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Most of us have had someone in our lives who offered guidance, stimulated our thinking, gently scolded, and/or helpfully listened to us along the way. These kinds of folks are often referred to as “mentors.”

I was blessed with several mentors along the way. As a teen, it was my Uncle Manford S. In graduate school, it was my major professor Judy L. Later on in learning the business world, it was Ron S. These mentors seemed to pop out of nowhere to guide me when I needed it most, although I did not know I needed that guidance at the time.

Many mentors are exactly like that. They show up when we when we need them, even when we don’t know that we need them. It’s less common for youth or adults to state the need for a mentor then go seek one out.

I believe that there are 6 basic types of Good Mentors. By “Good” I mean mentors who are helpful and effective to those they mentor. I’m not including people who mean well and try very hard, but generally have little impact.

Good mentors can be found in both sustained and episodic periods of our lives. A sustained period is a mentor who sticks around for a very long time. My mentor Ron S. has been my mentor for 25 years! An episodic period is a mentor for a shorter, often defined, period of time. For instance, someone who teaches a youth the basics of renting their first apartment might be considered an episodic mentor.

In reviewing the 6 basic types of mentors, I don’t want to give the impression that a mentor cannot have more than one of these 6 characteristics. Indeed, some of the very best mentoring comes from those who combined characteristics of these types.


  1. The Networking Mentor. This type of mentor connects people with other people. She or he knows key contacts in the community. They can facilitate introductions, make recommendations, and help young people get connected in the community. For foster youth, this can be an especially important type of mentor since they can identify key people at prospective employers, educational institutions, and community-based organizations. For agencies seeking this type of mentor, consider contacting local civic organizations such as Rotary Club, Kiwanis, Lions Club, or Junior League. Bank and credit union officers often have wide-based community connections that would enable them to serve as Networking Mentors.
  2. The “Dream Big” Mentor. This mentor helps others move beyond their normal perspectives to imagine what new, creative things might become part of their experience. For instance, the foster youth who has worked at a fast food restaurant for 12 months might benefit from a Dream Big Mentor who helps the youth imagine working in a different capacity, making more money, and establishing a career in another field.
  3. The Work Plan Mentor. These kinds of mentors are extremely helpful when one gets stuck or in a rut. These mentors have the knack of helping a person identify a new or existing goal and defining the steps and timeline to reach that goal in the most efficient way possible. It’s a stroke of extreme luck when this kind of mentor is also a Dream Big mentor.
  4. The Teacher Mentor. Teacher mentors do exactly what the name implies, they teach. These mentors are extremely valuable for youth who are about to leave or have recently left foster care. They can provide so many valuable pieces of information on securing housing, locating a good job, setting up a household, and much more.
  5. The “You Can Do It!” Mentor. These mentors are sometimes called “cheerleaders” because they primarily serve to encourage, applaud, and give cheers to those they mentor. Youth who have had especially demoralizing experiences in foster care often react negatively at first to these kinds of mentors seeing them as frauds. However, if the mentor and youth have a trusting, positive relationship in place, the You Can Do It! Mentor can often be the support a youth needs to be successful both in and after foster care.
  6. The Socratic Mentor. The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was known for asking challenging and thought-provoking questions of his students. The Socratic Mentor tends to do the same thing. This mentor asks questions designed to make a person think and gain new insights based on the questioning. For instance, I remember listening to my colleague Tim (a Socratic Mentor) with a 16-year-old young woman in foster care he was mentoring. She had stated that she wanted to leave foster care, buy a car, and drive 400 miles to live with her birth family. Tim listened thoughtfully. Then he formulated a series of questions that (lovingly, gently) challenged how she was going to achieve leaving her foster care placement, buying the car, and driving to the birth family. Over the course of 90 minutes, she held onto the three things she wanted, but came to her own conclusions that it would be best to stick it out in foster care until 18, accumulate the cash needed to buy a used car (and accompanying insurance and license) once she left care, and check out whether the birth family wanted her in their lives.
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Dr. Chris Downs has devoted much of his professional career to improving services and outcomes for older, at-risk youth. Chris is President of The Downs Group LLC, based in Seattle and has the pleasure of working with many talented professionals in child welfare and allied areas including his company Associates.