Wait, what?!: Shorter, less intensive mentoring relationships can be just as effective

by Jean Rhodes

I think we can all agree that a good working relationship is a necessary ingredient of all successful mentoring. It can provide a safe, supportive foundation for learning new skills and navigating challenging topics and tasks. In one mentoring program, for example, high school seniors who had expressed an interest in college, but had not yet applied, were paired with trained mentors who taught them how to complete applications and essays, apply for financial aid, prepare for standardized tests, and successfully interview. Evaluators compared this supported evidence-based approach to a lighter touch intervention, which provided students with all the same information but no mentor. Those who worked with mentors were nearly twice as likely to attend a four-year college.[v]

Despite their necessity, mentoring alliances need not be as intensive and enduring as experts 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.

A recent national study of school-based mentoring lends further support for striking a balance between relationship-building and targeted goals. The largest effects emerged in relationships that found the “sweet spot” between closeness and goal setting.[viii] Moreover, the impact of structured, skills-based activities was stronger in the context of close relationships than in more distant relationships. These findings are consistent with those from a 2012 study of school-based mentoring matches, which found that taking a “sage/counseling” approach, in which mentors “balanced amicable engagement with adult guidance,” resulted in better relationship quality (rated by both mentors and mentees) and greater declines in depression and aggression, compared to exclusively instrumental (“teaching assistant/tutoring”) or relational (“friend/engaging”) mentoring approaches.[ix] Together, these studies suggest that mentoring programs should strive for a balance between building relationships and targeting specific goals and skills.

Of course, establishing a good working alliance (the first half of the above equation) is complicated by the fact that many children and adolescents are referred to mentoring programs by parents or teachers and, in some cases, may not even acknowledge that they need any additional support. When young people feel that their participation is involuntary, they may resist mentors as adult authority figures telling them what to do. This sort of resistance, in turn, is an important signal to mentors to back off, slow down, and to focus on building the alliance, and positive expectations.[xi] Resistance may also be a signal to get assistance from the mentoring program, particularly since weak, conflictual, or disappointing alliances can have damaging effects on youth. Regardless of the particular issue, early detection and resolution can mitigate negative consequences. Indeed, because a personal relationship is at the heart of mentoring interventions, a lack of connection and consistency can touch on a youth’s vulnerabilities in ways that can undermine their very sense of self.

This sort of sensitivity is common during the adolescent years when issues of acceptance and rejection are particularly salient. Showing this positive regard need not translate into “a stream of compliments.”[xviii] It can sometimes be conveyed just as effectively through careful listening, speaking in a warm, gentle tone, and maintaining an interested and authentic stance.[xix] In a recent study of cognitive behavioral therapy, perceived therapist genuineness was found to be the single most important predictor of the therapeutic alliance, and authenticity has been identified as an important component of mentoring. [xx] Thus, a key step in establishing an alliance with youth is to convey a sense of being authentically engaged and invested.[xxi] This requires that mentors adopt a less formal, flexible, youth-centered style that is goal-oriented, but also shaped by the mentee’s interests, needs, and preferences.[xxii]

Such stances enable mentors to strike the right balance between open-ended conversation, playful interactions, and other relationship-building and the use of specific tools or curricula. Being responsive in this way requires a fair amount of empathy, which is the capacity to be affected by and share someone else’s emotional state and perspective.[xxiii] Empathy can involve subtly matching posture and even the neural responses and feelings of another.[Also vital is “cultural empathy,” which conveys respect for the values and perspectives of ethnic and racial minority groups.[xxv] This has implications for mentoring, where volunteers and youth (and their families) may enter the relationship from markedly different classes and cultural worlds. Showing “cultural humility,” as opposed to simply “competence,” means being curious about and connecting with youth’s most important and key identities (which could be their race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, generational status, nationality, etc.), and helping them to feel known and accepted.[xxvi] As countries are shaped and transformed by global migration, such issues become even more salient. In the U.S., for example, over one quarter of the school-aged population are children of immigrants or immigrants themselves, representing nearly twenty million children under the age of eighteen.[xxvii]Everyone has a cultural identity, not just non-majority youth, and mentors who are respectful of and attuned to cultural beliefs and values will forge stronger alliances.[xxviii] As recent research has highlighted, the same advice applies to working and interacting with mentees’ parents and family members.

To understand effective adult-youth relationship processes, psychologist Marc Karver and his colleagues recently conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis of youth therapeutic alliances. His findings have direct relevance to building strong mentoring relationships. Across the twenty-eight studies, which encompassed 2,419 children and adolescents (average age 12.38), there was a moderately strong association between the quality of the working alliance and youth outcomes (0.39), which is similar to findings reported in other meta-analyses.[xxix] Based on this comprehensive analysis they made several research-driven suggestions for effective adult-youth relationship formation and maintenance. Although focused on child and adolescent therapists, these suggestions apply to youth mentors, and include attitudes (e.g., being friendly, open, trusting, and culturally sensitive, and not taking mistrust personally) as well as recommendations for building strong alliances with parents and caregivers. Importantly, the researchers found that the therapists’ relationships with caregivers were just as influential as was the therapist-youth alliance in predicting youth outcomes. This underscores the importance of mentors and program staff building strong ties and mutual expectations, not only with their mentees, but with their mentees’ caregivers and/or teachers. Even when mentors feel close with their mentees, when mentors fail to connect with parents, it can weaken their relationships, particularly when parents feel threatened by the bond.[xxx]Caregivers should be provided with ample opportunity to voice their hopes and concerns and to provide details and specify priorities for the relationship. It is often caregivers who initiate the mentoring, and they are typically most familiar with any other issues that affect their children’s well-being.

Other researchers have also highlighted the importance of communication and agreement among parents and other stakeholders, noting that there are actually four key people (i.e., the mentee, the mentor, the mentoring program staff member, and the parent) that need to be considered since any one of them can make or break the bond.[xxxiv] Thus, in addition to supporting youth and caregivers, effective programs provide adequate training, supervision, and support to mentors. A recent study of over 3,200 matches showed that the two strongest predictors of match retention were ongoing mentor supervision and staff-to-mentor ratios.[xxxv] Staff with lighter caseloads can provide training that helps support more effective, enduring, and higher quality mentoring relationships. Such training, in turn, affects the quality of mentor-mentee relationships; pre-match mentor training has been shown to predict mentors’ relationship satisfaction and commitment.[xxxvi] In a meta-analysis of fifty-five program evaluations, researchers found higher effect sizes for those programs that followed ‘‘best practices’’ including screening of volunteers, careful matching, providing parent support, and having clear expectations and communication around the frequency of meetings and length of the match.[xxxvii]Programs that followed six or more effective mentoring practices showed effect sizes that were five times larger than programs that followed fewer than six of these practices (0.20 vs. 0.04). Clearly, programs can tip the balance toward success by following evidence-based practices.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of resources to help both programs and mentors succeed. MENTOR’s National Mentoring Resource Center provides excellent training and research summaries for programs and the Chronicle offers a searchable database of research and evaluation summaries. Likewise, MENTOR’s Elements of Effective Practice (EEPM) outlines standards that programs can adopt to advance relationship quality.

The relationship-building and program standards discussed here are helpful in a broad sense as they cut across all program models. As we move toward more targeted, evidence-based approaches, programs will need to expand their training to include teaching mentors to build strong working alliances through which they can provide both supportive accountability (to ensure that youth remain engaged) and supervised practice (to promote mastery of new skills).

[viii] Lyons, M. D., McQuillin, S. D., & Henderson, L. J. (2018). Finding the sweet spot: Investigating the effects of relationship closeness and instrumental activities in school-based mentoring. American Journal of Community Psychology, 0, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12283

[ix] Keller, T. E., & Pryce, J. (2012). Different roles and different results: How activity orientations correspond to relationship quality and student outcomes in school-based mentoring. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 33(1), 47–64.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s10935-012-0264-1 (p.47)

[x] Clark, M. D. (1998). Strength-based practices- The ABC’s of working with adolescents who don’t want to work with you. Federal Probation, 62, 46 –53.

Karver, M. S., De Nadai, A. S., Monahan, M., & Shirk, S. R. (2018). Meta-analysis of the prospective relation between alliance and outcome in child and adolescent psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, 55(4), 341.

[xxii] Deutsch, N., & Spencer, R. (2009). Capturing the magic: Assessing the quality of youth mentoring relationships. New Directions in Youth Development: Theory, Practice and Research, 121, 47–70.