Profiles in Mentoring: Timothy Cavell on mentoring aggressive children, chronically bullied children, and next steps for the field

Timothy Cavell is a Professor of Psychological Science at the University of Arkansas’ J. William Fulbright college of Arts & Sciences. He has been a speaker and presenter at mentoring conferences, summits, and institutes around the country. Professor Cavell’s research interests focus on how mentoring relationships with children who are highly aggressive or chronically bullied children can alter how they are viewed by peers and teachers, and the strategies parents and teachers can use to deal with instances of bullying between siblings and peers.

By Maaike Kroes & Iris Kools


The Chronicle: What brought you to study the impacts of mentoring on children who have experienced bullying?

Timothy Cavell: Several years ago, when I first arrived at the University of Arkansas, I met a new colleague in Education who asked me to collaborate on a school-based, bully prevention project. I saw it as a chance to take my previous work on lunchtime, school-based mentoring for aggressive children in a new direction. That colleague is no longer at my university, but I’m still researching the benefits of Lunch Buddy mentoring as selective prevention for children who are chronically bulled at school.


The Chronicle: Where, in your opinion, do you see the next “big thing” in mentoring?

Timothy Cavell: Great question. Those who follow the CEBM will know that Jean Rhodes and I have had some energetic exchanges related to this question. For years, I complained about Jean’s omnibus and oft-repeated model of youth mentoring. I saw it as too broad to guide practice and quite complex and difficult to test. I also questioned its underlying premise: that the benefits of youth mentoring follow solely from the strength and length of the mentoring relationship.

I questioned that view, in part, because of my own research. My colleague, Jan Hughes, and I did a study with highly aggressive children in which we watered-down the mentoring relationship. In fact, that’s the surprising origin of what we call Lunch Buddy mentoring: It was meant to be a control condition with no impact. The mentors were minimally trained, all meetings took place in the lunchroom with classmates making it hard to talk one-on-one, and each semester we traded out the mentor for a new one. But instead of Lunch Buddy mentoring being inert, it out-performed an intensive community-based mentoring program that was combined with in-home support/consultation for parents, at-school support/consultation for teachers, and 8 months of social emotional skills training for children.

As expected, children paired with Lunch Buddy mentors rated the relationship as less positive (but still good) relative to children paired with a mentor in the experimental condition. We reasoned that the impact of Lunch Buddy mentoring wasn’t simply a product of the relationship; instead, we believed that recurring visits to mentees’ lunch table helped alter how peers viewed mentees who had been struggling to fit in and be accepted.

These and other findings from our research team suggested that mentoring is better viewed as a context for a whole range of possible preventative interventions. One of those interventions could be relationship-based but it need not be. With this mentoring-as-context view, mentoring programs have to be structured so that mentoring addresses the specific conditions of risk.

An example I’ve used before is mentoring for children whose parents are engaged in post-divorce conflict. Research has identified the ways children are hurt by parental divorce and parental conflict, so I can easily imagine a mentoring program designed specifically to address those factors. This targeted approach to mentoring is very distinct from what Jean has been recently calling the “friendship” model of mentoring, which is a more generic, one-size-fits-all model that has long been the tradition in youth mentoring.

I think the grand challenge before us is reconciling findings from the science of youth mentoring with the messaging used to fund youth mentoring programs.

Too often, the historical view of youth mentoring is romanticized, and stories of magical matches are marketed as a way to attract funding. So, one potential next big thing is mentoring organizations starting to rebrand themselves as providing focused mentoring to specific population of youth rather than, or in addition to, their more traditional model.

It now seems that Jean is much closer to endorsing this mentoring-as-context perspective, but she suggests mentoring is a component one embeds into evidence-based interventions that currently lack a mentoring piece. I also see merit in this approach, but I view it as somewhat unrealistic for established mentoring organizations to make this leap.


The Chronicle: You have previously conducted research on highly aggressive children and chronically bullied children. What has this research taught you about how aggressive and bullied children view themselves? Can mentoring factor into how they view their relationships with peers and teachers?

Timothy Cavell: This is an interesting question but not one that fits with how we view the fit between mentoring and the needs/risks of these two groups. We don’t see mentoring as a way to change how aggressive or bullied children view themselves or their peers/teachers; rather, it’s much more about how mentoring can alter how peers and teachers view children who are struggling emotionally, behaviorally, and socially.

It’s using mentoring to alter the social network of mentees. Mentors can help with that by showing up consistently and demonstrating to peers and teachers the value of interacting with a child that others have been devaluing.


The Chronicle: What strategies have parents and teachers used to deal with instances of bullying and conflict between siblings/peers? What methods have you found to be most effective in halting negative behavior and promoting positive outcomes?

Timothy Cavell: Another interesting set of questions. The answers are not brief or simple. Suffice it to say that the science surrounding intervening on behalf of bullies is more advanced than the science surrounding intervening on behalf of victimized children. There is a robust research literature on interventions to prevent aggressive and antisocial behavior. It’s not easy to do but there’s less uncertainty about what’s needed.

How to help victims is less clear. Two dominant approaches are a) making schools safer overall through clear rules and consequences for bullying and b) this first approach plus educating students about how to intervene if a non-bullying bystander. We know very little about how to equip children to defend themselves. This can be a tall order in that it’s often an entire group of peers who is doing the bullying (not just one bully) and victims have less social status and power than the bully or the group.

With siblings, it’s easier because parents can prohibit siblings from teaming up against one child and then coach that child to use his/her words to assert themselves. The hard part is allowing children to work through this conflict even when it gets noisy! We know a bit more about how to help children who are marginalized or stigmatized increase their social standing so they’re less likely to be bullied. Much of that work has been done by my grad students and I in our studies of Lunch Buddy mentoring.

Lunch Buddy mentors have 3 goals for their lunchroom visits: a) promote more positive lunchtime peer interactions for mentees, b) enhances mentees’ lunchtime social reputation, and c) foster a shared group identity among lunchtime peers and the mentee. The aim in all of this is bringing these children into the social mainstream and promoting their connectedness to the peer group. Its far less likely that children will bully one of their own and that’s what this approach to mentoring is hoping to do.