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New study finds mentorship lowers rates of youth crime and delinquency

David DuBois photo

A new report out by the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health indicates that the work of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA), the largest mentoring organization in the U.S., is making a significant impact on the lives of youth.

Interim findings from the randomized controlled trial (RCT) supported by Arnold Ventures and being conducted over a four-year period with more than 1,300 youth show clear reductions in many areas of growth and development. According to the data, after 18 months, youth in Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) mentoring programs were 54 percent less likely to have been arrested and 41 percent less likely to have engaged in substance use than their peers in a control group. The study also found that youth in the BBBS group made significantly greater improvements in several other areas including school engagement, self-control, social skills, grit, self-advocacy, and family functioning.

Arnold Ventures’ Director of Evidence-Based Policy, Amanda Moderson-Kox, stated: “This is now the second time that Big Brothers Big Sisters has been found to produce meaningful effects on important outcomes like these in an RCT. The earlier RCT was conducted in the 1990s, involved over 1,000 youth, and found sizeable effects on substance use and violent behavior after 18 months. There are many examples of programs that are found effective once and are not able to replicate the results again for many different reasons. To find a program has produced such impact, in two different studies, across very different settings is both rare and exciting.”

“The results are a noteworthy addition to a persuasive body of evidence that pairing a young person with a caring adult from their community can truly make an important difference in that youth’s life,” said David DuBois, PhD, associate dean for research and the report’s lead researcher. He cautions, however, that “This idea, while simplistic at its core, is quite complex in its operationalization and necessitates the careful orchestration and professional staff support of programs such as Big Brothers Big Sisters.”

Researchers worked with 17 BBBS agencies across the country to ensure a representative cross-section of participants. Beginning in 2018, study participants were randomly assigned either to be offered participation in the program (the BBBSA group) or to a control group that would not receive a mentor until the end of a four-year study period. Youth and their parents completed surveys both at the beginning and end of the 18-month period.

Weldon and Xavier, a “Big” and “Little” (mentor and mentee) from one of the study sites, were interviewed and featured in a short video about their experiences in Big Brothers Big Sisters. After four years of spending time together in the program, Weldon calls his “Little” one of the “most positive kids I know.” Today, BBBSA serves more than 400,000 Bigs, Littles, and families in more than 5,000 communities across all 50 states.

“Our approach is to put kids at the center with a caring, positive adult mentor and the support of an ecosystem surrounding them — resources, experiences and opportunities,” said Artis Stevens, president and CEO of BBBSA. “We believe the power of mentorship can not only change the life of a young person but impact an entire community, a whole generation, by breaking societal barriers, closing opportunity gaps and overcoming adversities embedded in communities nationwide.”

The final 2024 report will share findings from the four-year survey in addition to impacts measured with data from official arrest records for both the 18-month and four-year follow-ups.

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