Profiles in Mentoring: Michael Lyons on effective school-based mentoring

Interviewed by Rachel Thompson & Cyanea Poon

Dr. Michael Lyons is an Assistant Professor at University of Virginia. He is interested in the social-emotional development of middle and high school students in a positive psychological and traditional mental health framework. Specifically, his research reflects an interest in understanding the mechanisms and practices in a school setting that promote student well-being and school-relevant outcomes (e.g., grades and behavior) through an ecological model. He is especially interested in school-based mentoring (SBM) programs as one approach for promoting student well-being and enhancing academic outcomes. The Chronicle gets to speak with him about his thoughts on SBM.


Chronicle (C): What draws you to do research in school-based mentoring (SBM)?

Michael Lyons (ML): As a school psychologist by training, I have always been interested in research with a direct impact on youth. I am particularly interested in middle school mentoring because it is often a time when non-familial youth-adult relationships become more influential. Yet, many middle school students may not have equal access to mentors who are equipped to understand their strengths and needs.


C: What do you think are the functions of mentors? To what extent do you consider mentor activities/behaviors in SBM effective? Why so?  

ML: Mentors can serve many functions – some may act as a close friend or confidant whereas others may act more like a tutor. Recognizing the variability in mentor functions is important because the extent to which a mentor’s activities / behaviors are effective depend on the function they serve. For example, one mentor may see their function to as close friend who can help troubleshoot challenging peer interactions. This mentor may use active listening strategies to understand their mentee’s perspectives and then role-play ways to engage the mentee’s peers. In that instance, the mentors approach may be “effective” for improving peer relationships but ineffective in improving academic outcomes. Likewise, a mentor who views their function as a tutor and works with mentees on study strategies may be effective in improving academic outcomes but ineffective in improving social relationships. The match between mentor functions, youth needs, and program activities is important to consider as we evaluate effectiveness. Thus, I think that the question of effective activities / behaviors in SBM not only requires that mentors engage in skills based in research; but it also requires that mentors introduce skills in a way that is consistent with the needs of their mentee.


C: What are the key aspects that make SBM effective, and how do you think SBM programs can achieve this?

ML: It seems that the mentor-mentee relationship as well as activities that target school skills are two important dimensions of an effective SBM relationship. That is, to be effective, mentors and mentees need 1) a sufficient amount of mutual trust and understanding and 2) engage in activities that intentionally help youth develop skills related to school. In addition, it appears that many SBM relationships share common goals at the beginning of the mentoring relationship (e.g., getting to know one another); but that specific goals may diverge after this point (i.e., goals related to academics, social relationships etc). Notably, work by Julia Pryce, Thomas Keller, and others have been influential in helping us understand how these dynamics unfold in mentoring.

My own research suggests that the effectiveness of SBM increases when mentors and/or programs attend to both relational and skill-building dimensions of the mentoring relationship. However, the degree to which relational and skills are emphasized depends on the goals of the dyad. For example, I have found that effect sizes on school grades and behavior increase as mentee-reported relationship quality increases. However, the effects appears to increase at a decreasing rate. This means that SBM programs might try targeted interventions to increase relationship quality of matches that report the worst relationships; but worry less about matches that report average-levels of relationship quality (Lyons & McQuillin, 2018). In addition, I have found evidence of synergistic effects between relationship quality and skill-building activities (specifically, goal setting and feedback) on some academic outcomes (Lyons, McQuillin, & Henderson, in press). For example, mentees who have a close relationship and receive regular mentor feedback tend to have better behavioral outcomes in school (in comparison to mentees that either have a poor relationship or do not receive feedback).

Because of the variability in mentor and mentee needs, SBM programs have a critical role in helping mentors maximize their effect on youth. Although we know that mentor training and ongoing support from programs are critical for successful matches, there is a need for programs to provide mentor training and support that is responsive to mentor-mentee needs. We should not expect that nor assume that mentors come to a mentoring relationship with all the skills necessary to support their mentee. As we learn more about the development of the mentoring relationship, I think programs will able to offer dyads targeted training and support that is responsive to the changing needs within this relationship.


C: What new questions need to be answered to contribute to further development of SBM programs?

ML: First, it is important to acknowledge that we know a lot about what makes effective SBM relationships and programs. We know more about factors that predict a positive mentoring relationship and specific strategies that improve youth academic and behavioral functioning in school. The field has also created a number of manualized mentoring protocols that show positive effects for specific school-aged youth. We should celebrate the programs and researchers who have worked on this issue for decades.

That said, I think there are pressing questions about how SBM programs increase the effectiveness of their program. As I already mentioned, most SBM programs serve a diverse group of youth who come to the program with unique strengths and needs. Thus, I think there are important questions about how programs can best support matches in reaching their full potential. For example, how can SBM programs train and support mentors who are working with mentees that have different needs? How should programs sequence activities to maintain a sufficiently close relationship while also helping youth reach their full potential?