Adolescents’ perception of mentor alliance and sense of belonging in a site-based mentoring program

Kazlauskaite, V., Braughton, J. E., Weiler, L. M., Haddock, S., Henry, K. L., & Lucas-Thompson, R. (2020). Adolescents’ Experiences of Mentor Alliance and Sense of Belonging in a Site-based Mentoring Intervention. Children and Youth Services Review, 105040.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Although evidence suggests that approximately half of American mentoring programs have site-based models, there is still a lack of research on the experiences of youth within those settings
  • This current study aims to better understand what aspects of the setting affect youths’ viewpoints on mentor alliance and sense of belonging
  • Participants were categorized into 4 groups
    • High mentor alliance-high belonging
      • E.g. Mentee had a positive mentoring experience & had a mentor that positively contributed to their mentee’s alliance & sense of belonging
    • Low mentoring alliance-high belonging
      • E.g. Mentee had a positive, but superficial, mentoring experience and had a high sense of belonging
    • High mentoring alliance-low belonging
      • E.g. Mentee had a positive mentoring experience but had a low sense of belonging
    • Low mentoring alliance-low belonging
      • E.g. Mentee had a negative mentoring experience and a low sense of belonging
  • Findings indicated that youths that were in the high mentor alliance-high belonging group recounted experiences that align with high-quality mentoring characteristics (e.g. empathy) and high – quality settings (e.g. positive social norms)
  • Youths in the low mentor alliance-low belonging group reported having trouble bonding with their peers and that they had insensitive mentors
  • Difficulty bonding with peers was also salient for youths in the high mentor alliance-low belonging group

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Site-based youth mentoring programs provide a unique context for positive youth development. Conceptually, youth derive benefit not only from the mentor alliance (i.e., youth’s feelings of compatibility with the mentor and satisfaction with the mentoring relationship), but also from their sense of belonging within the program. Using an exploratory sequential mixed-methods design, the purpose of this study was to illustrate the lived experiences of youth engaged in a site-based mentoring program. To draw distinctions in youths’ experiences, we purposively sampled and interviewed 76 youth (ages 11-18; 60.5% male) in one of four subgroups based on self-reported survey data: high mentor alliance-high belonging, high mentor alliance-low belonging, low mentor alliance-high belonging, and low mentor alliance-low belonging. As anticipated, youth in the high mentor alliance-high belonging group described contributive experiences consistent with high-quality mentor characteristics (e.g., empathy, acceptance) and high-quality settings (e.g., positive social norms, support for efficacy and mattering). In contrast, youth in the low mentor alliance-low belonging group described mentors who were insensitive and noted difficulty connecting with peers. Difficulty connecting with peers was also a salient barrier for youth in the high mentor alliance-low belonging group. Finally, absent from the experiences of youth in the low mentor alliance-high belonging group was mentor empathy, acceptance, and authenticity. Our findings describe experiences that contribute to mentor alliance and sense of belonging in a site-based youth mentoring program, noting the challenge facing similar programs, which is to attend simultaneously to mentor and setting quality.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Although our study did not focus on the mentors’ character or behavior, nor the specifics of the program and its influence on the experience of the mentee, some common themes did emerge that may have influenced the mentees’ experience of mentor alliance and sense of belonging. For example, positive experiences were greatly shaped by the mentors’ actions, such as being physically present, being able to share life stories, give advice to their mentees, and teach life-skills that youth believed will benefit them beyond the program. The high mentor alliance was also positively influenced by having similar life experiences that made it easier to relate to one another. The overall structure of the program was vital to youths’ sense of belonging. Having organized and scheduled activities planned gave the youth a sense of routine and stability in their lives, which induced their sense of belonging. Finally, the fact that the program was housed on a college campus seemed to encourage mentees willingness to attend and participate in planned activities.

A substantial difference between the high- and low- mentor alliance groups appeared to be the depth and vulnerability within the mentor-mentee relationship. Consistent with findings of similar studies, high mentor alliance mentees often expressed feelings of acceptance, empathy, and authenticity, consistent with self-reported measurement scores (Spencer, 2006, Thomson and Zand, 2010). In contrast, low mentor alliance groups described their relationship as collaborative and fun, which may not be sufficient to develop high mentor alliance. In other words, mentors may need to cultivate a deeper, more vulnerable experience during their mentor-mentee interactions to reach high mentor alliance (Dutton, Bullen, & Deane, 2018). Additionally, low mentor alliance may be due to individual personality traits of both mentor and mentee, as well as, the shortened length of the program that affected compatibility or willingness to self-disclose. As Frels and Onwuegbuzie (2012) outlined, the relationship between mentor and mentee is a gradual progress; therefore, building relationships at a slower pace over a longer span of time may foster a positive mentor alliance for some youth and mentors.

Due to the inherent nature of youth creating relationships with nonparental adults, it is also plausible that mentees already had strong mentoring relationships outside of the program. In this case, mentees’ goals and expectations for the relationships could have differed from program goals. This suggests that it is valuable for mentors and program staff to gauge mentee expectations and goals for the mentoring relationship. Further, it would ensure that accurate relational expectations are created and maintained, while respecting mentees’ development of trust and direction of their own time at the program (Frels & Onwuegbuzie, 2012). In addition, this finding supports previous scholarship that shows mentees may benefit from safe and neutral mentoring relationships (i.e., having some type of connection with a mentor) rather than labeling relationships as either “good” or “bad” (Nakkula & Harris, 2005). Instances when the mentoring relationships were described as adverse, rather than neutral or safe, were linked to a low sense of belonging.

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