New study pinpoints the “sweet-spot” wherein youth outcomes are maximized

Lyons, M. D., McQullin, S. D., & Henderson, L. J. (2018). Finding the Sweet Spot: Investigating the Effects of Relationship Closeness and Instrumental Activities in School-based Mentoring. American Journal of Community Psychology, 1–11

From Abstract

School-based mentoring programs are popular prevention programs thought to influence youth development; but rigorous evaluations indicate that these programs often have small effects on youth outcomes.

Researchers suggest that these findings may be explained by:

(a) mentors and mentees failing to develop a close relationship and

(b) mentors not setting goals or focusing on specific skills necessary improve outcomes.

Methods and Analyses

We assessed these explanations using data from approximately 1360 mentor and mentee pairs collected through a national study of school-based mentoring (called, “The Student Mentoring Program”).

Specifically, we tested the influence of  mentee-reported relationship quality and mentor-reported use of goal-setting and feedback- oriented activities on academic, behavioral, and social- emotional outcomes.


Results suggested that youth reported relationship quality was associated with small to medium effects on outcomes. Moreover, goal-setting and feedback- oriented activities were associated with moderate to large effects on outcomes. We also found significant interactions between relationship quality and goal-setting and feedback- oriented activities on youth outcomes.


We conclude that there appears to be a “sweet-spot” wherein youth outcomes are maximized. The results of this study suggest a need for school-based mentoring programs to monitor and support mentors in developing a close relationship while also providing opportunities to set goals and receive feedback.

Discussion and Implications (Excerpted from the the paper)

The findings showed that a combination of goal- and feedback-oriented approaches along with the development of a close relationship had the largest effects for student outcomes and especially behavioral outcomes. These results demonstrate the importance of the mentoring relationship, but also the need to incorporate instrumental activities within SBM programs. Based on these findings, we suggest that there may be a “sweet-spot,” wherein, even in school-based relationships, outcomes may be achieved by balancing relationship development and instrumental activities; though, in isolation, these approaches may not be sufficient to produce helpful or noticeable effects. We draw three primary conclusions from our results.

First, for most outcomes, mentee-reported relationship quality has a positive association with treatment effects; important in SBM programs due to the time-limited nature of the mentoring relationship. Additionally, instrumental activities provide a basis for researchers and practitioners to understand what occurs in mentoring relationships, thereby making it easier to identify the mechanism for change (McQuillin & Lyons, 2016). When assessing developmental mentoring outcomes, the activities that the mentor and mentee engage in together are often unclear. Generally, hybrid models of mentoring that include developmental and instrumental activities may prove most beneficial for students in SBMs.

Although data from the impact evaluation of SMP data found null effects (Bernstein et al., 2009), we found positive effects across academic, behavioral, and social out- comes after accounting for the relationship quality and instrumental activities that occurred between mentors and mentees. Our findings suggest that, when accounting for relationship quality and instrumental activities, the SMP actually did benefit some of the students who participated. However, most mentoring relationships did not achieve the level of relationship quality and instrumental activities necessary to produce a moderate to large average intent-to-treat effect. We hope this study is enlightening for mentoring researchers who have traditionally theorized that mentoring relationship as the key mechanism for change. These results suggest a need to renew emphasis on infusing instrumental activities in mentoring relationships in SBM programs.

Our findings demonstrate the need for mentor training and support to focus on more than just relationship quality. Mentors should also receive training on instrumental activities and skills that directly relevant to outcomes considered important by programs and the youth who participate in them. This type of training will serve a dual purpose; on one hand, mentors will be provided with skills to use, but additionally, programs will have a better idea about how to evaluate outcomes. Currently, the content and activities that take place between a mentor and mentee are often ambigu-ous, but a focus on instrumental skills and activities will facilitate the process of evaluating mentors and mentors based on the implementation of target skills.

The quality of youth adult relationships influences youth school-related outcomes (i.e., behavior and academic out- comes in school), but the quality of mentoring relationship is not the only thing that matters. How mentors teach and support youth in developing instrumental skills related to increasing performance at school also has an important role in producing positive effects. The results of this study suggest that mentoring programs should carefully attend to the interactions between the quality of the mentoring relationship and instrumental activities. In order to do this, future studies must examine causal mechanisms and experimentally manipulate instrumental activities within traditional developmental mentoring program to evaluate the processes through which mentoring programs produce positive school-related outcomes.