Profiles in mentoring: Simon Larose on mentoring at the college level

We are thrilled to feature Professor Simon Larose, whose work has deepened our understanding of the role of attachment relationships in mentoring. Simon is a professor in the Department of Education at the University of Laval. He has been a steady contributor to the field of youth mentoring and has published over 65 scientific articles, book chapters, research reports and articles. Jean Rhodes (JR) recently interviewed Simon Larose (SL) about his work.

JR: Much of your research has focused on an academic mentoring program at the college level. Can you tell us something about this program?

SL: In fact, we have looked at two different mentoring programs in college. The first program was managed by three college institutions who offered a one-semester long mentoring program to their academically at-risk students. The program involved teachers who did mentoring as part of their professional tasks. It lasted one semester and included 10 one-hour meetings during which academically at-risk students and their teachermentors had to discuss social, emotional and academic integration issues and find constructive ways to solve these issues. The second program was developed by our team and was called the MIRES program (Mentorat pour l’Intégration et la Réussite des Étudiants de Sciences). It was implemented in two colleges in Québec city. MIRES involved senior university students in engineering (22 years old) who mentored college freshmen students in STEM programs (17 years old). Mentors were exposed to an extensive two-days training during which they acquired knowledge and competence on student academic and vocational development and support, college transition, and mentoring best practices. MIRES lasted two semesters. Mentors were encouraged to help their mentees explore science and technology programs and careers, ask for help with their school work and exams when needed, clarify their academic interests and aspirations and broaden their scientific literacy.

Across several of your studies of the first program, you have explored how mentee attachment styles affect in relationships. In what ways do mentee attachment styles affect relationship quality?

There is at least two ways through which mentee attachment styles might affect the relationship quality with the mentor. Attachment style might influence the expectations and emotions of mentees. For example, we found in our research that mentees with a more preoccupied/anxious attachment style expected more support from their mentors than what was possible to get from a non-professional mentor. At the long-term, they felt less supported by their mentors and be more disappointed when the program ended. The “state of mind” of mentees with a more preoccupied/anxious attachment style may be explained by an exacerbation of their attachment needs. The mentoring relationship might remind them how difficult it was to have their attachment needs satisfied by their parents or by important people in their life. Consequently, trust and security in the relationship with their mentor might become a more difficult challenge for them than for mentees with a more secure style. Attachment style might also affect the mentees preferences for mentoring approach. We also found in our research that mentees with a more dismissing/avoidant style may hold benefits of the mentoring relationship insofar as the relationship focus mainly on academic and instrumental outcomes (ex.: improving the relationships with teachers). Mentees with this attachment style, because of the deactivation of their attachment needs, may be reluctant to focus on personal and emotional issues, seeing an instrumental and rational approach in mentoring less threatening for their identity than more emotional approaches.

You have also conducted the only studies to date of how mentor attachment style affects their relationships with mentees. What have you found?

We found that student mentees displayed more adaptive behaviors and perceptions in mentoring and earned higher grades when their attachment orientation (i.e., dismissing or preoccupied attachment) was in contrast to their mentor’s relational style (i.e., valuing autonomy or relatedness). We hypothesize that working with a mentor prioritizing autonomy reinforcesdismissing students’ tendencies to neglect exploration of personal issues,whereas a mentor who highly values relatedness constitutes an opportunityfor dismissing students to look at their concerns through a lesssuperficial lens. Similarly, a mentor favoring an autonomy approach could help students with preoccupied tendencies frame and organize their concerns rather than become overwhelmed with them, by adopting a structured problem-solving approach.

You recently determined that college attachment style predicted mentees’ later romantic relationships. Do you think that a mentoring relationship can ever help to “revise and update” a mentee’s working model of attachment so that mentees can enter healthier relationships as adult?

In the long term, I think it is possible that positive mentoring may help some mentees to change their states of mind as regard to relationships with adults. I am not convinced however that mentoring is the best approach for kids who have clinical attachment problems due to harmful parental experiences such as rejection, violence or neglect. Youths showing unresolved attachment in adolescence or indices of attachment disorganization in childhood need to be followed by professionals who have expertise and clinical training in the field attachment. By definition, disorganized or highly insecure working models of attachment are resistant and difficult to change and without a specific and clinical intervention, we should not expect significant impact from mentoring delivered by nonprofessional adults. On the other hand, I strongly believe that positive mentoring delivered by nonprofessional adults may be helpful for kids who are lacking a secure attachment figure due to contextual circumstances such as poverty or parental separation. In these circumstances, mentoring may help mentees feel better in their life, see adults in a more favorable way, and approach their relationships as adults with better interpersonal skills. In sum, my hypothesis is that mentoring may compensate for the lack of attachment figures but may not alleviate the symptoms of clinical attachment problems.

You’ve also explored how mentors’ feelings of self-efficacy fluctuate during the mentoring experience and in response to their mentees. Why are some mentors less likely to maintain feelings of efficacy than others?  

Mentor feelings of self-efficacy is an important process in mentoring. Mentors who feel that they have the appropriate skills and knowledge to address the needs of their mentees and who are confident about their capacities to provide good feedback and to address most issues raised by their mentees are more likely to establish positive and effective mentoring relationships. However, these perceptions of efficacy are not fixed. They can fluctuate throughout the mentoring experience and they can be influenced by the mentors as well as the mentees characteristics. We learned in one of our study that high sensitivity to the distress of others, previous experiences in mentoring and teaching, and participation in training and in group supervision (supervised meetings with group of mentors) were mentor characteristics that were associated with higher feelings of self-efficacy throughout the mentoring experience. We also learned that mentors matched with mentees exhibiting low academic motivation and low competency at seeking-help from teachers, and who were not academically supported by their parents were more likely to show lower feelings of self-efficacy throughout the mentoring experience. This study revealed how important training and group supervision are for protecting the feelings of self-efficacy of mentors and how challenging is for mentors to support mentees with academic problems.

Your work on “working alliances” in mentoring has highlighted the importance of shared goals. In light of this, do you think that it is a mistake for programs to dictate specific goals and curricula that they want mentors to cover with their mentees?

It is not a mistake if programs clearly expose and communicate their goals and curriculum to both mentees and mentors and if prospective mentees and parents are informed before the admission process. We can conceive the working alliance as a process that may also operate at the program level. To make sure that mentees and mentors will agree on the process and goals of the mentoring relationship and activities, programs should first be clear about their own expectations, how they operate, why they decide to work on specific goals (if it is the orientation), how the curriculum should meet the needs of mentees, etc.. I hypothesis that stronger are the working alliances at the program level, better will be the working alliances between mentors and mentees.

What got you interested in mentoring? How long have you been studying it? Where do you see your research going in the coming years?

My first interest in research was on attachment and school transition. In my doctoral dissertation completed in 1995, I examined the role of attachment to parent during the high school-college transition. I found that security to parents buffered the emotional and social effects of the transition but only for those adolescents who had to leave their parent to go to college. I proposed to see this developmental transition as a “strange situation” that have the potential to activate the attachment system. Attachment security to parent was thus seen as a personal resource that may fulfill the attachment needs of adolescents during this important developmental transition. After my dissertation (1996-2006), I saw college mentoring as an interesting context for testing some provocative questions about attachment: Does the decision to participate in formal mentoring programs in college be influenced by the mentors and mentees respective attachment styles and levels of security? Does attachment security to parent affect the way adolescents develop close relationships with teacher mentors? Does a mentee’s attachment style moderate the effects of mentoring on the mentee’s emotional and social development? Briefly, the answer to these questions was YES. Later in my career (2007-2012), I did research to understand why many college students leave STEM programs before graduation. In those research, we found that many of the factors playing a significant role in the decision to quit were related to the institutional culture, program climate, peer pressure, and students’ feelings of efficacy. The following step was to develop a mentoring program for STEM students (MIRES) that would take into account the previous study findings and current knowledge on formal mentoring. We implemented this program in three colleges and evaluated its impact on the student motivation, career development, and perseverance in STEM programs and studies. The evaluation study used a randomized pretest/post-test control group design and showed that participation in the MIRES program had positive effects on motivation (value and pleasure associated with MST studies), career decision profile (decidedness, comfort, self-clarity and knowledge of the field), college adjustment (institutional attachment and social adjustment) and academic success and persistence in science (mainly male participants). In my ongoing research (2014-2019), I want to document the long-term effects for mentors and mentees of a new school-based mentoring program that we developed to prevent dropout in high school. This program is called ACCES (ACCompagnement par des Enseignants du Secondaire). Since 2012, it has been implemented in 15 high schools in the area of Québec city. ACCESS involves advisor teachers as mentors. All advisor teachers are trained and supervised and they mentor 4 first-year academically at-risk students on an individually basis. Mentoring occurs from September to June (a full academic year) and is aimed to improve the students’ study skills, motivation, social integration, and academic success and perseverance. Mentors are trained based on two complementary approaches: a cognitive-behavioral approach (ex.: teaching problem solving, self-control, using restructuration and reinforcement technics) and a more traditional mentoring approach (ex.: how to connect, how to develop a working alliance, how to deal with relationship issues, how to close a relationship). We have been granted for the next for 5 years to follow mentors and mentees up to 4 years after their participation to the ACCES program and to explore how personal (ex.: gender and risk status), interpersonal (ex.: working alliances), and contextual (ex.: school support) factors affect these potential long term effects.