Important new study highlights the value of “network-engaged” mentoring

Austin, L. J., Parnes, M. F., Jarjoura, G. R., Keller, T. E., herrerea, C., Manolya, T., and Schwartz, S. E. O. (2020).  Connecting youth: The role of mentoring approach. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Sep 24, 2020.

Editor’s note: In this fascinating new study, the researchers note that examined “how mentors can strengthen and expand youth’s social connections beyond the mentor–mentee dyad. This might include “network-engaged approaches, such as intentionally connecting mentees to new people or opportunities and mediating important relationships on behalf of mentees, are useful in promoting youth relationships and social development.”

This study “drew from the Mentoring Enhancement Demonstration Program dataset to investigate how different approaches to connecting with mentees and the adults in their lives are related to youth connection outcomes in community-based mentoring programs. A person-centered approach was used to identify subgroups of mentors based on their reported use of connecting and mediating approaches and their closeness with their mentee. It was anticipated that mentors actively engaging in connecting and mediating behaviors would foster stronger connection outcomes, as reported by their youth mentees. Connection outcomes were defined as youth’s connections with people and organizations (the parent–child relationship, extracurricular engagement, natural mentors) and their ability to seek help from these people and organizations (help-seeking).”

From the Methods

“The current study focused on a subset of 766 youth who were randomly assigned to the intervention condition, participating in one of 23 one-on-one community-based formal mentoring programs, which were also part of nine program “collaboratives” (defined below). At program enrollment, youth participants ranged in age from 11 to 14 (M = 12.29, SD = 1.09), and the majority were female (56.7%). The sample was diverse, with 41.0% of youth identifying as Black/African American, 21.4% Hispanic/Latinx, 20.0% White, 10.2% Multiracial/Multiethnic, 5.9% Native American, 0.4% Asian American/Pacific Islander, and 1.2% ”

From the Discussion

“The results of this study suggest that there are meaningful differences in mentors’ approaches to supporting youth development and that these differences are related to distinct changes in social connection outcomes in the context of community-based mentoring. Specifically, person-centered analyses uncovered three distinct mentoring profiles: (1) Status Quo Mentors (mentors who reported low-to-moderate closeness, low connecting, and low mediating—the largest group of about 70% of mentors), (2) Close Connectors (mentors who reported moderate-to-high levels of closeness, moderate levels connecting, and low mediating—about 23% of mentors), and (3) Connector-Mediators (mentors who reported moderate levels of closeness, connecting, and mediating—about 7% of mentors). Importantly, these groupings demonstrate that active or instrumental approaches, like connecting, do not have to come at the expense of mentor–mentee relationship quality, despite concerns in the field that more instrumental mentoring may sacrifice relationship closeness (Rhodes and DuBois 2008). Instead, the profiles show that closeness and connecting tend to coincide, suggesting that attention to relationships outside of the mentor–mentee dyad could even enhance the mentoring relationship. These findings suggest that programs can, and perhaps even should, encourage network-engaged mentoring both in training and ongoing match support.

The mentees of these three types of mentors, in turn, demonstrated differences in baseline connection measures and change to connection measures over time. As anticipated, stronger connection outcomes were observed among youth with mentors who actively engaged in connecting and mediating behaviors. Mentees of Status Quo Mentors demonstrated no changes in any of the connection outcomes, suggesting that the average mentor may not create the kind of relationship that enhances connection outcomes outside of the mentoring dyad (although they may still influence other domains of youth development such as academic outcomes). Mentees of Connector-Mediators demonstrated significant increases in involvement in extracurricular activities, but did not show changes in any of the other connection outcomes. In contrast, youth who showed the greatest improvements were the mentees of Close Connectors. From baseline to follow-up, these youth demonstrated significant improvements in parent–child relationship quality and help-seeking as well as significant increases in extracurricular activity participation.

This unique association between Close Connectors and youth connection outcomes is not only consistent with literature documenting the importance of mentor–mentee closeness in youth outcomes (Thomson and Zand 2010), but also expands it by demonstrating that it may not be enough for mentors to be close with their mentees; how mentors use this closeness may be also important. These findings are consistent with recent literature suggesting that closeness is a necessary component of mentoring relationships, but it may not be sufficient for optimal youth outcomes (Lyons et al. 2019). However, even if not strongly related to connection outcomes, closeness may foster other aspects of youth’s social and emotional development (e.g., increasing self-esteem and decreasing depression).

As a relational intervention, youth mentoring may be particularly well suited to developing interpersonal skills, strengthening relationships, and promoting social connections (Keller et al. 2020a). Findings from the current study indicate that Close Connectors have the potential to improve youth’s relationships with their parents, as well as encourage youth help-seeking behaviors in relationships. From an attachment theory perspective, feeling supported by a primary caregiver and seeking help in times of need are both important factors in fostering resilience and positive psychosocial development (Ainsworth 1989; Bowlby 1988). Identifying the specific ways in which mentors may contribute to changes in help-seeking and parental relationships requires further investigation, but the Close Connector profile suggests intriguing possibilities. The high levels of closeness these mentors reported may indicate a greater willingness or ability to serve as a trusted and reliable source of support for youth, perhaps becoming like an attachment figure and reinforcing the value of such a relationship. Similarly, in performing their connecting behaviors, these mentors may be modeling the capacity to reach out to others for support and assistance while also demonstrating that it is healthy and beneficial to do so. While many mentoring studies have focused on connectedness as a property that a young person either has or does not have, it is perhaps better characterized as an active process in which the young person participates (Futch Ehrlich et al. 2016). It is encouraging that when close mentors engage in connecting behaviors, it is associated with greater help-seeking behavior in the mentees themselves, a finding that suggests observational learning may, in fact, be occurring (Bandura 1977).

While formal mentoring has typically focused primarily on the mentor–mentee dyad and what the individual mentor brings with them, when viewed from a social capital framework, the mentor represents a new connection that has the potential to expand the mentee’s social capital by connecting them to a broader network of relationships and resources (Keller et al. 2014). Yet the current study’s results indicate that this process does not happen on its own; rather, to take full advantage of this potential, the mentor should engage in explicit connecting behaviors. In conjunction with the primary analyses, post-hoc regressions suggest that connecting behaviors seem to be driving these findings. Therefore, positive mentoring relationships may best generalize to youth’s other relationships when paired with more explicit and network-engaged approaches to youth connection outcomes. The unique benefit of Close Connectors also provides preliminary empirical support for the theoretical “webs of support” model suggesting that a close relationship with an adult can serve as an “anchor” which can be used to help youth build other connections and draw on broader webs of support (Varga and Zaff 2018).

…..Given that community-based mentoring is a time-limited intervention, it is important that youth leave these relationships not only with feelings of perceived social support, but also with improved abilities to cultivate support and seek help when needed. Recent research suggests that active, didactic approaches to increasing help-seeking and social capital are promising. For instance, a brief social capital intervention that guides youth in identifying and developing relationships with potential social supports significantly shifted college students’ attitudes toward help-seeking, and these shifts accounted for closer relationships with instructors and improved grades (Parnes et al. 2020). The incorporation of explicit teaching of help-seeking in community-based mentoring may promote youth’s ability to seek help from other adults in their lives and expand their social support beyond their formal mentor.

…Results indicated that when mentors can build close relationships with mentees and actively connect mentees with people and programs in their community, youth demonstrate improved parent–child relationships, increased extracurricular involvement, and increased help-seeking. This study points to the importance of mentors actively engaging in behaviors to increase their mentees’ connectedness beyond the individual mentor–mentee dyad. More generally, the results of this study indicate that what happens in mentoring matters and that fostering a close relationship with a mentee, while necessary, may not be sufficient to promote youth connection beyond the relationship with the mentor. Rather, active and explicit attempts at expanding youth’s networks may be necessary to influence youth connection outcomes.