New study shows lifelong influence of mentors: But there’s a catch

 by Jean E. Rhodes

It almost goes without saying that natural mentors can be enormously influential– from early childhood through adolescence and early adulthood (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000; Lerner & Theocas, 2006; Erickson et al., 2015). But, because such relationships can not be randomly assigned, it is actually a bit difficult to untangle their causes from their effects (Hagler & Rhodes, 2018). Some kids are “mentor magnets” and some communities are teeming with the kinds of mentors who can help them succeed.  As such the very characteristics and conditions that enable youth to attract the support of caring adults (e.g., agreeable personalities, social skills, intense interests, well-resourced schools and communities) are likely to also account for their success (Hagler & Rhodes, 2018; McDonald & Lambert, 2014). Many studies of natural mentoring have attempted to statistically control for this confound (e.g., Chang et al., 2010; Fruiht & Wray-Lake, 2013; Miranda-Chan et al., 2016). More recently, scholars have identified youth who have similar propensities to forge strong relationships and then compared those with and without mentors (Erickson et al.,  Hagler, in press). These and related techniques have provided considerably more precision in estimating the many ways in which natural mentors can affect young lives.  In a new study, led by rising mentoring research star and doctoral student Matt Hagler, we utilized counterfactual analysis to examine the impact of previous natural mentoring relationships on academic, vocational, and psychosocial well-being at midlife. The findings point to both the importance of mentoring, and the role of ties with teachers, coaches and other adults who can connect youth to new opportunities. 

Hagler, M. & Rhodes, J. (in press). The Long-Term Impact of Natural Mentoring Relationships: A Counterfactual Analysis. American Journal of Community Psychology. 

From the abstract: Previous research suggests that youth’s natural mentoring relationships are associated with better academic, vocational, and psychosocial functioning. However, little is known about the extent to which the impact of mentoring endures beyond adolescence and early adulthood. Further, most natural mentoring research is confounded by selection bias. In the current study, we examined the long-term impact of mentoring using the nationally representative, longitudinal Add Health dataset. We conducted counterfactual analysis, a more stringent test of causality than regression-based approaches. Compared to their unmentored counterparts, adults (ages 33 to 42) who had a natural mentor during adolescence or emerging adulthood reported higher educational attainment, more time spent volunteering, and more close friends, after controlling for a range of confounding factors. However, outcomes differed when mentors were classified as “strong ties” (e.g., grandparents, friends) or “weak ties” (e.g., teachers, coaches, employers). Having a strong-tie mentor was associated with having more close friends and a lower income. In contrast, having a weak-tie mentor was associated with higher educational attainment, higher income, and more time spent volunteering. These findings suggest that natural mentoring relationships can exert lasting influence on young people’s developmental trajectories, providing strong rationale for efforts to expand their availability and scope.

From the discussion (excerpts)

Having any mentor was associated with higher educational attainment, social support (i.e., more close friends), and civic engagement (i.e., hours spent volunteering) during adulthood. When mentors were categorized as “strong” or “weak ties,” different outcomes emerged. …Having a weak-tie mentor was associated with higher educational attainment, household income, and civic engagement, but not with social support or other psychosocial outcomes. These findings emerged using a propensity score matching procedure, which rigorously controls for a range of confounding factors and increases confidence in causal inferences (i.e., that these outcomes can be attributed to the mentoring relationships rather than selection bias).

Naturally occurring mentoring relationships appear to be important resources that can promote long-term academic, vocational, and social well-being. Unfortunately, these relationships are unequally distributed; socially disadvantaged youth are less likely to report having mentors, particularly weak-tie mentors (Raposa et al., 2018). Intervention at multiple ecological levels may promote the prevalence and equitable distribution of natural mentoring. Addressing stagnating social ….youth-initiated mentoring (YIM) interventions work directly with youth to build knowledge and skills that empower them to identify and cultivate natural mentoring relationships. Evaluations of YIM interventions suggest that they significantly enhance youth’s ability to form and maintain mentoring relationships, which in turn leads to improvements in academic, vocational, and psychosocial functioning (Schwartz & Rhodes, 2016). Further development, implementation, evaluation, and refinement of YIM interventions should be prioritized by researchers, practitioners, and funders.