How mentor traits affect their relationship with aggressive children

Cavell, T. A., Mutignani, L. M., Alfonso, L., & Marie Smith, A. (2020). Attachment Tendencies, Big 5 Personality Traits, and Self‐Efficacy as Predictors of Mentors’ Relationships with Aggressive Children. American Journal of Community Psychology, 66(1-2), 130-143.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Many staff members are expected to identify helpful and problematic habits from volunteer mentors as they screen, train, and match volunteer mentors in formal mentoring programs. 
  • Aggressive youth experience more conflicts in their relationships with adults than non-aggressive youth. 
  • This study examines if mentor traits (e.g. self-efficacy, mentors’ self‐reported attachment habits, and Big Five personality traits) can predict the quality of the mentoring relationship with youth identified as highly aggressive. 
  • The results of the moderator analyses were mixed: 
    • Whenever incidents of conflict were low, ambivalence attachment negatively predicted mentoring relationship quality, while agreeableness and extraversion personality traits positively did.  
    • Whenever incidents of conflict were high, openness and conscientiousness positively predicted mentoring relationship quality, while agreeableness negatively predicted it.
  • It is vital for mentoring programs to carefully assess mentors’ traits as they screen, train, and match them with mentees, especially with children identified as aggressive. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Youth mentoring is theorized as a relationship‐based intervention in which a strong mentor–mentee bond functions as a mediator of positive outcomes. Given evidence for the importance of a positive relationship, the current study investigated whether differences in mentors’ self‐reported attachment tendencies (avoidance and ambivalence), Big Five personality traits, and self‐efficacy predicted match quality after one academic semester. We also tested whether mentors’ experience of conflict in the relationship moderated the relation between these characteristics and match quality. Participants were college student mentors (N = 190) paired with elementary school children identified via teacher and peer reports as highly aggressive. Separate regression analyses indicated that avoidance, openness, and self‐efficacy significantly predicted mentor‐rated (but not child‐rated) match quality in expected directions. Moderator analyses revealed a mixed pattern of results: at low levels of conflict, ambivalence was a negative predictor of match quality, whereas extraversion and agreeableness were positive predictors. At high levels of conflict, openness and conscientiousness were positive predictors of match quality, whereas agreeableness was a negative predictor. The findings suggest it is important for mentoring programs to consider mentor characteristics when screening, training, and matching mentors, particularly in relationships with children identified as aggressive.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Our study adds to the limited body of research on the relation between individual differences in mentors and the quality of their matches. Importantly, mentees in our study were elementary school children identified as highly aggressive. We examined an array of individual differences in mentors, including their attachment tendencies, Big Five Traits, and level of mentoring‐specific self‐efficacy. As expected, mentors who were more securely attached, open to new experiences, and confident in their abilities tended to report higher quality matches with aggressive children. We also found evidence that match conflict functioned to moderate the relation between mentor characteristics and mentor‐rated match quality. Importantly, we found no evidence that mentor characteristics predicted child‐rated match quality, nor were predictors of mentor‐rated match quality predictive of low‐quality matches, our proxy for poor quality matches. The findings support continued investigation of formal assessment of individual differences in mentors as a way to predict the relational quality of their matches (Goldner, 2017; Larose et al., 2019).

Predicting Match Quality

Mentors’ attachment tendencies were significantly linked to their ratings of match quality, supporting the view that mentors with more benign internal working models of self and others are better equipped to provide aggressive children with a supportive relationship (Zilberstein & Spencer, 2017). We also found that mentors who were open to new experiences had more positive mentoring relationships. Because the modal mentor in our study was a white female college student and the modal mentee was a young boy of color, it makes sense that mentors’ openness to new experiences would predict higher quality matches. Mentors and mentees also likely differed on a number of other variables such as parents’ educational background, income, and native language. Perhaps mentors who viewed these differences as an opportunity to learn and grow and not as impediments were better able to bridge the gap between those differences. We also replicated previous studies reporting that mentor self‐efficacy is predictive of better match quality. We note, however, that self‐efficacy was not predictive when considered along with mentor avoidance and openness. The latter two variables were uniquely predictive in our omnibus regression model, which suggests value in assessing both as potential markers of capable mentors.

Contrary to hypotheses, we found no support for a direct relation between the mentor traits of agreeableness or conscientiousness and match quality. This could reflect restricted range: Mean scores for these two traits in this study were above published means for college student samples (e.g., Gow et al., 2005). It is possible that college students who choose to participate in a youth mentoring program are perhaps more agreeable and conscientious than other college students.

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