New study advances our understanding of mentor relationship development

Drew, A. L., & Spencer, R. (2021). Mentors’ approach to relationship-building and the supports they provide to youth: A qualitative investigation of community-based mentoring relationships. Children and Youth Services Review, 121, 105846.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Given how important mentoring relationships are in promoting positive youth development, it’s important to understand how different mentoring strategies affect mentees’ perceived experiences. 
  • This study explores how mentors’ approaches to relationship building affect mentee- perceived social support. 
  • Results suggest that mentors who have approaches that are the most suitable for their mentees are able to provide the most social support.
    • This also applies to mentors who find effective ways to modify their current approaches to best suit their mentees. 
  • Findings also indicate the quality of a mentor’s previous mentoring relationship helps determine how helpful that previous mentoring experience is for mentors that are building a relationship with their current mentees.
  • It is vital for program staff to provide the training and resources to help mentors find the most effective approach to build long-lasting relationships with their mentees. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

This longitudinal, qualitative study examined how mentors approach building relationships with early and middle adolescent mentees and how the mentor’s approach is associated with the supports provided by the mentor to the youth. Thematic analysis of narrative summaries of mentor, youth and parent interviews representing 16 mentor-youth matches did not identify any specific approach that better facilitated building the relationship. Instead, the fit of the mentor’s approach with the specific circumstances of the match appeared to matter more. Mentors whose approach fit well or who were able to adapt their approach to fit well provided the most support. Whether previous mentoring experience helped a mentor build the relationship and support the youth depended on well how the previous relationship went and how it influenced the mentor’s expectations with regard to the current match. Findings highlight the importance of program staff and parents in helping mentors find a good fitting approach in order to develop a supportive, long-term relationship with the youth.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The purpose of this longitudinal, qualitative study was to examine how mentors approach building a relationship with their mentee and the connection between the mentor’s approach and the support participants perceived the mentor to have provided to the youth. Close examination of the data did not identify that any specific approach or approaches was better at facilitating the building of the mentoring relationship, moving the focus instead to the fit of the mentor’s approach with the specific circumstances of the match. The study expands on previous studies of mentor approach (e.g. Karcher and Nakkula, 2010, Keller and Pryce, 2012, Pryce and Keller, 2011), which have focused almost exclusively on the mentor-youth dyad, by considering also the fit of how the mentor worked with the parent and the influence of coaching and feedback from agency staff. The mentor’s approach towards these supporting relationships appeared to be particularly important when the mentor’s approach did not initially fit well for the match. This wider focus better represents the complexity of interactions required in community-based mentoring relationships, reflecting a systemic perspective on youth mentoring relationships (Keller, 2005).

Contrary to previous research, no specific type of approach was identified that best facilitated building a relationship between the mentor and youth. What appeared to matter instead was how well the mentor’s approach, encompassing everything the mentor did to build the relationship, fit with the specific situation of the match (e.g., personalities, communication preferences, youth’s developmental stage). Mentors whose approach fit well with the situation were able to build relationships that sustained at least 12 months, the programs’ minimum requirement, and which were perceived as providing a wide range of support to the youth. Mentors in this sample whose approach did not fit the situation and who did not make any changes to adapt had relationships that ended before the 12 month mark and were often not able to provide much support to the youth. Examining the mentors’ approaches widely showed that these mentors did not seek support from the youth’s parent or the mentoring program or were unwilling to integrate their suggestions to improve their match. However, mentors, who did not start with an approach that was well suited to the match but were able to adapt, were able to build relationships lasting at least a year and provide a wide range of support to youth, similar to those mentors whose initial approach fit well.

Mentors whose approach was a good fit as well as those who were able to fix their approach often reflected traits of highly attuned (Pryce, 2012), empathetic mentors (Spencer, Pryce et al., 2020). These mentors paid attention to cues from the youth and showed flexibility in how they responded. They were able to identify how the youth was feeling and adapt or seek out help as needed. Mentor attunement and empathy may have helped these mentors identify ways that they needed to adapt their approach and seek out help from parents and mentoring program staff as part of a better fitting approach to building the relationship. The mentors whose approach did not fit the match well and who did not change their approach appeared to be minimally attuned (Pryce, 2012) and lack empathy for their mentee (Spencer, Pryce et al., 2020). These mentors missed verbal or non-verbal signs, or if they were able to identify them, were not able to respond or adjust their approach. Considering mentor approach beyond the mentor-youth dyad allowed us to identify ways in which interactions with the parent and mentoring program staff influenced whether and how the mentor changed their approach in response to the youth or family’s needs. Support from parents and program staff was especially important helping mentors determine an approach that fit well and in order to successfully build a relationship within a community-based mentoring program.

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