Someone who ‘gets’ me: How mentees’ perceived positive regard from natural mentors impact youth outcomes

Ben-Eliyahu, A., Sykes, L. A. Y., & Rhodes, J. E. (2021). Someone who ‘gets’ me: Adolescents’ perceptions of positive regard from natural mentors. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 29(3), 305–327.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin 

Notes of Interest: 

  • Despite the overall benefits of natural mentoring relationships for youth development, the presence of natural mentors appears to vary among young people.
  • It’s possible that the varying rates of natural mentorships reflect the ambiguity of the word “mentor” for youths. 
  • This study examined whether or not having caring natural mentors who understand you and show positive regard correlate with a myriad of academic, personal, and civic outcomes.   
  • Mentees’ perceived positive regard for their mentors significantly correlates with the mentees’ sense of purpose, as well as the amount of effort they put into their schooling. 
  • 35% of youths in the study felt like they had at least one non-parental/adult mentor who understood them (the low regard group excluded, where mentorship engagement was low).
    • This low rate is concerning considering the fact that having a caring adult correlates with positive youth outcomes. 
  • Mentors who “got” their mentees were categorized by a two-factor solution of attunement and opportunity. 
  • The high positive connection group experienced higher rates of positive youth outcomes compared to the low regard group and the no regard group. 
  • Youths’ sense of purpose and school effort moderated the connection between positive regard and civic engagement & GPA. 
  • Findings suggest that informal and natural mentoring can be beneficial for youths. It also highlights the importance for adult mentors to attune to their mentees. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

A survey of 1,860 15-year-olds from across the United States found that mentees’ perceived positive regard from caring adults was associated with a range of personal, school, and civic outcomes. A structural equation modeling analysis found that for youth who have a mentor or other caring adults that they feel gets them, this perceived positive regard was positively related to youth’s sense of purpose and effort in school, which are related to higher grades and civic engagement. A person-centered approach found associations between feeling ‘gotten’ by a caring adult and higher academic and civic engagement. Results also demonstrate potential negative effects for youth who perceived low positive regard from an adult. Implications for research and practice are discussed.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

In this study, associations between youth’s perceptions of having an adult who gets them (i.e., shows positive regard) were explored. Youth who perceived such positive regard from a caring adult were expected to feel more connected to their community and school, which, in turn, would lead to positive academic and civic outcomes. This expanded definition of natural mentoring was compared to participant reports about formal mentors. Asking young people if there are any nonparent adults in their lives who provide an alternative, potentially more assessable way of capturing these developmentally important relationships, which may not be captured by the more intense definition usually employed in studies of natural or formal mentors (e.g., Hagler, Raposa, & Rhodes, 2019). Adolescents identified a range of adults who got them, and levels of perceived positive regard were positively associated with positive developmental outcomes, including grades, school effort, sense of purpose, and civic engagement.

The most common getters were teachers and aunts/uncles, followed by religious or youth group leaders, grandparents, and coaches. Past studies of natural mentors have yielded relatively lower rates of teacher nominations (e.g., DuBois & Silverthorn, 2005). The comparatively high likelihood of teachers being nominated is refreshing, given their prominent role in the lives of many youth (Pianta, Hamre, & Stuhlman, 2003). Indeed, nearly a quarter (23%) of youth in the current study felt that at least one teacher got them (see Table 3). Surprisingly, feeling gotten by any adult was positively associated with GPA, whereas there was no such association with having a formal mentor. These positive outcomes speak to the important role that teachers and other school staff may play in helping youth feel engaged in school and promoting academic success (Ben-Eliyahu, 2019; Black, Grenard, Sussman, & Rohrbach, 2010). Along these lines, Pianta and colleagues have identified the key qualities of successful teacher-student relationships: the ability to read a youth’s emotional and social signals accurately and respond accordingly, to offer warmth and acceptance, to offer assistance when necessary, and to enact appropriate structures and limits (Pianta et al., 2003). To the extent that teachers are made more aware of the important relational dimensions of their roles and can convey a true sense of positive regard to their students, findings from our study suggest they will be better positioned to advance student success. Finally, the high occurrence of aunts and uncles converges with past studies of natural mentoring relationships that categorize these extended family members as playing a particularly important role as natural mentors (DuBois & Silverthorn, 2005; Greenberger et al., 1998; Klaw et al., 2003).

On a lesser note, only 40% of the youth felt that there was at least one nonparent adult who got them. However, when the youth who nominated an adult to whom they actually were not particularly engaged (i.e., the low regard group) were removed, the subsample dropped to 35%. Given that having a caring adult is positively associated with adaptive developmental relationships and academic and civic outcomes (Ben-Eliyahu et al., 2014), this relatively low rate is troubling. It may be that many adults feel constrained in their roles or have neither the time nor inclination to engage in the kind of attuned, sometimes jocular behavior that gives rise to youth’s perceived positive regard. Moreover, changing family and marital patterns, crowded schools, and less cohesive communities have dramatically reduced the availability of caring adults in the lives of youth (Raposa et al., 2018). Even when they are available, however, fewer American adults are willing to informally engage outside the parameters of their prescribed roles with the youth in their settings (Scales, Benson, & Mannes, 2006). Parents have come to be considered solely responsible for their children, so the involvement of other adults is often met with suspicion and discomfort. It is, therefore, useful to consider adults that youth perceive as having positive regard toward them, thereby enabling a broader, more inclusive view of caring adults that may have an important role in shaping youth development.

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