All ears: Four good reasons to take a more targeted approach to mentoring

By Jean Rhodes

For nearly a century, many mentoring programs have tasked their volunteers with building friendships by being genuinely responsive and engaging in shared activities. A study of nearly 2,000 mentors from thirty nationally representative youth mentoring programs operating across the United States, mentors were asked how they spent time with their mentees (Jarjoura et al., 2018). The responses reflected a “non-specific”  approach that emphasized friendship and broad (as opposed to more targeted) goals. The most common response, “making time to have fun,” was followed by activities such as informal discussions, going to cultural or other special events, and engaging in creative activities (Jarjoura et al., 2018).

Although this “friendship model” is gradually ceding ground to more focused, skills-based interventions that address youth’s particular challenges, it has also led to understandable concerns that the latter approach comes at the expense of relationships. It’s true–a  good relationship is a necessary ingredient of all successful mentoring, providing a 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 absolutely is!), it’s whether the relationship alone is enough to help youth navigate their mental health, social, behavioral and other changes. Here are four reasons, I hope you’re all EARS 🙂 .

  1. Effectiveness Friendship models are simply not as effective than those that combine a good working relationships with a more  targeted, evidence-based approach. My team and I recently conducted a meta-analysis. “Non-specific versus targeted approaches to youth mentoring: A follow-up meta-analysis” Journal of Youth and Adolescence). This study built on a recent meta-analysis of 70 intergenerational, one-on-one mentoring program evaluations, representing more than 25,000 youth, that were conducted from 1975 through 2017 (Raposa et al., 2019). When type of program was examined, targeted and more problem-specific programs had an average effect size of 0.25, which was more than double the average effect size non-specific, friendship-based programs (g = 0.11). But, even if they were equally effective, there are three additional arguments for combining relationships with targeted, evidence-based approaches.
  2. Averages 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.
  3. Redundancy Programs that are focused on relationship building and recreation may actually be 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.”
  4. Scarcity Given their scarcity of adults who volunteer for academic- or calendar year formal mentoring mentoring programs each year (only around 2.5 million when there are about 45 million youth under 18), these relationships should be allocated to those who need them most. They should be viewed as an early, non- stigmatizing source of paraprofessional support that is less intensive than professional counseling or tutoring but more structured than natural mentoring support. Youth who do not present with particular needs or challenges could be encouraged and even taught to recruit 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 young people strategies for recruiting and sustaining networks of caring adults 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-Mano for more on this).

This does not mean that relationship-building activities and training are not important in targeted mentoring approaches. Meta-analyses of child and adolescent psychotherapy have consistently found that, across treatment modalities, therapist-youth working alliance affect youth outcomes, even in the context of structured treatments like cognitive-behavioral therapy, and that certain relational variables (e.g., counselor empathy, genuineness, and warmth; counselor direct influence skills on youth; youth willingness to participate) significantly boost outcomes (Karver, De Nadai, Monahan, & Shirk, 2018). Mentors should be provided training in these universal characteristics of effective helping relationships, as they serve as a strong foundation for targeted skills development and remediation.

Programs should strive to find equilibrium between relational bonds and the delivery of more targeted and specific approaches to mentoring. The mentors should not be heavy-handed in their approach to helping youth, and should always privilege the relationship over whatever skills they were hoping to impart  But when this balance is achieved, the mentoring relationship may be poised to better address the growing challenges of today’s youth.