Are supportive relationships enough? The great debate continues

by Jean Rhodes

In their provocative new paper, Back to the Future: Mentoring as Means and End in Promoting Child Mental Health, mentoring experts Tim Cavell, Renée Spencer & Sam D. McQuillin make the case for several approaches, including the “supportive mentoring” approach, wherein the “mentoring relationship is not intended as a targeted intervention designed to produce a specific set of outcomes; rather, the relationship is a supplemental, prevention- or promotion-focused form of suport for young people’s overall growth and development.”

The article covers many important topics, but this particular point touches on a growing debate in the field of mentoring, one that deserves a closer looks. First, a little context. For nearly a century, most volunteer mentors have been tasked simply with building friendships with disadvantaged youth by being genuinely responsive and open to the needs and interests of their mentees.  Although this “friendship model” is gradually ceding ground to more focused, skills-based interventions that address youth’s particular challenges, it has also led many to worry that the latter approach comes at the expense of relationships. It’s important to note, however, that even those who lean toward more focus and structure, recognize that a good relationship is a necessary ingredient of all successful mentoring. It provides the safe, supportive foundation for learning new skills and navigating new challenging topics and tasks.  Indeed, decades of clinical and mentoring research have highlighted the independent contribution of nonspecific or “common factors,” such as helper’s warmth and empathy, as the essential foundation of any intervention.   

So the question is not whether a warm and caring mentor-mentee relationship is is necessary (it is), it’s whether the relationship alone is enough to help many of the youth who are referred to mentoring. Although the research is uneven, two decades of evidence suggests that  “relationship as an end goal” models may not be as effective than those that combine a good working relationships with a more  targeted, evidence-based approach. But, even if they were equally effective, there are additional arguments for combining relationships with targeted, evidence-based approaches.

  1. Programs cannot bank on close, transformative bonds as a matter of course. Yes, some relationships will be particularly strong and deepen over time, but all mentors should be well prepared to build and maintain a relationship that is sufficiently strong that youth remain engaged in the tasks at hand. What’s more, mentoring alliances need not be as intensive and enduring as we commonly assume. Researchers have found that moderate and strong mentoring relationships are equally effective in reducing delinquency and misconduct, and in improving school bonding and academic outcomes, while weak relationships are significantly less effective, or even harmful. The same holds true in psychotherapy, where researchers have found that nonspecific factors such as the relationship and clinician characteristics are meaningfully related to outcomes, but do not solely account for client change. Taken together, these studies demonstrate that there may be a threshold after which stronger relationships provide no additional benefits. In many cases, moderately close relationships may be good enough, particularly when they are balanced with evidence-based interventions.
  2. Programs that are more focused on relationship building and recreation are often redundant with youth’s everyday programs and activities. A 2018 national survey indicated that most mentees (87%) were already engaged in sports, clubs, and/or artistic activities when they entered the mentoring program–so presumably, they are being pulled from these programs (where there are often caring staff and other adults) to meet with their mentors.. In fact, since more recreational after-school programs produce effect sizes that are nearly identical to those of mentoring programs (e.g., Christensen et al., 2021) and reach far more youth, an argument can be made that  adult-youth relationships would be more efficiently provided and scaled by stocking the ponds of schools, after school, recreational programs with additional caring adults. Since only about 5% of youth will ever be assigned a formal mentor, perhaps formal mentors should be allocated to those who need more focused help. For those youth who are in need close relationships to support their “overall growth and development,” it may be more efficient to infuse youth’s everyday settings with more adults. After-school and other positive-youth development programs are a more scalable, and cost-effective way to provide “supplemental, prevention- or promotion-focused form of support for young people’s overall growth and development.”
  3. Given their scarcity and more structured, focused format, formal mentoring relationships should be viewed as an early, non- stigmatizing source of paraprofessional support that is less intensive than professional counseling but more structured than natural mentoring support. Other youth should be encouraged to recruit the caring adults who are already present in their families and communities. Although social capital tends to be concentrated among those with more general resources, youth-initiated mentoring models effectively teach marginalized young people strategies for recruiting and sustaining thriving networks of caring adults (e.g., teachers, religious leaders, etc.) who can serve as role models and connect them to new opportunities.

I would, however, argue that there are some instances when structuring the formal mentoring relationship as an end goal makes perfect sense–when youth are insecurely attached to their caregivers and show a pattern of difficulty trusting the teachers, counselors and other adults in their everyday lives. For such youth them the very process of learning to trust and building an alliance is an important goal in its own right.  (see Zilcha-Manofor more on this).

But you’ve heard more than enough from me on this. Let’s turn hear from one of the authors.

Sam McQuillin I don’t know if I’m a full blown cynic yet but I share at least some of your skepticism that mentoring programs as they currently exist in the US are limited in their capacity to provide (at scale) safe, stable, nurturing relationships. It could be that these types of programs could never provide– at scale– the type of developmental relationships that we know children benefit from. It could also be that, as knowledge accumulates, we can better engineer the selection of mentors and mentees, and enhance training and support to increase the likelihood that these types of relationships form. My hesitancy to adopt full blown cynicism is that I don’t actually believe we (researchers) have tried that hard (with the exception of researchers like Dr. Spencer)  to understand how and why these relationships form and benefit youth. Our measurement of the relationship, and the causal and maintaining factors of the relationship is very naive at this point. As you mentioned, research from clinical psychology in natural language processing and psychotherapy, psycholinguistics, and behavior modification might be instructive for the field. For the cynic, I think there is a bit of overconfidence in our outcome research regarding the null or small effect. In other words, just as the field and mentoring advocates overplay the small and inconsistent effects of mentoring to their advantage, I think we as researchers (at least recently) have pivoted to overplaying the small and inconsistent effects to mean that we know mentoring doesn’t work. We do not know this. There is a plausible, and perhaps likely, scenario where mentoring works in demonstrable ways, but we just don’t know it yet. Mike Lyons and I recently did a simulation study where we demonstrate that even if mentoring helped young people in demonstrable ways, the methodology we’ve used for the past 20 years would depress these effects (whether harmful or helpful). Given that this is a plausible explanation,  I worry that the field will have a knee jerk reaction to studies that have substantial methodological flaws which would result in the proverbial baby being thrown out with the bath water (i.e. abandoning traditional relationship-focused mentoring programs). We have a lot of work to do.

We’d love your thoughts on this.