Curbing the impact of negative student-adult relationships: A conversation with Mike Garringer

By Julia Freeland Fisher, Christensen Institute 

As many readers will know, most of my research over the past few years has focused on innovations that nurture relationships in students’ lives—including new approaches to shoring up student support networks and creative ways of expanding those networks to new corners of their communities and beyond. 

As optimistic as I am about the potential for these innovations, connecting students to relationships is a double-edged sword. Decades of mentoring research has shown that a negative relationship can be worse than no relationship at all. Young people who experience negative or curtailed mentoring relationships show marked decreases in their sense of self-worth and academic ability.

Educators and schools working to deepen connections and expand networks for students—especially when in a rush to curb the devastating effects of disconnection caused by the pandemic—should not turn a blind eye to these risks. 

Instead, there are two clear approaches schools and programs can take. First, reconnection efforts should commit to a clear measurement agenda for keeping track of the quality of relationships in students’ lives. Second, schools should also take a page from the mentoring world on the concept of “closure”—that is, if a relationship turns out poorly, there are practices to mitigate second-order harm.

I sat down with Mike Garringer, who heads research and evaluation at MENTOR, The National Mentoring Partnership—a nonprofit research, advocacy, and support organization for mentoring programs around the country—to get his take on this often-overlooked aspect of student-adult relationships.

Measuring connection, not just contact

Julia: One of my personal goals in my work is to bring the deep expertise the mentoring movement and researchers have built into more educational settings. In a rush to connect students to more supports and opportunities, we’ve observed that very well-intentioned programs can fall into the trap of measuring contact but not connection. What tools are out there that schools and education nonprofits should know about when it comes to measuring relationship quality between students and teachers, and students and other adults ?

Mike: I highly recommend this section of our Measurement Guidance toolkit, which offers a great framework for thinking about mentoring relationship quality (borrowed from scholars Mike Karcher and Mike Nakkula), but also provides downloadable tools that can help measure a number of different aspects of relationship quality. 

Some of these measures are fairly holistic, measuring many facets of a relationship (e.g., trust, shared power, reliability, etc.), while others focus on specific aspects (e.g., group cohesion in programs where multiple youth are being mentored together, or cultural responsiveness). I think that framework in general will be helpful because it highlights many of the areas where things can fall apart or where support may be needed to keep a relationship from breaking down.

One thing to call out specifically within that broader framework is the notion of mentor “attunement”, which Julia Pryce and Linda Gilkerson have written about extensively. Attunement is a concept that explains how mentors can reduce conflicts in relationships by being more mindful and aware of how the youth is doing and respond accordingly during mentoring interactions. This process involves both mindfulness on the part of the mentor about what they are bringing into each mentoring interaction, but also listening and aligning their mentoring activities with “where the kid is at.” That can greatly reduce the types of conflicts that lead to matches having struggles and frustrations that lead to premature endings in the first place.

Guiding a mentor-mentee relationship

Julia: How might educators, program staff, or program leaders help ensure that any new relationships that students are accessing—with formal or informal mentors—are positive? One strength that schools and institutions have is that they typically have staff who can be a resource or a “coach” of sorts to help young people engage in positive relationships. Many program staff do an excellent job on the front end to help recruit mentors or volunteers into their programs. But how those staff should or shouldn’t participate in or shape a mentor-mentee relationship is a bit trickier.  

Mike: I would encourage educators and program leaders to think about mentoring relationships not as a dyad of mentor-mentee, but as a system of people who need to work collaboratively with the mentor and youth to make that work. This includes the parent or caregiver of the child; program staff (assuming a programmatic connection); and potentially others, such as teachers, coaches, workplace supervisors, or clinicians, depending on the context of the relationship. There has been some seminal research in recent years looking at the influence of this “system” on the trajectory of the relationship. Tom Keller and Renee Spencer’s Study to Analyze Relationships (STAR) study is a goldmine in this respect, as it noted that many times what torpedoed a mentoring relationship was not mentor-mentee conflict, but conflict between mentor and caregiver or any of these parties with the program staff. 

In fact, Renee’s work on prematurely ending matches points to the fairly common scenario where mentor and youth are getting along fine, but the youth is pulled from the relationship because of caregiver mistrust or dissatisfaction with the mentor or, commonly, with the program staff. There is a wave of new scholarship that really examines the role of staff in making these things work, or not. So I would really encourage practitioners to view these relationships as having more than two players. 

Closure for relationships that don’t work out

Julia: In mentorship, there’s a concept of “closure,” which in layman’s terms is the notion that sometimes, for a whole variety of reasons, relationships end. How might closure be a moment of positive reflection rather than an experience that can have devastating effects on students’ sense of self worth?

Mike: I think my top recommendation is to really pay attention to the closure practices in the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring (EEPM), which cover both planned and unplanned closures. Both of those, depending on how they are handled, can leave a negative impact on the relationship. If a program has tried and tried to keep a struggling relationship going to no avail, we encourage them to end it formally, rather than letting it drag on and turn even more sour. 

Regardless of why it’s ending, it’s important that the program handles closure with a thorough exit process that ensures everyone gets a chance to process the experience, even if it was negative. I think it’s important to not just plan around how to end relationships that went poorly, but also good relationships that end abruptly because of fairly benign reasons, like the mentor moving away or the young person no longer being eligible for the program. I have heard many stories of positive relationships leaving the young person feeling hurt and betrayed because the mentor had to leave the relationship for understandable reasons, but didn’t handle that closure properly. I’ve also heard stories of really failed relationships being viewed almost positively by youth because a program staff member took the time to help the young person process their feelings and use that failure as a learning experience. Overall, the most important point is that someone has to help the young person process whatever it was that happened in that relationship. To avoid this last step is to really risk doing harm to that young person.

Even career mentoring efforts, especially those that are short term or are focused more on skills and experiences than emotional connections, are in some ways ripe for these kinds of issues. Mentors may think that they don’t need to end the relationship thoughtfully because it was short, or they did all the activities, or the kid “got what they wanted.” But they might ignore the fact that even short-term career exposure experiences can have real meaning to a young person and the end of that might need some thoughtful attention by the program or responsible party that brought the adult and youth together. You may want to look at the closure section of our Workforce EEPM supplement as we make some suggestions for programs that are bringing youth into career spaces. 

In addition, a few years ago we put out a series of tools on how to close matches based on that STAR study’s findings. I think tools #4 and #5 will be most helpful here. The first are questions programs can ask about how things are going along the way that help find and fix trouble spots before the relationship goes sour. The latter tool is one that Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Massachusetts Bay shared on how they facilitate that closure process and likely has a lot of the tips on handling failed matches.

[Tweet “While we may not be able to prevent negative or disappointing #mentoring experiences, we can control what we do in the wake of them. – Mike Garringer, MENTOR”]

Key principles of mentoring

Julia: As you know, a lot of schools, institutions, and other education nonprofits are not operating formal mentoring programs. But they are integrating one-off mentoring components or other opportunities for students to build their networks. Can you extrapolate some key principles for those sorts of practitioners based on the mentoring literature?

Mike: I think I would just emphasize the following advice:

  • Give everyone closure: Any time a program (loosely defined, including schools playing that “facilitator of relationships” role) connects a youth and an adult in a mentoring-type relationship, that program must take responsibility for ensuring that the closure process happens for youth, regardless of how and why their relationship is ending. Even for the best matches, the end can be painful and undo positive growth, so make sure everyone gets a closure experience.
  • Make space for conversations: If the relationship wound up being negative for the youth, helping them process why, helping them see the role they played (if any), and talking about what this means for future relationships with adults who want to help them is critical. What programs can’t allow to happen is letting the kid feel like he or she shouldn’t ask for help in the future based on this one experience. So programs, not parents or mentors, need to make sure these conversations happen and that the young person finds peace with the negative experience or even the negative aspects of an experience that is a mixed bag of positive and negative interactions.
  • Make sure all parties are clear on future contact: Young people may be looking at these relationships as future connections/networks for their career or other goals. But if the mentor doesn’t want to, or can’t commit to playing that role, they have to be clear and honest about that up front, and adhere to any program or school policies around contact. (For example, an adult breaking school safety rules, even to help a kid, isn’t a great idea.) At the time of closure, the rule is never make a promise about future help you aren’t sure you can provide. So getting really, really clear about not just future contact, but about what that mentor will and won’t do in the future is important.
  • Debrief with the mentor: If a kid had a very negative experience, it’s important to really debrief with that mentor and unpack why. Chances are, it’s because you have an adult who was less than accepting or caring to that young person. This field, both in and out of programmatic contexts, unfortunately has some adults in it who are mentoring for less-than-ideal reasons. It’s also full of adults who do not understand youth generally and certainly struggle to understand or respect youth from diverse backgrounds. I think especially in the career exploration spaces, it’s especially common to find adults who are mentoring that do not understand kids, don’t view the relationship as mutual and collaborative, and don’t value the young person and their background. If you have a relationship in which that young person was harmed by a negative experience, find out why. Chances are you have an adult who should not be offered the opportunity to mentor again.

[Tweet “As we expand the scale of students’ social capital #relationships, let’s remember to scale the care and intentionality around them too. -Mike Garringer, MENTOR”]

Julia: Any other advice to add?

Mike: Negative mentoring experiences are remarkably common and really reflect a few main realities: we have a lot of programs that are good at connecting kids and adults, but may not be as good at supporting them in that work. And the sad fact is that we have a lot of adults in America who do not have great values and do not care for young people in developmental ways. I can think back to a few mentoring experiences from my youth where I certainly wish things like this had been handled better. There is one harmful experience I still think about today as a 50-year-old man. 

But the good news is that while we may not be able to prevent negative or disappointing mentoring experiences, we can control what we do in the wake of them. We can help youth and mentors make meaning of the experience, we can change program practices to mitigate future situations, and we can make sure that everyone is better prepared to step into these roles and be their best selves. I am heartened that so many American adults want to step up for young people and support their education and development. But we do have to pay attention to how to do that responsibly and remember that these relationships, no matter how short or focused, need care, maintenance, and closure, just like any other relationship between two people—but especially in these relationships, because we can’t expect young people to navigate them on their own. So as we expand the scale of social capital relationships, let’s remember to scale the care and intentionality around them too.

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