In this study, Julia Pryce, Professor of Social Work at Loyola University, notes that successful mentoring “requires an exceptional level of effort and commitment” and that many youth mentoring relationships fall short. The strongest effects stem from” high quality relational experiences.”
Drawing on research from across multiple helping relationships (e.g., therapist/client, student teacher, supervisor/supervisee), as well as analysis of hundreds of interactions between mentors and youth in a school based mentoring program, she points to vital importance of attunement in producing such experiences.
What is attunement?
According to therapy researcher Erskine 1997, attunement “represents the evolving connection between therapist and client as the therapist seeks to understand the client’s world.” Therapist attunement has been associated with increased exploration, insight, genuineness, and transparency in the relationship. The concept of attunement has also been applied to other relationships (e.g. foster and adoptive parents and infants), where it is seen as vital to the development of secure attachment. In the field of neurophysiology, researchers have explored mirror neurons as they relate to empathy, social cognition, and relationship building. As Pryce concludes, “When we enter in relation with others, we share emotions, our body schema, and other somatic sensations.” These concepts, she argues, are relevant to mentoring relationships. To advance this line of research, Pryce and her students explored, “the match in context,” where they could observe “the mutual give and take required within these relationships within the school context in which they occur.”
Dr. Pryce and her research team explored BBBSA relationships within three public elementary schools in low-income urban neighborhoods. The study included 39 adult volunteer mentors and 33 students. The team conducted extensive on-site observations during the weekly meetings of mentors and students, which provided the maj ority of the data used to assess interaction style of each match. The observers focused on “patterns of interacting, modes of communicating, emotional/affective tone, conflict and anger, authority and decision-making, types of support, contact with other matches, and activities and tasks.” Observations were triangulated with interview data of all mentor and youth participants, and in some cases, two observers observed the same match as a means of triangulating the observational data.
Findings suggest that beyond other factors, including school context, gender, age, or race of the mentor or match, relationship success was most influenced by the level of mentor attunement. Mentors ranged from highly- to minimally attuned, and the study provides many rich examples of the types of interactions that constitute these categories.
For example, one highly attuned mentor described how she is, “respectful of her [i.e., her mentee] and of how her life is, what’s meaningful in her life, that I don’t really want to make assumptions about. I guess that’s what I’m real conscious of, that sense of that if this were my child, this is what I would do, but knowing that that’s not my role.’’ Pryce noted that the exceptionally attuned, “expressed intentionality regarding their observation of their mentee, and did so with youth of varying needs and personalities.”
According to the data collected through this study, mentor attunement falls along a continuum, spanning from highly to minimally attuned mentors. Highly attuned mentors wre able to “identify and flexibly meet youth needs based on consideration of youth preferences, as well as verbal and nonverbal cues, at times within the context of intermittent relationship conflict and struggle.” Less attuned mentors demonstrated “inflexibility and failure to explore youth needs/desires.”
Maintenance of empathy and positive regard can be trying within the context of a challenging experience with an unfamiliar youth.
Pryce suggests that “the flexibility, creativity, and attention to youth needs” are what characterize mentor attunement, and suggests that sensitivity training in these areas could go a long way toward improving youth-adult matches, particularly given that difference in race, age, and socioeconomic status is so common within these relationships.
According to Pryce, with the exception of extreme instances, mentor attunement can be a trainable skill. To increase attunements, mentors should be trained in:
- Active listening,
- Maintaining eye contact,
- Identifying and responding to mentee nonverbal as well as verbal cues
- Maintaining flexibility, and
- Soliciting youth ideas regarding activities
As a possible tool, mentors could assess the extent to which they engaged in these behaviors at the conclusion of each session. Mentors could be coached in providing opportunities for youth to express their needs and desires for the relationship. This information, in turn, could be shared with program staff, which could also conduct live observation on these domains in order to monitor mentor attunement. As Professor Pryce concludes, “The fact that mentor attunement is a trainable concept offers much hope and promise to this study’s findings.”