Study uncovers interesting differences in the interpersonal tone of school-based mentoring relationships

Screen Shot 2013-04-09 at 9.08.18 PMPryce, J. M., & Keller, T. E. (2013). Interpersonal tone within school-based youth mentoring relationshipsYouth & Society45(1), 98-116.

Background Positive mentoring relationships display closeness, warmth, authenticity, and empathy. This study sought to capture the emotional tone of interactions within the relationships, using observable interactions, such as communication, facial expressions, eye contact, and signs of affection. Furthermore, interviews were conducted with mentees and mentors to explain and interpret the tone of their relationships. These data were used to create profiles of relationships with regard to interpersonal tone.


New matches in school-based Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring programs in a major Midwestern metropolitan area were tracked. Three public elementary schools in low-income urban neighborhoods participated. Teachers and counselors identified 10 to 15 students between Grades 3 and 5 who were experiencing a family crisis or demonstrating social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties. Volunteer mentors from business or community organizations were matched in a one-to-one relationship with mentees for the school year; there were also weekly group meetings.

In-person interviews were conducted with the students and mentors to ask about personal concerns, expectations for the match, and motivations for participation. Students and mentors also completed scales about aspects of the relationship, such as closeness, positive feelings, or even wishing to feel closer. Lastly, researchers at each site observed weekly meetings of mentors and students to assess interpersonal tone.


Four patterns of interpersonal tone were found:

1)    Tentative: the mentor shows affection and warmth, coupled with periodic interpersonal challenges that are left unresolved or poorly understood, leading to uncertainty. There is typically a mismatch in evaluation of the relationship because of this confusion.

2)    TaskFocused: these matches are activity-based and involve minimal emotional sharing. These may be positive when both mentors and mentees work well together, have high standards, and are competitive and goal-oriented.

3)    Engaged: this pattern is reflected in mutual enjoyment and fluid conversation, with high levels of eye contact, speech, and laughter. Interactions alternate flexibly between activities and emotional sharing. Matches can resolve conflicts with relatively minimal tension.

4)    Disengaged: these matches show a mismatch in emotions, sporadic eye contact, and halted speech. The Little may be animated and engaged, while the Big shows flat affect and limited engagement, despite a sincere interest. Sometimes structural concerns, such as poor attendance by a Little, may impede meaningful connection. Interestingly, this type of match shows little conflict or desire for a closer relationship, which implies a dismissal of the relationship, with little effort or energy invested.

Conclusion and Implications

The identified interaction styles can serve as a basis for assessing relationships. While some relationships struggle, their difficulties can be overcome with support and improved communication. For example, Tentative relationships would benefit from opportunities for mentor and mentees to explicitly discuss the relationship at multiple points. Task-focused relationships may benefit from support in how to share feelings and connect interpersonally. Disengaged relationships may benefit from staff support in recalibrating expectations or even considering rematching. Engaged relationships may benefit from support in goal-setting and covering any small concerns.