What are the keys to successful mentoring? Study has some answers

Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 7.59.10 PMby Jean Rhodes and Elizabeth Raposa

In an article in the American Journal of Community Psychology we reported on some interesting findings that have direct implications for mentoring programs. The study was entitled, the Impact of Youth Risk on Mentoring Relationship Quality: Do Mentor Characteristics Matter?- and the short answer is yes! But let’s step back and explore this issue in greater depth.

As many mentors can attest, working with youth who are struggling with the effects of poverty and/or behavioral and academic problems can be challenging. These difficulties may interfere with forming and sustaining of close connections.  In a large-scale study of mentoring that included 1,310 youth, Carla Herrera and colleagues (2013) found that mentors of youth with high levels of environmental and/or individual risk reported more challenges such as more frequent cancellations by the youth, difficulty managing behavioral problems, and greater need for program staff support in interacting with the youth’s family, navigating social services, and addressing youth social and emotional needs. Similarly, qualitative interviews with mentors who ended mentoring relationships prematurely showed that these mentors often reported feeling less efficacious and more overwhelmed in their capacity to deal with the stressful home lives of mentees (Spencer, 2007). The sad fact is that youth who may stand the most to gain–those with relatively poor academic, social, or behavioral functioning–are often the least likely to benefit.

In this study we explored whether the effectiveness of mentoring varied depending on levels of youth risk, including youth stressors and problem behaviors. Within this context, we sought to identify the characteristics of mentors who may be better suited for building relationships with more vulnerable youth. We paid particular attention to mentors’ previous experiences and goals

Mentors’ previous experiences: As we note, “mentors who are more seasoned in working with youth might be better able to deal with the complexities of forming relationships with children who are exposed to high levels of stress at home and/or show elevated rates of problem behavior. Based on their experiences, such adults may feel more confident and hold a more nuanced understanding of youth across diverse contexts.

Mentors’ Goals: Mentors’ goals for the relationship can also strongly influence relationship quality and outcomes, particularly in the context of youth risk. Some mentors focus on building close relationships as a way to facilitate the youth’s overall development while others focus on building specific skills and movement toward achieving goals. Although successful relationships tend to incorporate a balance of these two approaches, a mentor’s who is too focused on “fixing” problems could detract from building a relationship with a particularly at-risk youth. For example, “a mentor whose primary goal is to improve the youth’s academic outcomes might struggle to engage with a youth who dislikes school and is struggling with multiple family stressors at home.”

In this study, participants were drawn from a large, longitudinal dataset of youth and mentors participating in Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) school-based mentoring programs (Herrera, Grossman, Kauh, & McMaken, 2011).


More challenges result in shorter, less satisfying matches: As we expected, stressful environments at home and at school, as well as youth behavioral problems at the beginning of the match (e.g., , poor academic performance or misconduct) can influence youth and mentors’ ability to form high-quality and lasting mentoring relationships. Interestingly, environmental stressors were most likely to affect match duration (without necessarily causing decreases in relationship satisfaction), while behavioral risk factors were more likely to influence youth and mentor perceptions of relationship quality (without necessarily leading to early termination). In more stressful environments, the youths’ parents, schools, and broader network may struggle more to maintain regular meetings and sustain the mentoring relationship, irrespective of its quality. By contrast, youth with individual, behavioral risk may bring the same interpersonal and behavioral struggles into the mentoring relationship in ways that erode its quality.

Mentor Experience: Mentors who, at baseline, felt more efficacious and had more previous involvement with youth in their communities were better able to navigate the negative effects of environmental stress on match duration. Similarly, previous involvement with youth also buffered the negative effects of youth behavioral problems on mentor perceptions of relationship quality. These two mentor characteristics are likely linked, with previous involvement in youth-related activities giving rise to higher levels of self-efficacy. However, these findings also highlight the importance of adequate training prior to beginning the match. Such training should provide mentors with exposure to situations that commonly arise when working with youth, as well as increase mentors’ confidence in their ability to work effectively with youth.

Wait what? But…mentors with previous formal mentoring experience were actually no better suited for working with at-risk youth than mentors without previous experience. In fact, our analyses showed that youth matched with mentors who had previous formal mentoring experience actually reported lower emotional engagement. We’ve talked with program staff to try to figure out why this might  be the case. Some have suggested that  successful previous mentoring experiences may have led volunteers to hope that they could reproduce the experience. This may have led to false expectations and disappointment. Others have suggested that veteran mentors may be assigned the most challenging cases.

Mentor Goals: Mentor goals mattered but didn’t result in better outcomes for at-risk youth (no moderation findings). So, in general they’re something we should take into account, but it won’t necessarily fix the issues we’re seeing with highly stressed youth.

Bottom Line?: This study highlights the importance of taking youth risk and mentor characteristics into account. Better guidelines, as well as training protocols for mentors such as those available through Mentoring Central, can incorporate practices that improve outcomes for at-risk youth. With better understanding and tools, we can improve the reach of  mentoring on youth of all backgrounds.