Mentors are an invaluable resource. They open up new vistas for children, offer life lessons and support, or offer a much-needed sounding board for ideas and struggles.  More importantly, recent research has shown that the relationships forged between students and mentors can have a direct effect on youths’ academic performance, attendance at school, and social development.

Research by Jean Rhodes, professor at the University of Massachusetts, found that these relationships are particularly beneficial if mentors themselves have overcome obstacles that are similar to those that kids face, such as attending an underfunded school or growing up in a low-income neighborhood. “Staff can serve as concrete models of success, demonstrating qualities that the youth might wish to emulate and offering training and information about the necessary steps to achieve various goals,” wrote Rhodes.

Mentoring can happen anywhere, but afterschool programs are particularly conducive to mentoring relationships. In fact, it is often the caring relationships between mentors and youth, whether through Scouting or Big Brothers, that contribute to their success. A three-year progress report on YOUmedia in Chicago, an afterschool site in the Harold Washington Public Library that centers on digital media, finds that mentors were the linchpin for many of the teens, and the growing success of the program.

As one of the teens in the program put it:

People [mentors]…have extensive knowledge…they’re all college-educated professionals. They can help you with it…intellectually, technologically, and all that. It’s the environment and the mentors that foster creativity and…it reinforces your interests. It makes you feel good about yourself.

Or as another said, “They always have your back, and I really love that. And, they will cheer you up when you’re down.”

These relationships in afterschool programs do more than just boost IQ or math and reading scores. They bolster those all-important social and emotional skills, like patience, interpersonal skills, confidence, and others. One study even found that the afterschool mentor relationships led teens to reevaluate their relationships with their own parents. Improvements in their home life led in turn to positive changes in adolescents’ sense of self-worth and their academic achievement.

Shared interests are often a great place to start in forging a strong mentoring relationship. And those relationships don’t necessarily have to be face-to-face anymore. Researcher Mimi Ito, one of the experts behind Connected Learning, has found that interest-driven activity online—and she’s not talking about Facebook—is often intergenerational. Students, experts, leaders, and hobbyists all come together in digital communities to talk about their specific interests, whether it’s Making or writing fan-fiction. Such intergenerational, interest-driven learning is at the root of Connected Learning, which is, in short, an educational theory that merges three areas that are often disconnected in the lives of young people: peer culture, interests, and academic content.

In Pittsburgh, mentoring opportunities are expanding. The Pittsburgh public schools program Be a 6th Grade Mentor, which started in 2009, has now expanded to Be a Middle School Mentor, and will continue pairing adult volunteer mentors with middle school students.

“[The program] is focused on exposing children to career opportunities, to educational opportunities beyond high school, and on being Promise-ready by high school,” Charles Howell, mentor coordinator at Mount Ararat Community Activity Center, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“Promise-ready,” refers to another local program, The Pittsburgh Promise, which offers up to $40,000 toward college in Pennsylvania to any student who has a 90 percent attendance record, a GPA of 2.5 or higher, and who has been enrolled in Pittsburgh public schools since the ninth grade.

The main goal of programs like Be a Middle School Mentor and Promise Readiness Corps, a team of teachers who, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, work to make sure their students don’t “fall through the cracks,” is to get more of Pittsburgh’s youth ready for their futures through guidance and mentoring.

Save the date: The National Mentoring Summit is scheduled for this January, and registration is now open.