Leaving So Soon? Researchers Investigate Why Mentoring Matches End Early

Mentoring relationship closures in Big Brothers Big Sisters community mentoring programs: Patterns and associated risk factors. DeWit, D., DuBois, D., Erdem, G., Larose, S., Lipman, E., & Spencer, R. (2016).
American Journal of Community Psychology, 0, 1-13. DOI: 10.1002/ajcp.12023.

Summarized by Justin Preston



While previous research has demonstrated the overall positive benefits associated with involvement in a mentoring relationship, there have been some instances where youth participation in mentoring was found to have no effect at all, or, in some cases, even to result in negative consequences. Some researchers have suggested that these negative outcomes may be due to, in part, the fact that many mentored youth end up having their relationship end before their program’s standard commitment period ends. However, in spite of the number of early closures experienced by many programs, with some studies finding that 30-50% of matches ended after only a few months, the factors that may predict such premature relationship termination have not been thoroughly explored. Some suggested factors include youth vulnerability to personal risk, such as mental health and behavioral problems, a history of poor relationships with adults in their lives, or the presence of environmental risk factors in the communities in which some mentoring programs operate.

Mentoring relationships may also be impacted by programmatic structure. That is, programs that offer mentees little choice in who will become their mentor, for example, may result in a reduced likelihood of a successful match. It is also possible that relationships terminate when the mentors themselves feel that they are receiving inadequate or overly intrusive support from their mentoring programs. Further, the motivations of mentors and mentees for participating in mentoring programs may play a role in ending a mentoring relationship prematurely. Research has suggested that intrinsic motivations, such as skill development and becoming a positive role model, may result in longer-lasting mentoring partnerships than extrinsic motives like pressure from parents, or self-interested motives on the part of the mentors seeking only to advance their careers, for example.

The researchers of this study sought to examine the capacity of youth vulnerability to personal and environmental risk factors, motives for program enrollment, and mentoring program supports and relationship processes that predict the closure of mentoring relationships.


Families recruited as part of Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) intake and caseworkers from 20 agencies across Canada were asked to participate. In order to qualify, families had to be newly enrolled in the programs. Youth had to be between the ages of 6 and 17 to be eligible to participate. Those families who had more than one eligible youth were able to participate after one of the youths had been randomly selected for enrollment in the study. Prior to enrollment, parents received a self-administered questionnaire and youth were interviewed separately. In-home follow ups were conducted every six months. Youth were asked to talk about their behavioral, psychological, and social functioning. Parents were asked about their children’s status in these areas, as well as their own social relationships, physical, and mental health. During follow-up, families paired with a mentor discussed the match process, parental and agency support of the match, and match characteristics.

In all, 997 families participated in the study. At the end of the 30-month follow up, 700 youth had been paired with at least one mentor. For the present study, data from 569 mentored youth were used for analysis. Of those 569, 321 experienced a relationship closure, with 200 of those coming before reaching the 12 month mark required by BBBS programs. One hundred and twenty one were in relationships that closed at or after the 12 month mark. A little less than half of all mentored youth, 241, were in ongoing relationships lasting 12 or more months with the same mentor.

Measures utilized included youth mentoring status, a variable broken into three groups: youth with a mentoring relationship closure occurring sooner than 12 months, or early closure; youth with a mentoring relationship closure occurring at or after 12 months, or normative closure; and youth with an ongoing relationship lasting 12 or more months. Demographics such as gender, age, number of family moves, family poverty count, and ethnic/racial minority status were measured. Data on environmental factors, such as parental depressed mood, family functioning, and perceived support from parents were also collected.

Youth behavioral problems were assessed using the parent version of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, a 25 item instrument broken into five sub-scales measuring conduct problems, hyperactivity—inattention, emotional problems, peer difficulties, and pro-social behavior. Parent depression was measured with the Centre for Epidemiological Depression Scale. Family functioning, as reported by parents, was assessed using the general functioning sub-scale of the McMaster Family Assessment Device. Emotional and social supports from parents were measured using a set of 15 items designed to capture youth perceptions, and the Social Provisions Scale, respectively. Aspects of the mentoring relationship, mentoring program supports, difficulties in making the match from the youth’s perspective, and youth motives for program enrollment were all assessed.


Just over half of the youth sample, 53.6%, were female. Less than 9% of all matches were cross-gender, where boys were paired with a female mentor. The average age of the youth participants was 9.66 years, and half of the youths were less than 10 years of age. Sixty-eight percent of the youths were living with a single biological parent. Less than a third, 30%, belonged to an ethnic/racial minority group. Almost a quarter, 23%, had three or more moves in the past five years. Twenty-five percent of participating youth had a chronic health condition. Fifteen percent of youth reported enrolling in the mentoring program due to extrinsic pressure. Twenty-one percent reported some difficulties in determining who their match would be. Eighteen percent reported having three or more caseworker-initiated contacts in the previous month. Two-thirds of the mentees met with their mentors one or more days per week.

Parents or guardians were mostly female, and 15% reported an annual household income of less than $10,000. The average age was 41 years old. Twenty-six percent of parents reported high parental support of the mentoring relationship. Both parents and youth generally reported high ratings of the mentoring relationship quality, 86% and 73%, respectively.

Roughly one third of mentees had their mentoring relationship close early at or before 11 months of duration. By 12 months, 46% had experienced a closure. Girls experienced this relationship closure at a faster rate than boys, with boys’ relationships lasting a little over 24 months. The median time to relationship closure for girls was 12.86 months. For reference, BBBS stipulates at least a 12-month commitment from their mentors and mentees, which may explain why the majority of mentoring relationships closed at the 12-month mark.

Girls participating in the study had more than a two-fold greater chance than boys of having their mentoring relationship close early. Youth behavioral difficulties were also associated with early closures. Early closures were less likely to occur when youth perceived emotional support from their parents or guardians., as well as when parents and guardians perceived social support from significant others. There were no factors which significantly predicted on-time closures, or those relationships that ended at the 12-month mark.

Extrinsic pressures for youth to join the mentoring programs and youth reports of match determination difficulties were associated with a greater chance of early closure.

Factors that significantly reduced the chance of an early relationship closure included: strong parental support, mentoring relationships rated by parents and youth as high quality, and frequent weekly contact between mentors and mentees. Having three or more caseworker-initiated contacts with parents was also negatively associated with early closures.

Implications for Mentoring and Practice

There are several important points to take away from this study. The first is that youth buy-in is a key component of a successful mentoring relationship. When youth feel supported, and feel that their relationship is valued by their parent or guardian, outcomes are more likely to be positive. This extends to parents who receive positive social support from their significant others. These findings underscore the important role parents play as stakeholders in their child’s mentoring relationship. Finding ways to build parental support for the mentoring relationship, such as program social outings for parents, youths, and mentors or joint trainings for parents and mentors, could boost the chances of youth having a successful mentoring relationship.

Further, the authors recommend “strengthening program practices that enhance the quality of the relationship in its early stages (e.g., caseworker support) and mentor training in relationship development aimed at improving active listening and empathy skills and adopting effective strategies for building trust and respect.” Additional efforts should also be made in order to understand the closure gap between male and female mentees’ mentoring relationships.