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Practice to Research and Back Again

MAY 2, 2017
BY: GABRIEL KUPERMINC, PH.D., ASSOCIATE CHAIR, NMRC RESEARCH BOARD

One of the things I appreciate most about being involved in mentoring research is the ability to interact with mentoring professionals that are passionate about their work, understand how to use research to improve their practice, and are not shy about letting researchers like me know the kinds of research questions they most need answers to in order to advance their work. Researcher-practitioner partnerships are becoming the norm across many fields of human services, but in my experience, the depth of these partnerships in the mentoring field is unique and exciting. The 2017 National Mentoring Summit reinforced for me both the feeling that researcher-practitioner partnerships are alive and well in the mentoring field, and the feeling that they are absolutely essential to progress in the field.

I have had the honor to be able to partner with the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) to carry out a Mentoring Best Practices grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to build the research base on the effectiveness of group mentoring and to build practical resources for implementing group mentoring programs for maximum effectiveness. Together with Vida Sanford and the Mentoring for Success team at SFUSD, the research team that I co-lead with Winnie Chan at Georgia State University has built a proud partnership! Our workshop at the Summit, entitled, Building Effective Group Mentoring Programs: Lessons from Research and Practice on Project Arrive sought to highlight findings from the research and learnings from implementing a high school based group mentoring program over the course of 5 years.

A mix of mentoring professionals and researchers participated in the workshop. Many were already engaged in group mentoring and a few were considering launching a group mentoring initiative. For me, some of key take-aways from our workshop were precisely what motivated us to form a partnership in the first place: There is a lot of interest in group mentoring, but new programs are being developed in the absence of a critical mass of research on effective practices and outcomes of group mentoring and a solid core of the kinds of guidance and resources that are needed to know what the best practices are. In our workshop, we shared some initial findings from the research and presented a model we have developed for training and supporting a school-based group mentoring program. For more information, you can access slides from our presentation and are welcome to visit our website at http://sites.gsu.edu/project-arrive.

After presenting our work, we asked the workshop participants to break into small discussion groups and we used a web-based polling platform to gather input that could be immediately displayed on a screen. Breakout groups addressed questions about the stakeholders and resources needed to launch and sustain group mentoring programs. Perhaps because our presentation focused on a school-based program, many of the responses emphasized schools as the primary site for implementing group mentoring programs. Here are some of the insights the participants shared:

  • One starting point is to identify the critical stakeholders to catalyze and maintain a program over time. Workshop participants identified a critical need for buy-in from schools, including teachers and administrators. Participants also pointed to the importance of student support personnel, including counselors and mental health professionals, and of partnerships in the community with employers and human service agencies, such as juvenile justice. Not surprisingly, several responses mentioned funders, families, youth, and mentors as other critical stakeholders.

  • Participants also talked about the types of new resources needed to launch a new group mentoring program or sustain an existing one. Several of the responses alluded to the lack of concrete resources specifically developed for group mentoring, a critical need reflected in multiple responses about the importance of relevant training resources. Also prominent in the responses were multiple mentions of practical resources of space, time, transportation, funding, and snacks.

So, what does this have to do with research-practitioner partnerships? These insights from the workshop serve as a reminder to researchers like me of the need to keep our work grounded in the real world. Researchers often enter the picture at the point where a program is ready to put itself to the test, and show the impact it is having on young people’s lives. If we succeed, our work adds to building a strong evidence base. We often think of “evidence based practice1” as the ideal, the holy grail, that we are striving for. However, we also need to realize that the ideal conditions required for efficacy research are almost never achievable in the real world, and that the rule, not the exception, is working with the inherent messiness of communities and schools. As I think about what it takes to develop and maintain meaningful researcher-practitioner partnerships, I am becoming more intrigued with the notion of “practice-based evidence,” – which is “concerned with examining whether and how a practice works in specific, authentic settings.”2 Finding the balance between what researchers and practitioners bring to the equation is the key to effective partnerships. Knowing what works under ideal conditions (efficacy) is critically important, but may not provide the guidance that mentoring professionals need to improve their specific program. In between an emphasis on empirical evidence on one hand and practice on the other is a sweet-spot that can teach us about practices that are effective in the real world.


Gabriel Kuperminc, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology and Public Health at Georgia State University, and Associate Chair of the NMRC Research Board. Read more about his work here.


References

1 Kupersmidt, J. B., Stump, K. N., Stelter, R. L., & Rhodes, J. E. (2017). Mentoring program practices as predictors of match longevity. Journal of Community Psychology, doi:10.1002/jcop.21883

Cook, B. G., & Cook, L. (2016). Leveraging evidence-based practice through partnerships based on practice-based evidence. Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal, 14(2), 143-157 (p. 146).

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