1. Repetition of Content—Although program content is initially appealing to many middle school students, it can run the risk of developing into a barrier if not adequately differentiated. Students voice that afterschool programs are boring when “we just keep doing the same thing.” Thus, we must not only diversify our course offerings in afterschool spaces but also think critically about keeping the day-to-day content and activities fresh for students.
  2. Interpersonal Tensions – Lastly, given the prominence and importance of peers during early adolescence, it is important that educators are keenly aware of peer relationships. Although the afterschool space provides a unique opportunity for continued engagement amongst peers, it is not immune to the school-day tensions such as name-calling, nagging, and other forms of bullying.  These interpersonal tensions can unintentionally push students out of the afterschool space.

Further, it is important to note students’ experiences with these sources and barriers of engagement varied based on their reported level of engagement.

For example, students who reported lower levels of engagement more often reported interpersonal tensions as a barrier, highlighting how they may be the group most at risk for alienation in educational contexts.

Given this, educators should think critically about the impact of barriers on students who may appear to be on the margins of the program such as those with sporadic attendance.

Moving forward, afterschool educators, parents, and teens can adopt the following suggestions to promote youth engagement across formal and informal learning contexts.

  1. Ramp up family outreach/engagement efforts to ensure families are adequately informed of program offerings.
  2. Provide tangible spaces for student feedback to be voiced, considered, and implemented in day-to-day programming decisions.
  3. Develop leadership opportunities for students such as 1) serving as peer recruiters; 2) serving on a student leadership council; 3) mentoring younger students; and 4) serving as a Teaching Assistant in a course they have mastered.
  4. Adopt a culturally sustaining discipline approach that seeks to solve the root of interpersonal tensions (i.e., CRPBIS, Restorative Practices).
  5. Adopt leveled approaches to programming which allow youth to continually refine their skills over time.
  6. Provide various class opportunities (through community partnerships) and hold program providers accountable to fresh and engaging lesson plans.

Strategies of this sort address adolescents’ need for autonomy and belonging, and further foster their identity exploration. In doing so, they foster spaces that middle school students genuinely desire to engage and promote continued participation.


[i] CDC, 2020

[ii] Durlak et al., 2020

[iii] Afterschool Alliance, 2020

[iv] Sjogren et al., 2021

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Ashlee Sjogren, Ph.D. is a post-doctoral research associate at Youth-Nex: Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, University of Virginia. Her research is broadly focused on equitable education both in- and out-of-school. Most recently, Dr. Sjogren has investigated student access and engagement in out-of-school contexts. As an educational psychologist, Dr. Sjogren often brings both a social context and motivation lens to understanding questions of equity, access, and motivation.