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A Mentor's Guide to Youth Development

This article is meant to address mentors' inquiries on youth development, in general. Youth development is an approach to working with youth that believes they are best able to thrive when they are supported across all sectors of the community. It focuses on activities that nurture the youth’s assets rather than on reducing particular risks or preventing specific problems. Its ultimate goal is to help youth become successful and healthy adults.

The following article is abridged from this U.S. Department of Education fact sheet. For other resources on the subject, check out Understanding the Youth Development Model, and Putting Youth Development Principles to Work in Mentoring Programs.

There are five key outcomes that are important for youth to develop in oder to become healthy and successful adults. These attributes are known as The Five C’s of Youth DevelopmentCompetence, Confidence, Connection, Character, and CompassionAlthough these are very broad qualities, suggestions, tips, and activities you can use to help nurture these five attributes in your mentee are offered below. 


Positive view of one’s skills and abilities, including social, academic, cognitive, personal, and vocational. Having a foundation of competence helps young people navigate the world successfully, opening the door to educational and career opportunities. 

  • Help your mentee recognize the strengths and abilities she already has. Your mentee may not hear a lot of positive feedback from parents and teachers. Chances are that they are struggling in one or more subjects in school and they may be at an age where teachers, parents or guardians, and even peers are more likely to be correcting than pointing out abilities. 
  • Help your mentee build competencies that enrich his experiences in school, in social settings, and in the community. If you are newly matched, it’s important that you first spend time just getting to know each other, rather than jumping into curriculum.  


The internal sense of overall positive self-worth, identity, and belief in the future. Having a strong sense of self-worth is a vital part of healthy development. 

  • Encourage your mentee to dream about her future and to plan for it by setting personal goals. One of the most valuable motivators for young people is having goals for their future that they believe they can achieve. 
  • Help your mentee turn daydreams into goals. Having the ability to identify and carry out personal goals is a valuable tool for lifelong success. 
  • Nurture your mentee’s talents and strengths through praise and practice. As you get to know your mentee’s skills and interests, think of ways that these can be nurtured to increase self-confidence. Start with praise and reinforcement when you see them excel or take a positive action in something. Then find ways to get them to think beyond the immediate moment. 


Positive bonds with people and institutions, including peers, family, school, and community, that provide a sense of membership, safety, and belonging. Developing strong, positive connections with people and institutions is an important developmental task for young people.

  • Develop a positive relationship with your mentee in which both of you are contributing and growing. The most important thing about mentoring is the actual quality of the relationship, rather than the activities you do, or the goals you set. Qualities such as mutual trust, respect for each other’s interests and values, and the ability to share thoughts and feelings with each other can help build the relationship over time.
  • Help your mentee feel more connected to school and community. Research often cites connectedness, the sense of belonging to something and having a role in it, as being an important outcome for mentoring programs. Connectedness to school, for example, can result in lower rates of absenteeism, reductions in negative behaviors, and even improvements in academic performance, due in large part to improved relations with peers, school personnel, and family members.


Recognition of societal and cultural rules, a sense of responsibility and accountability for one’s actions, personal values, spirituality, and integrity. Young people develop character through their connections with individuals and groups that provide examples and lessons for them.

  • Talk with your mentee about personal values and beliefs. Talking about societal rules and personal values can be tricky in any friendship. It’s important for you to first learn about, and respect, your mentee’s cultural, family, and personal values, and to avoid imposing your own beliefs on him. However, as a mentor you can expose your mentee to different ways of thinking or behaving and different cultural beliefs and values. 
  • Let your mentee know that you are there to listen and help with moral or ethical issues. As you get to know your mentee better and have established some trust, they may tell you about difficult situations they are facing involving issues of right and wrong, courage, character, and responsibility. You can act as a caring, nonjudgmental listener and offer ways for them to think through the situation. 


A sense of sympathy and empathy for others, leading to a desire to contribute. As youth develop positive bonds with family, friends, community members, teachers, and others in their lives, they begin to empathize with others and to have compassion.

  • Learn together about community needs and social issues and what you can do about them. As children move into adolescence, they begin to see beyond the confines of their immediate family and friends and start being interested in bigger societal issues. As a mentor, you can talk with your mentee about some of the significant issues in the community or around the world.
  • Encourage your mentee to see other people’s views and situations, to “walk in their shoes.” Adolescents are not always fully able to empathize with others, especially when they feel like someone has been unfair or treated them poorly, or when they are faced with a situation that is unfamiliar or uncomfortable for them. Try to help your mentee see the other side of every situation, to help them think about why other people act the way they do, or how someone might view their own behavior.