The critical ingredient of youth programs –natural mentors

Schwartz, S. E. O., Chan, C. S., Rhodes, J. E. & Scales, P. C. (2013). Community developmental assets and positive youth development: The role of natural mentors. Research in Human Development, 10(2), 141-162.

Summarized by Jessica Cunningham, B.A. Lab Manager, Center of Evidence-Based Mentoring


Ironically enough, many people who would fit the definition of “mentor” often do not think of themselves as one, even if they have a unique, supportive, non-parental relationship with a youth. These “natural mentoring relationships” develop without the scaffolding of organized matching programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, and mentors are usually aunts, uncles, coaches, teachers, and older peers of the youth in question. Despite their lack of an official “mentor” title, these relationships are just as important and valuable for youth as relationships developed through mentoring agencies. However, natural mentoring relationships don’t just pop up overnight; and the ways in which they do develop is not well-understood. Understanding how these relationships develop is important because researchers can use those results and try to apply them to match-based programs along with reaching out to would-be natural mentors to help them serve the youth they care about. The authors of the following article sought to help to address this gap in the scientific literature.


Previous research has indicated that “natural mentors, that is, caring non-parental adults, such as extended family members, neighbors, teachers, and afterschool staff, who provide young people with ongoing support and guidance, play an important role in healthy development, particularly during adolescence…” where identity development is key. Youth who have natural mentors also have more positive life outcomes like greater school attachment/achievement, lower rates of drug/alcohol use and delinquency, as well as higher self-esteem. However, while previous literature has called attention to the importance of natural mentors, few studies have examined how natural mentoring relationships develop. This study sought to address this gap in the literature by examining activity involvement, community attitudes towards youth, and mediating factors for youth outcomes using a large-scale survey of 15-year-olds in the United States.



Participants: The participants of this study were 1,860 adolescents across the US who were all 15 at the time of the survey. Fifty-one percent of the sample was male, 55.6% were White, 18.2% identified as Hispanic, 14.9% identified as Black/African American, 4.4% were mixed race, 4.2% identified as Asian/Pacific Islander, and the remainder either identified as some other race or ethnicity or did not specify their race/ethnicity. The researchers used parental education attainment as a measure of socioeconomic status; 9.3% of the youth’s parents had not completed high school, 53.4% had completed high school but not college, 21.8% completed college, and 12.8% had completed graduate school.

The participants were recruited from Harris Poll Online, which is a database of millions of people who have agreed to participate in Harris surveys. In order to determine the youth’s activity levels, youth were asked whether or not they participated in programs, clubs, or activities after school. If they answered yes, they were asked how much time they spent involved in those activities (none, up to 2 hours, 2-5 hours, or more than 5 hours) in different types of programs, like sports, art/music/drama, spiritual services, and volunteer work.

The researchers also used the Perceived Community Attitudes Toward Youth scale, which is a four-item scale designed to assess the youth’s perceptions on how highly adults in the community valued youth, and included items such as “Adults in my town or city listen to what I have to say”.

Additionally, youth were asked whether they had a mentor, and if so, the nature of their relationship with that person (e.g. coach, teacher, neighbor or extended family member). If youth did have a mentor, they were given a shortened version of the Mentor-Youth Alliance Scale, which has six items and is used to determine the quality/closeness of the mentee’s relationship with their mentor.

Finally, data on outcome variables were also obtained through the survey. Specifically, researchers determined participants’ GPA, absences from school, school engagement, mastery goal orientation (three item scale adapted from Anderman, Urdan, & Roser’s 2005 scale measuring personal mastery goal orientation), prosocial values (7 item scale drawing items from the Monitoring the Future survey from Johnston, Bachman & O’Malley’s 2007 scale asking participants to rate the importance of prosocial values like helping the poor), ethnic identity (3-item scale adapted from Phinney’s Multi-Group Ethnic Identity Measure), and purpose (5 item scale from Benson & Scale’s 2009 Thriving Orientation Survey).



The researchers hypothesized that greater involvement in activities and more positive perceptions of community attitudes towards youth would be associated with higher likelihood of having a mentor, and also that having a mentor would be associated with positive youth outcomes. They also hypothesized that greater involvement would be associated with higher relationship quality with a mentor and that the relationship quality would predict more positive youth outcomes. Of the youth that had mentors (47%), they most commonly described their mentors as a friend 25.3%, teacher 13.1%, aunt or uncle 12.9, religious leader 9.6%, or coach 6.5%. The remainder were distributed across 20 other categories. Half of the participants who had mentors spent time with them at least once per week, 25.9% spent time with their mentor a couple of times per month, 14.1% spent time with their mentor once per month, and 9.5% of reported youth spent time with their mentors less than once per month. Participants rated their relationship quality with their mentors as being relatively high, and no significant differences were detected in the quality of the relationship by mentor type.

The researchers found that when controlling for gender, race, and parents’ level of education, perceived community attitudes toward youth and activity involvement were indeed associated with increased likelihood of having a mentor, and that having a mentor was associated with higher prosocial values and purpose.

They also found that while controlling for the same variables, community attitudes toward youth was significantly associated with mentoring relationship quality, but that activity involvement was not. Mentoring relationship quality was associated with mastery goal orientation, prosocial values, school engagement, and negatively associated with absences.



The results of this study indicate that youth participation in structured activities and increased perception that a community values youth are associated with greater likelihood of having a mentor. Although community values were associated with better relationship quality with mentors, activity involvement was not. The researchers posit that “it is possible that, although youth who are more involved in activities are more likely to have a mentor, that those mentors are not necessarily drawn from the activities, and therefore the frequency of activity involvement is not associated with higher quality relationships.”

The researchers go on to state that, “More involved youth may simply be exposed to more adults in their ecological contexts, in part because of their personal characteristics such as social competencies.” They suggest that in order to help natural mentoring relationships between adults and children in structured youth activities flourish, programs should make it a goal to promote “warm and trusting relationships among adults and youth” along with things like making sure that the ratio of children assigned to each adult is low so that each adult can spend time with children individually. They also suggest developing “youth initiated mentoring” within programs, where youth are asked to nominate an adult within their social circle to be their mentor as a way to help foster these positive youth outcomes.

To access the original research available at Rhodes Lab, click here.