New research demonstrates connection between mentoring benefits and relationship stage

DeWit, D., DuBois, D., Erdem, G., Larose, S. & Lipman, E. (2016). The role of program-supported relationships in promoting youth mental health, behavioral and developmental outcomes. Prevention Science, 17, 646-657. DOI 10.1007/s11121-016-0663-2

Summarized by Justin Preston



Recent meta-analyses of mentoring research have found that youth paired with a caring, non-parental adult experience a variety of improvements in behavioral and psycho-social outcomes when compared with youth who have not been mentored. While there are a number of possible explanations for these differences, the effect sizes, or the strength of a studied effect, has remained low to moderate at best. In other words, while there are very real benefits to being mentored as a youth, those effects, for the majority, may not be as dramatic as could be hoped.

Another aspect of mentoring relationships that has been investigated in other studies is that of mentoring relationship stability and longevity. Keller (2005) has put forward a breakdown of the typical mentoring relationship that divides the relationship into developmental stages:

1) The contemplation phase. This is the period of anticipation and preparation that occurs before mentor and mentee meet.

2) The next phase is an initiation stage, or a “getting acquainted” period.

3) The growth and maintenance phase where the match’s aspects become solidified and the mentor and mentee achieve familiarity and comfort with one another.

4) The final phase of the relationship is one of decline, where the mentor and mentee retreat from the relationship and end contact with one another.

In the present study, the researchers sought to investigate the association between categories of youth mentoring status and youth health and social functioning. The researchers also examined any possible differences in these effects being affected by the mentee’s gender.



The researchers of the present study recruited 859 boys (50.6%) and girls (49.4%) who were part of the one of the participating agencies operating under the umbrella of Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Canada. The average participant was 9.74 years of age (SD=2.20 years). Over 93% were residents of urban areas. BBBS agency caseworkers met with families and participants prior to enrollment to describe the study’s goals and types of questions asked of participants.

In the present study, participants were asked about the following variables:

  • Behavior Problems – assessed using portions of the Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ). This scale is a brief measure of psychological adjustment in children and youth. Higher scores indicate greater presence of psychological difficulties.
  • Mental Health – assessed using subscales of the Revised Social Anxiety Scale for Children (SASC-R) and the Center for Epidemiology Studies Depression Scale (CES-DC).
  • Coping Behaviors – measured using subscales of the Coping Scale for Children and Youth (CCCSY). Participants rated how frequently they utilized a particular coping strategy to handle a problem.
  • Peer Self-Esteem – assessed using a six-item abbreviated version of the peer subscale HARE Self-Esteem Scale.
  • Perceived Social Support – peer and teacher support subscales were used from the Social Support Appraisal Scale (SSAS). Parental support was measured with the Wills Parental Support Scale (WPSS)

Participants were broken into groups for analysis along the lines of gender, living arrangements (e.g. living with a single biological parent), ethnic/racial minority status, and other variables. Participants were also divided up based on their youth mentoring status. Researchers used five separate categories: 1) continuously mentored for less than 12 months; 2) continuously mentored for 12 or more months; 3) dissolved mentoring relationship less than 12 months; 4) dissolved mentoring relationship 12 or more months; and 5) re-matched to a second mentor. Those who were never mentored were used as a comparison group. Parent and guardian characteristics, as well as programmatic characteristics (quality, weekly contact, number of activities) were also taken into account.



As the authors state, “After adjusting for potential confounders known to influence the development of mentoring relationships and positive youth outcomes (i.e., personal and environmental factors), youths in mentoring relationships lasting 12 or more months experienced health and social benefits compared to never-mentored youths.” Of interest, those youths in dissolved long-term relationships fared equally well when compared to those participants still in an ongoing long-term mentoring relationship. There was also an absence of benefits associated with youth involvement in short-term dissolved relationships.

Re-matched youth did not experience health and social benefits on most outcomes, an important finding that replicates previous research showing that being paired to a second mentor had either no effect or, in some cases, a negative effect on youth outcomes. That said, youth in ongoing relationships lasting less than 12 months at the time of participation still experienced positive outcomes when compared to non-mentored youth.

Girls in long-term relationships experienced fewer behavioral problems and higher self-esteem. Boys in similar relationships experienced greater emotional support from peers and parents.


Implications for Mentors and Programs

There is a lot to digest in this study, and we encourage readers to review the original article for a full discussion of the findings. However, there are several important pieces that emerged from this research. The authors recommend that programs focus on implementing more effective screening measures to ensure that mentors are truly on board for the full year commitment, if not longer. The pairing process, as well, should take into account the needs and expectations of the mentoring relationship from the perspective of both the mentor and the mentee.

It would be a positive step to also provide greater programmatic caseworker support to the mentoring relationship during its initial stages to help navigate the challenges that can escalate into an early match closure. That said, preparing the mentor and mentee for the fact that relationship closures will happen and seek to prepare both parties for change by putting steps in place that each side can follow to make the process more transparent.


To read the original article, click here.