Theories and organising ideas within the PROMISEworks model

Having worked with vulnerable children for much of my working life, I became intrigued at how voluntary mentors and befrienders so often achieve trusting, supportive and sometimes life changing relationships with and for severely troubled young people.

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This was especially fascinating because in so many cases, others with professional training and backgrounds, often struggled to achieve the same quality of connection and trust. Of course, this is not universally true but, in my experience and that of many of my colleagues, it is a reasonable generalisation. There are good reasons for this and they often over-ride the intentions and dedication of the professionals themselves. It has something to do with those old favourites, bureaucracy and “the system”.

Several years ago, when I was involved in Somerset’s Youth Offending Team, I met Clinical Psychologist, Professor Rudi Dallos. It became clear that he too was interested and sometimes fascinated by the dynamics of these mentoring relationships. During his clinical practice, he came across a number of young people who spoke very highly of their mentors and who had clearly benefitted from the experience of mentoring. I remember him asking a 15yr old boy, with a very unhappy past, (both his parents had taken their own lives), why he thought he felt better and more positive about himself and his future. The young man replied, “well…I got a mentor now ‘aven’t I”.    

Not long afterwards, Rudi carried out a small research study (the first of two), with the aim of understanding the nature of these relationships and what it was that made them so effective. The exciting thing about his findings is that, in my view, they really do capture the essence of the essentials of the mentoring process, at least, in relation to the PROMISE model.  

In future posts I hope to discuss a number of theories and organising ideas which help to explain and guide our practice. A useful starting point is a summary of the research by Professor Dallos.  

It identified a consistent series of themes running through the mentoring relationships. These have implications for how troubled young people adapt and change their view of the world, their environment and their views of themselves in positive ways. These can lead to outcomes which have important benefits for themselves and others. The themes identified are as follows; 

Good object

This theme was characterised by the young people’s descriptions of their mentors in positive terms. In contrast they described a distinct lack of people they did feel positive about in their lives prior to the mentoring relationships.

Good relationship

The nature of the relationship was seen by the young people and their mentor as a ‘good’ relationship. For some young people this implied it being like a relationship with a parent, whilst for some that it was important that it was not like a relationship with a parent. Running through this was the idea that what made it different was that it was ‘good’ because this is what relationships with adults should be like rather than what they had often previously experienced.  

Reciprocity was also important in this, even simple things like the children taking some trouble to offering sweets or more practical help to their mentors 

Importantly the relationship did not just exist when the mentor and mentee were together but there was a sense of an important part of the relationships being held in mind and also knowing what the mentor might say or suggest. 


This contains the idea of an emotional connection and knowing they could rely on their mentor. In attachment theory it carries the idea of feeling that there is someone you can turn to when you are frightened, anxious, threatened or fearful.  For the young people here, this could be seen not just specifically in what they said but that their talk about the mentor was within a context of knowing that he or she would be available when and if they needed them.  There was a feeling of safety in the relationship.  

Building trust

This theme was in many ways one of the most interesting and confirms what many practitioners had said informally about the need to ‘go the extra mile’ for these young people. It was difficult to find the best way to incorporate the wide range of sub-themes that make up this major theme.  However, it felt most appropriate to cluster this set of sub-themes together to contain the features of what the mentor did to foster the development of the relationship. It contains the idea of trust being ‘built on the basis of availability’ and being able to ‘rely on the mentor’ and also more psychological features, such as ‘being held in mind’. Importantly these features come together in that actions imply what the mentor might think and feel. For example, ‘breaking the rules’ by doing something that somehow was not totally respectable or ‘following all the rules’ was seen as important. In effect this was often taken by the young people as showing that they were worth the mentor taking a risk: 

Many of the young people were absolutely bowled over by the fact that the mentor asked them to join in family celebrations, barbecues, or trips with friends. Being part of something like a family was very important to the young people. Importantly many of the young people described that the relationship with their mentor had generalised so that they were now more able to trust others and form good relationships: 

Self-respect developed as a consequence of the sense of reciprocity between the two. 

Facilitating change

Perhaps this theme contains some of the most surprising aspects of the research. It contains within it sub-themes of; ‘giving advice and suggestions’, ‘taking a directive stance’ and simply ‘being available’.  More specifically they mentioned that the mentor would listen, helping with emotional problems and offer validation and acceptance. Above all the young people felt certain that the mentor had prompted changes in their lives in a variety of ways. Some of what the young people said overlaps with the other themes of attachment and building a relationship: 


The most striking finding of this study was the extent to which the young people felt that the mentoring experience had been positive and had contributed to producing positive changes in their lives. Secondly, it was clear that for these young people it was a new experience. It is possible that since they had experienced very little of this kind of attention, rather than rebelling from it, they saw it as an indication of someone caring, of taking the trouble to think about them.  There was something quite personally poignant about this sense of wanting to have adults around them who had the spare emotional capacity to care about them.

 The young people also revealed interesting accounts of what helped the initial development of the mentoring relationship.  A strong element of this was a sense of the mentors putting them first and even of “bending the rules” …a minor collusion together against authority.  This appeared to give them a sense that the mentors were different to other authority figures. It also became clear, and this was supported by the mentors themselves and the mentoring service, that a sort of grapevine was developing where the young people were advocating the benefits of mentoring to each other.  Interestingly, this seemed to emphasise that the mentor was a different kind of figure. For example, Joan described how she had heard about it;’ Cause one of my mates had a mentor, so I wanted one. ….. and she said…  ‘It’s nice having a mentor cause if you’ve got any problems you can go and talk to them’ and she went on to say; ‘ it’s not like Social Workers, you don’t have to worry. Cause they don’t work for Social Services do they?’  This suggests that the professional and statutory duties that Social Services have to undertake, often involving difficult decisions about the young people’s lives, are seen as getting in the way of developing trust and a creative relationship with young people. A fact that, of course many committed and dedicated Social Workers regret as having arisen as a consequences of the severe financial and professional constraints that have been placed on them.  Further, the young people described that the mentors were able to be generous with their time and attention. This almost appeared to represent a form of ‘cognitive dissonance’ or puzzlement for the young people along the lines of: ‘I have low self-esteem and think of myself as unlovable not worthy of affection. Yet, the mentor spends a lot of time with me but does not get paid for it. Why?  Even when I test them and am difficult they stay with me. Maybe I am not so bad after all? Or are they a bit weird!  But, actually they are OK and not really weird. Oh, well maybe I am OK, it’s alright to like myself a bit?’  What was important in this process was that this puzzle for the young person stayed in place for long enough for them to start to conclude that the only answer had to be such a positive one about themselves.


Summary of key factors within identified themes  

  • Voluntary. Not professional
  • Validation. “I’m OK! I’m normal. I’m not invisible” 
  • Calmness and emotional intelligence. Reduced stress, relaxation, think more clearly, gain more control.
  • On my side. Fight my corner.
  • Honesty Knowing where I stand.
  • Available. First port of call. Care leavers often alone and invisible.
  • Taking charge. Lifting mood.
  • Problem solving. Modelling and accessing networks.
  • Building stories. Making sense of previous experiences. How they got to here.
  • Held in mind. “My mentor is in my head”
  • Finding strengths. The essence of leadership is creating value in others. Mentors add value. “My mentor makes me feel I’m worth something.”
  • Learning from negatives & reframing. Problems are not inside us. They come from a web of historical relationships.
  • Listening & advising. 
  • Safety. To engage and show vulnerability.
  • Trust. It’s mentioned in every interview. “My mentor is awesome. I can trust her so maybe I can trust others.”  

With thanks to Professor Rudi Dallos, University of Plymouth. 

Rod Salter

Published: 26th Jun 2020

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