Implementing program practices contributes to stronger youth mentoring relationships: Insights from Dr. Thomas E. Keller

A recent study led by mentoring researcher Dr. Thomas E. Keller suggests that implementing program practices contributes to stronger youth mentoring relationships. Megyn Jasman talked with Dr. Keller to learn more about these findings and direct implications for youth mentoring programs.

Q: The mentor-staff working alliance appears to play a critical role in explaining the relationship between reported program practices and mentoring relationship outcomes. Could you elaborate on the specific elements or qualities of this alliance that may strongly influence mentoring relationship outcomes the most? Additionally, how might mentoring programs foster and evaluate the strength of these mentor-staff relationships as part of their routine practice?

Yes, we found the mentor-staff working alliance helped to account for the connection between mentors’ exposure to recommended program practices and a positive assessment of their mentoring relationship. The working alliance is a concept from research on counseling that highlights the significance of the interpersonal bond between the therapist and client and also the importance of their mutual agreement on the goals and tasks for achieving success through counseling. We adapted this concept to apply to the relationship between a mentor and the primary program staff person providing regular support and guidance. These relationships represent vital point-of-service interactions between mentors and programs, where many program practices are actually implemented. We hypothesized that a mentor-staff alliance featuring a functional bond (i.e., trust, approval), alignment on goals for the mentoring relationship, and agreement on what the mentor should be doing to support the mentee would facilitate a more positive and effective mentoring experience. In short, the mentor would feel supported and have role clarity. This view is consistent with a systemic model of mentoring in which the staff member’s relationships with the mentor, caregiver, and mentee all contribute to a successful intervention. Our questions to assess the mentor-staff working alliance particularly emphasized agreement on goals and tasks. A program that routinely and effectively adheres to recommended practices would provide staff and mentors with greater structure and more consistent messages about program priorities and expectations. It seems reasonable that high-functioning programs with strong infrastructure, clear guidelines, and reliable implementation of practices would foster stronger mentor-staff relationships that in turn enable mentors to be more confident and competent in mentoring youth.       

Q: The findings indicate differences when program practices are reported by staff versus mentors. What strategies would you recommend for mentoring programs to align these perceptions more closely? Furthermore, how might these strategies enhance the overall effectiveness of mentoring practices, particularly in terms of direct impact on mentee outcomes and mentor engagement?

First, it’s important to note that implementation of program practices was measured a bit differently with mentors and with staff. The mentors reported on the extent to which they personally experienced specific practices (i.e., on a scale from not at all true to very true). However, staff reported on what proportion of mentors in the program were exposed to each practice, and then we added up how many practices were consistently applied (with more than 80% of mentors). Given those different perspectives, what seems most important is the very high level of agreement we observed between mentors and staff within the same programs. In addition, the assessments from both mentors and staff were strongly associated with the strength of the mentor-staff working alliance, although the correlation was greater for mentors (who reported on the working alliance). As noted, the findings did differ in analyses using the staff assessment of program practices. In particular, the program practices as reported by staff had a direct effect on mentors’ relationship satisfaction and commitment, even when accounting for the mentor-staff working alliance. These two outcomes, satisfaction and commitment, may reflect more on mentor attitudes about their mentoring experience and perhaps even their affiliation with the program. In contrast, we didn’t see an association between staff reported practices and how mentors referenced security and negativity within their mentoring relationships, which are indicators of mentor-mentee interactions. General program practices may have less influence here considering how many personal and interpersonal factors determine interactions. However, it’s possible that a strong, functional program can support positive mentor attitudes regarding the mentoring experience by setting reasonable expectations and providing adequate support so that mentors are more likely to persist even if their mentoring relationships have challenges. 

Q: Your analysis suggests that relationship negativity was only marginally associated with mentor-reported program practices. Given the nuanced dynamics of mentoring relationships, how do you envision interventions within mentoring programs could specifically address and mitigate relationship negativity, ensuring it doesn’t undermine the overall security and positivity of the mentor-mentee bond?

In our study, relationship negativity was assessed with a measure picking up conflict, criticism, and antagonism. There may be little that programs can do to avoid or minimize the personal irritations and aggravations that can come up in just about any relationship. It also seems natural that conflict could arise in most relationships. Program trainings can prepare both mentors and mentees for these likely occurrences, helping to normalize the fact that relationships can pose many challenges and also emphasizing that dealing constructively with these situations can actually strengthen relationships. The most important practice may be monitoring and supporting the relationship to address and resolve tensions by helping participants move through conflict appropriately. Perhaps the best opportunities for a prevention approach would focus on reducing the likelihood of criticism in mentoring relationships. Program training and support could work with both mentors and mentees on learning positive and constructive ways of sharing feedback with each other.  

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