The Importance of Social Capital in Positive Youth Development

Young people are more likely to reach their education, career, and life goals when they are surrounded by a web of supportive relationships that provide access to opportunities and resources.

This web of support is called social capital, and it is a critical element in young people’s positive development. Search Institute defines social capital as the resources that arise from a web of developmental relationships, which youth can access and use to pursue their goals. 

Previous research on social capital shows that young people with higher levels of social capital tend to report greater progress toward education and career goals, more of a commitment to paying it forward to others, and a greater sense of collective efficacy to change education and employment systems to be more equitable. 

Positioning Mentors as Social Capital Builders

Mentors may be well-positioned to support youth social capital. Mentors can be important connections for young people as they learn about themselves and the world around them.

The Positioning Mentors as Social Capital Builders report examines the role of adult mentors in supporting young people’s social capital development. The project is ongoing, and findings from the first phase of the project provide a snapshot of the experiences of young people and mentors in three Big Brothers Big Sisters agency partner sites. 

The Positioning Mentors as Social Capital Builders project is helping us deepen our understanding of the ways in which high-quality developmental relationships with adult mentors can contribute to youth social capital. 

Strong Developmental Mentoring Relationships

One way mentors can support young people’s social capital is by forming developmental relationships. To build these strong relationships, mentors can engage in actions and practices that align with five critical elements. These are the five elements that make up Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships Framework

  • Express care (show young people they matter).
  • Challenge growth (challenge young people to be their best).
  • Provide support (help young people accomplish goals and tasks).
  • Share power (listen to young people and take them seriously).
  • Expand possibilities (connect young people with new experiences and opportunities).

When we asked young people in the Positioning Mentors as Social Capital Builders project about their experiences with mentors, a high percentage of them (77%–86%) reported that they often or almost always experienced the five elements of a developmental relationship with their mentor. 

4 Actions to Build Strong Relationships

“I think the biggest thing for me is keeping the trust with him. Because the more I can build that trust with him, the more open he is to sharing things that are going on in his life.” - Shared by Big of BBBS South Texas

Mentors and youth were asked what a positive mentoring relationship looked like. In addition to the five elements of a developmental relationship, these conversations revealed four actions that mentors and mentees can take to build strong relationships.

  • Hold Each Other in High Esteem. Both mentors and youth can show how much they matter to one another by sharing positive stories about each other with other important people in their lives.  
  • Provide Comfort and Safety. It can open up the lines of communication when both mentors and youth cultivate a strong sense of comfort and safety in their relationship with each other. 
  • Be Accepting and Nonjudgmental. Mentors and youth can create an atmosphere of acceptance by valuing each other for their authentic selves.  
  • Share Personal Lives. Mentors and youth can show that they value the relationship by sharing what is happening in their personal lives and making connections that align with their personal goals and interests. 

Mentor Support of Youth Racial-Ethnic Identity

“I get to practice my Spanish with my mentor, which I think is really cool. It’s really comforting to be able to speak with my mentor in Spanish sometimes because we practice with each other, because she's trying to learn it, and I'm trying to get the language back. I think that that's really cool.” - Shared by Little of BBBS LA

Mentors can also build strong mentoring relationships by supporting the racial-ethnic and cultural identity of their mentee... In fact, youth who report receiving higher levels of support from their mentors for their racial-ethnic and cultural identity tend to also report stronger developmental relationships with their mentors and a more positive racial-ethnic identity. 

Mentors and youth also shared some actions that mentors can take to further support youth’s racial-ethnic and cultural identity: 

  • Help Youth Explore and Celebrate Their Racial-Ethnic and Cultural Identity. Acknowledging and affirming the identity of youth helps endorse that their culture is a valuable part of who they are.
  • Practice Cultural Awareness and Sensitivity. Building an awareness of a mentee’s racial-ethnic identity can help mentors better understand their mentee’s lived experiences.
  • Find Similarities in Differences. Even when mentors and youth do not share racial-ethnic backgrounds, they often find similarities that help them connect and bond.
  • Stay Curious and Open-Minded. When mentors ask questions to learn about their Little’s racial-ethnic or cultural background, it can broaden their understanding of how to support their mentee’s development.

Mentors Support Youth Social Capital 

High-quality relationships with caring adult mentors are an important strand in the web of developmental relationships that help young people learn who they are and pursue their academic, career, and life goals.

Mentors are positioned to support young people’s social capital development by nurturing their confidence, providing opportunities for them to practice relational skills, investing in relationships with people already in their web of support (e.g., family members), and helping to facilitate new connections and opportunities as they pursue their life goals.  


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