28 Oct How to strengthen the capacity of everyday caring adults
by Jean Rhodes
Early into my research career, I stumbled onto an intriguing finding. In the late 1980s, Chicago had been swept into the worst crack epidemic in American history. I was working on my dissertation in a high school, hoping to uncover the strategies that a small fraction of students were using to resist the overwhelming social and economic pressures to join the drug culture. Despite its allure, there remained some students who managed to keep a safe distance—their hearts and minds determined and fixed on finishing high school and accomplishing more. Almost without exception, these so-called ‘resilient’ youth had forged an important relationship with a caring non-parent adult. Sometimes this adult was an aunt or grandparent; in other cases it was coach, neighbor, coach or teacher. In all cases, this adult believed in and cared deeply about the youngster, who drew on the relationship to resist problems and achieve goals. It opened that, in some cases, such adults might be trained in basic helping skills to become even more effective.
This finding fit with a rich body of research on “protective factors,” as well as those of the late Emory Cowen, a psychologist who trained hair dressers, bartenders, cab drivers and others to serve as ‘paraprofessional’ helpers. They also fit with a landmark meta-analysis that had been conducted a decade earlier. In the meta-analysis, community psychologist Joseph Durlak showed that trained paraprofessionals could achieve clinical outcomes that were equal to or even better than those obtained by trained professionals. “In terms of measurable outcome,” Durlak (1979, p. 80) concluded, “professionals may not possess demonstrably superior clinical skills when compared with paraprofessionals. Moreover, professional mental health education, training, and experience do not appear to be necessary prerequisites for an effective helping person.” More recently, home visiting programs using nurses or mental health professionals as providers were not significantly more effective than were programs using trained paraprofessionals (Neivar, Van Egeren, & Pollard, 2010). The ability to connect with the family may be independent of an advanced degree; yet, the combination of education and authority may carry some stigma.” In other words, non-professionals may be even be preferable to professionals. But there’s a catch. It really does appear that some training can be useful. All relationships are complicated, and if we want mentors and paraprofessionals to sustain them, they need to understand what works and have the training skills to implement best practices. Coaches, teachers, after school staff and others are in prime positions to serve as everyday natural mentors.