New study on program staff’s perspectives on mentoring relationship quality

Dutton, H., Deane, K. L., & Bullen, P. (2018). Distal and experiential perspectives of relationship quality from mentors, mentees, and program staff in a school-based youth mentoring program. Children and Youth Services Review85, 53-62. doi:10.1016 /j.childyouth.2017.12.008

Summarized by Rachel Thompson

Notes of Interest: This article suggested that on top of mentors and mentees, program staff can be an important source of information on mentoring relationship quality. This is because staff provide a unique distal perspective on a range of mentoring relationships, especially in programs where staff have ongoing and direct observation of mentoring dyads and how they interact. This study points out the complex interconnections between mentor, mentee, and program when it comes to ensuring a high quality and positively life-changing mentoring relationship.


Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Although youth mentoring pairs are often surrounded by external parties who observe and interact with the dyads on a regular basis, these parties are rarely used as informants regarding the quality of the mentoring relationships; rather, assessments are usually based on mentor or mentee self-reports. This study gathered reports of relationship quality from nine mentor-mentee dyads in a New Zealand school-based mentoring program, as well as reports from the program staff who supervised them. Using a descriptive case study approach that combined multiple methods, this study found that while program staff perceptions of relationship quality converged with mentor and mentee survey results for the most part, there was also divergence across perspectives. The findings suggest that program staff can be a valuable source of information on mentoring relationships, and that obtaining multiple perspectives of relationship quality provides a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of youth mentoring relationships.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The study encourages researchers interested in mentoring relationship quality to explore other methods to obtain a combination of distal and experiential perspectives. Robust direct observation designs that supplement third party research observations with interviews or self-report questionnaires, such as that used by Pryce and Keller (2013; see also Pryce, 2012) are invaluable in advancing an evidence base that showcases the complexity of mentoring relationships while also aiding to clarify the dyadic mechanisms that promote relationship success and mentee outcomes.

Methods that minimize recall and social desirability bias often found with global, retrospective reports are advisable, and methods that can tap into changes in perceptions and experiences over time, such as ecological momentary assessment (Shiffman, Stone, & Hufford, 2008) or experience sampling methods (Larson, 1989) could be especially beneficial. However, these kinds of investigations would be more burdensome for program staff who would need to comment on multiple relationships at each assessment to provide the distal perspective, so this should be taken into consideration. Further, direct observation and repeated sampling methods are resource and time intensive designs. In the resource constrained environment that is typical for youth mentoring program delivery (Arnold & Cater, 2011), researchers working with single programs and practitioner-researchers engaging in internal evaluations of mentoring programs need methodological options that are less expensive and onerous.

Soliciting perspectives of program staff alongside mentor and mentee self-reports and utilizing artefacts of the relationship produced through existing processes (such as mentor-mentee portfolios) offer more feasible yet still valuable opportunities. We suggest recording conversations with staff as part of an embedded process of ongoing reflective practice that could also be used for research purposes. This could enhance reflective practice (for staff) and greater evaluative insight (for researchers) into the evolution of high quality mentoring relationships compared to a one-off discussion focused on comparative rankings. We also recommend that programs develop practice guidelines to support mentors to use portfolios as a tool for deeper ongoing self-reflection and collaboration with mentees that could serve a dual purpose in providing a rich source of research data. This connects to a broader practice implication highlighted by our findings.

The triangulation of distal and experiential perspectives in this research highlights the value that multiple perspectives offer to understanding how a relationship is experienced, sometimes differently, by those within it and perceived by those looking on to it. This suggests that regular one-to-one conversations between program staff and mentors, staff and mentees, and between mentors and mentees about their perceptions and experiences could enhance reflective practice insights and produce a more aligned, shared understanding of relationship quality. Importantly, this would likely reveal areas needing more timely support and attention to enhance relationship quality particularly when not all parties are feeling fully satisfied.

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