Reach & Rise® Mentoring Program: A Randomized Controlled Trial on Cognitive Behavioral Mentoring

Happy student and teacher standing together outdoors

Can community-based volunteer mentors effectively apply cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) strategies to mentoring youth?

Community-based mentors are caring adults who are matched through a program with youth in their communities to engage in positive interactions and support their social, emotional, behavioral, and academic growth. Mentoring programs for youth are potentially well suited to the incorporation of strategies commonly used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Through their interactions, and by role modeling, mentors can encourage their mentees to think and act in more adaptive ways and use effective problem-solving and coping strategies. Despite growing in popularity as a more targeted approach to address the mental health and behavioral needs of disadvantaged youth, research examining the positive effects of using CBT strategies in mentoring relationships is limited.

AIR researchers, Dr. Roger Jarjoura and Dr. Manolya Tanyu, in partnership with Dr. Carla Herrera from Herrera Consulting Group, LLC addressed this need in a national study of YMCA’s Reach & Rise® program.

YMCA’s Reach & Rise® Program

YMCA’s Reach & Rise® program provides 15 hours of pre-match training to community-based volunteer adults using modules that help them better understand youth development, CBT techniques, and tools for applying these techniques effectively in their interactions with their mentees. After the youth and volunteer are matched, they identify a shared goal and purpose (e.g., improve healthy relationships, improve academic engagement, increase emotional/psychological wellness) that they are expected to work on in over a 12-month period. Program staff helps the mentor-mentee match and the family create a growth plan, which is used to monitor match activities during monthly check-in calls with the mentor, youth, and family, support the mentoring relationship, and identify services needed for the youth and his/her family.

Our Research Study

Funded by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, we conducted a randomized controlled trial with youth, ages 8 to 17, to examine program implementation and outcomes. As part of the study, Reach & Rise® made enhancements to their program model in some participating sites (“CBT sites”) to examine whether youth at those sites experienced greater benefits than those at sites implementing the standard program model. These enhancements included an additional 2-hour training module on CBT techniques, enhanced check-in tools to capture the use of CBT techniques, an enhanced youth growth plan outlining match goals and CBT strategies for achieving these goals, and a parent toolkit to promote parental awareness and use of CBT techniques.

Program staff in 25 participating sites enrolled 600 youth in the study who were randomly assigned to be matched with a mentor volunteer, 21 years or older, or be waitlisted. A total of 316 youth were randomly assigned to the treatment group (across both CBT sites and standard model sites) and 284 youth were assigned to a waitlist control group. The research team, with support from program staff, collected online baseline and follow-up surveys from youth, their caregivers, and mentors. Virtual interviews were also conducted with program staff and focus groups with mentors and caregivers across all sites.


Key Findings

What did we learn about youth outcomes?

Our study showed measurable behavioral and academic benefits but not emotional benefits for youth who were mentored through the Reach & Rise® program.

  • Contrary to expectations, there were no statistically significant differences in outcomes for youth in the treatment groups at CBT sites compared to youth at standard-model sites.
  • However, across both types of sites, relative to the waitlist control group, treatment group youth were significantly less likely at follow-up to report delinquent behavior and substance use.
  • Treatment group youth also reported significantly greater self-reported connectedness to school and a (marginally significant) stronger sense of connectedness to their families.
  • Parent-reported academic performance were also improved for youth in the treatment group.
  • The program did not have an effect on emotional well-being and peer relationships.

What did the mentoring relationships in the study look like?

  • Mentoring relationships lasted an average of 8.5 months (ranging from 0 to 26 months); 30% of these matches were still active at the time we collected youth’s follow-up survey.
  • Mentors spent an average of 5 hours with their mentee in a typical month. The mentor-mentee matches engaged in a variety of activities. On average, mentors reported most frequently “making time to goof around, laugh, and have light-hearted fun with the mentee” and “talking about important people in the mentee’s life.”
  • On the other hand, among youth assigned to the treatment group, 31% did not experience a mentoring relationship through Reach & Rise® over the course of our study. This includes those who were never matched, due in part to recruitment challenges and staffing difficulties, and those for whom a match was attempted but did not become a relationship.

What did we learn about levels of program implementation?

Someone needs to be challenging him whom he thinks is his friend. If his mom tells him something, he may not look at it the same as if I challenged him. Obviously, this is a slow process, but it is the most rewarding when you can feel they truly understand what they did wrong and are trying to work on it.

- Mentor

Program staff can influence mentor use of CBT strategies with training and ongoing support.

  • The initial training was mentor’s primary source of information about CBT strategies. Mentors’ use of CBT strategies was also supported through staff’s provision of materials, resources, and tips, the mentee’s growth plan, completion of the activities log, and connections to other mentors through the program.

Mentors reported that they used CBT strategies they learned from the program but they reported varying levels of use of these strategies.

  • Mentors used strategies that were easier to apply in their interactions, such as celebrating success, helping the mentee stop and think about behavior, and creating new habits. Others such as journaling and mood mapping were used less frequently and by fewer mentors.

Mentors shared varying experiences with program supports to help them use CBT strategies in their interactions with their mentees. 

  • Over one third of the mentors reported that the program did not do anything to help them learn about CBT strategies, and only half of the mentors reported being contacted by staff on a monthly basis as outlined by program guidelines. This suggests that the program was implemented inconsistently.

The level of program supports provided to mentors and the family was associated with youth outcomes.

  • Mentors who received more program supports for their use of CBT strategies had mentees who reported mentors’ more frequent use of these approaches during their interactions, which was in turn associated with stronger relationships and ultimately more positive outcomes. 
  • Very few caregivers reported using the program materials they received from the program that were intended to support their interactions with their child. However, caregivers who received program supports for their use of CBT strategies were more likely to report implementing those strategies with their children, and their use of these strategies was associated with more positive youth outcomes.

Key Takeaways

  • Community-based volunteers with no previous CBT experience can be effectively trained and supported in incorporating CBT principles into their mentoring relationships with youth. However, mentors’ use of CBT strategies is influenced by the level of support they receive from program staff.
  • To increase uptake, the tools and resources developed to help mentors and caregivers use the CBT strategies need to be adapted in ways that are culturally and contextually relevant for the mentors and caregivers.
  • When youth recognize that their mentors are using CBT strategies, they are more likely to report higher levels of relationship quality, and more likely to report more positive outcomes.
Image of Roger Jarjoura
Principal Researcher
Manolya Tanyu
Senior Researcher