A brief school-based mentoring program for middle school students with elevated disruptive behavior

McQuillin, S. D., & McDaniel, H. L. (2021). Pilot randomized trial of brief school-based mentoring for middle school students with elevated disruptive behavior. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1483(1), 127–141. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.14334

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Despite the popularity of school-based mentoring, very little is known about what mentors actually do with their mentees in these settings.
  • Mentoring literature on youth with elevated disruptive behavior has mixed contradictory findings.   
  • This study is a pilot randomized trial of a school-based mentoring program for youth with elevated disruptive behavior.
  • The goal of this research was to…
    • Predict treatment effects and variance factors for future evaluations and interventions to refer to.
    • Analyze evaluation demands on students, parents, and teachers.
    • Explore mentors’ viewpoints on acceptability, feasibility, and usability of the program curriculum. 
    • Address barriers pertaining to implementation procedures and treatment dosages.
  • Findings showed that mentees had better math grades and had fewer behavioral infractions, issues at school, and emotional symptoms after the program ended.
  • Although many mentors thought that the curriculum of their program was good, was feasible, and aligned well with the school’s mission, mentors matched with mentees with less severe disruptive behaviors stated that they would like to receive more support. 
  • It is important to further integrate mentoring programs into existing school systems. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

We report a pilot study of a brief (i.e., 10 sessions) goal‐focused mentoring program for middle school students with elevated disruptive behavior. Students with high levels of school misconduct (n = 67) were randomly assigned to the program or school as usual. We collected multi‐informant emotional, behavioral, and academic functioning assessments pre‐ and postintervention. Results indicate that the program produced significant positive changes in school behavioral infractions, math grades, students’ report of emotional symptoms, and school problems. Mentors found the curriculum acceptable, understood the material from the manual, found implementing the curriculum feasible, and felt the program was congruent with the school mission. Mentors of less impaired students indicated that they desired additional support implementing the manual, perhaps indicating the program is overengineered for students with higher levels of impairment. The manuscript concludes with a discussion of considerations for future research and implementation, including the importance of integrating mentoring programs into existing support systems (e.g., multitiered systems of support) within the school context.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Results suggest that students randomly assigned to participate in the mentoring program demonstrated significantly improved math grades and decreases in referrals to the office for behavioral challenges, as well as decreases in self‐reported school problems and emotional symptoms, as compared with students in the control group at postassessment. These results provide some preliminary evidence of promise that brief, instrumental, school‐based mentoring may be an effective way to help young people with elevated disruptive behavior perform better in school (i.e., increased grades and decreased behavior referrals) and feel better (i.e., decreased self‐report of school problems and emotional symptoms) after participation in this mentoring program. The results of this study align with previous research on this program, which suggests that participation in brief, instrumental, school‐based mentoring is associated with increases in academic performance and a reduction in behavioral referrals. Notably, the effect size of the intervention on math grades in this study (d = 0.42) is commensurate with or exceeds effect sizes observed in previous trials of this program. This effect exceeds the estimated average effect of mentoring on academic achievement for youth at risk for delinquency (i.e., d = 0.11). However, previous trials have also recorded significant impacts of the intervention on other core subject grades as well as student self‐report of life satisfaction that were not observed in the current study.


We believe our positive result on student misconduct has school discipline policy implications, particularly considering that this result corroborates the results of a previous evaluation of the same intervention with a less impaired population. Importantly, infractions recorded in this study were used by the school to make decisions for disciplinary action, including exclusionary discipline. Use of exclusionary discipline practices in U.S. schools has progressively risen, in part due to “zero tolerance” discipline policies. In the 2015–2016 school year, approximately 2.7 million students received one or more out‐of‐school suspensions and a corresponding loss of over 11 million days of instruction.School suspensions, both in and out of school, are associated with poorer academic performance and increased risk for school dropout across empirical studies,35 as well as increased involvement with the juvenile justice system (see Ref. 36). Although our data preclude this analysis, we hypothesize that by reducing disciplinary infractions, youth in the treatment group may have been exposed to more instruction, which may cascade to other long‐term positive outcomes (e.g., grade promotion). While it is critical for schools to consider practices outside of exclusionary discipline, this research suggests that it is also important to consider the implementation of preventive interventions that may scaffold student learning of critical social, emotional, and academic skills that may protect them from exclusionary discipline. This work contributes to a growing body of literature indicating that school‐based mentoring may be helpful in promoting more positive outcomes for youth with elevated disruptive behavior.

Additionally, some mentors indicated that they needed more support to implement the program. Contrary to our original hypothesis, we found an inverse relationship between mentee’s global level of behavioral difficulties (i.e., teacher‐reported BASC‐BSI) and mentor’s appraisal of system support, indicating that mentors matched with mentees who had fewer difficulties desired more support. Perhaps, this indicates that the program curriculum is overengineered toward students with higher levels of impairment and less relevant to students with lower levels of impairment. Or perhaps students with less impairment were more easily able to access the curriculum and needed less instruction and behavioral support, increasing the efficiency by which the mentor and mentee were able to complete activities and leaving the mentor with additional time for activities with their mentee. This might indicate a need to have a more adaptive curriculum that permits mentors to individualize the program experience for youth with a wider range of impairment.

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