Going the distance: A longitudinal qualitative study of formal youth mentoring relationship development

Spencer, R., Drew, A. L., & Gowdy, G. (2023). Going the distance: A longitudinal qualitative study of formal youth mentoring relationship development. Journal of Community Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1002/jcop.23006

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Although community-based mentoring is an excellent approach to promoting positive youth-oriented outcomes (e.g., academic, behavioral, social, and emotional), the quality of the relationships plays a role in determining how effective they are.
    • For instance, closer, more enduring mentor-mentee relationships are more likely to receive benefits.
  • It’s unclear how enduring mentoring relationships are established and sustained.
    • This is coupled with the fact that community-based mentoring is less structured than other forms of formal mentoring (e.g., school-based mentoring); because of this, relationships in this context might be affected by different factors and develop differently.
    • This is especially concerning since most of the limited, longitudinal research on the development of mentorships centers on school-based mentoring.
  • This qualitative study evaluated how sixty-seven community-based mentoring relationships developed over two years.
  • Five identified trajectories:
    • Continued growth
    • Initial growth that plateaued
    • Initial growth followed by decline and then recovery
    • Initial growth followed by decline with no recovery
    • Little to no growth or connection
  • Although there are overlaps in how relationships develop across community-based mentoring, school-based mentoring, and adult leader-youth relationships in out-of-school programs, community-based mentors have more choices to end their mentoring relationships if they are experiencing issues that are affecting their relationship development.
  • While many mentor-mentee matches were off to a good start and met or exceeded the 1-year commitment, many still experienced challenges. A few dyads struggled to develop and grow.
    • This indicates that youths’ interest and investment in mentoring before the start of the relationship play an influential role in determining how well their mentoring relationships develop
  • Mentoring programs should screen for youths’ interest in participating promptly and consider their mentors’ commitment and relational skills.
  • Because many terminated relationships initially look fine, mentoring programs need to monitor how relationships develop.
  • Mentor empathy, flexibility, and commitment (in addition to continuous program support) are influential factors within mentoring relationship trajectories.
  • Mentoring programs should consider investing in ongoing support and training that promote these three traits/factors.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract) 

More enduring formal youth mentoring relationships tend to be more effective, but our understanding of how such relationships develop and are sustained remains limited. This prospective, qualitative study examined the development of 67 one-to-one, community-based mentoring relationships over a 2-year period. Data included interviews with mentors, youth, and the youth’s parent/guardian across multiple time-points and agency case notes. Five developmental trajectories were identified: (a) continued growth, (b) initial growth that plateaued, (c) initial growth followed by decline and then recovery, (d) initial growth followed by decline with no recovery, and (e) little to no growth or connection. Matches in the continued growth and recovery groups were more enduring and experienced by participants as meaningful connections. Factors that appeared to have contributed to these different trajectories were youth interest in the mentoring relationship, mentor empathy, flexibility, and commitment, and program support.

Implications (Reprinted from the Summary, Conclusions, and Recommendations)

This study extends a small body of research beginning to focus on the growth of mentoring relationships by examining the developmental trajectories of a group of community-based, one-on-one matches established through formal mentoring programs. The use of prospective, qualitative methods, analyzing interviews collected from mentors, youth, and the youth’s parent/guardian at multiple timepoints along with the agency case notes for each match, allowed for a nuanced examination of how these matches changed over time. Through the construction and close examination of developmental trajectories for each mentoring relationship, we were able to identify five distinct relationship trajectories: (a) continued growth, (b) initial growth that plateaued, (c) initial growth followed by decline and then recovery, (d) initial growth followed by decline with no recovery, and (e) little to no growth or connection. These trajectories aligned closely with those identified in previous research on school-based mentoring relationships (Pryce & Keller, 2012; Spiekermann et al., 2021) and on relationships between youth and adult leaders in an out-of-school time program (Griffith, 2016). This indicates that there appears to be some commonalities in how adult-youth relationships develop over time in these various settings. However, in the community-based mentoring setting there appears to be more of an option for mentors to leave the relationships when there are challenges or personal circumstances influencing the relationship development compared to these school-based, time-limited programs where mentors may choose to finish out their required time even in stagnant relationships.

Nearly all the matches in this sample began well for both the mentor and the youth. A small number, however, seemed to struggle with just getting started and never demonstrated growth or connection. These cases highlighted the importance of youth investment in mentoring and may partially explain previous research that found youth’s positive feelings about the mentoring relationship at 3 months was highly predictive of relationship duration (Rhodes et al., 2017). As was observed in a study of match endings (Spencer et al., 2020), youth interest in mentoring at the outset also appeared vital to the relationships in this study getting off to a good start, which speaks to the importance of mentoring programs screening for youth interest. Further, among interested youth, programs should aim at decreasing the time youth spend on waiting lists to connect youth with supportive adults when youth interest in such a relationship is high. Rescreening youth who have waited a long time before being matched can be another way to ensure youth investment but is less ideal than reducing wait times, as the window of opportunity for youth interest may be missed. A relationship that takes hold when the youth is more amenable stands a chance of continuing even as the young person moves through adolescence and becomes more focused on peer relationships and other competing activities.

To access this article, click here.