Supporting autonomy in youth mentoring relationships: A Q&A with Amanda Davis & Dr. Samuel McQuillin

Amanda is a fourth-year doctoral student in the School Psychology program at the University of South Carolina’s Department of Psychology. She received her B.A. from Wake Forest University in 2019 with honors in psychology and her M.A. from the University of South Carolina in 2021. Amanda’s research focuses on studying how young people benefit from positive relationships with teachers and school staff. She is also interested in advancing measurement in the field of youth mentoring and supportive school-based relationships.

Dr. McQuillin is an Associate Professor of Psychology and the director of the School Psychology Ph.D. concentration. Dr. McQuillin is interested in how communities and schools can work together to help empower young people to succeed in school and in life. He is particularly interested in how relationships between adult helpers and young people influence positive youth development. In his work, he hopes to improve these positive influences by equipping helpers with skills and practices gleaned from research evidence. Dr. McQuillin also serves as a quantitative methodologist on a broad range of research projects.

Amanda Davis & Dr. Samuel McQuillin recently conducted a review that assessed the benefits and drawbacks of asserting autonomy and the unique role that mentors have in the development of youth autonomy. A framework is also proposed.

What drew you two to conduct this study? How does it contribute to the existing literature on youth mentoring relationships?

Philosophers have discussed the importance of autonomy for centuries, but only recently researchers have found that behavioral autonomy, or the act of making decisions consistent with one’s will, is an incredibly important part of child and adolescent development. Autonomy can be good or bad, and researchers have begun to accumulate reasonable evidence for what might be healthy or not. However, the field of mentoring hasn’t really addressed this scholarship head on. But from our perspective, it should. Mentors are, whether they know it or not, influencers of behavioral autonomy among youth, for better or worse. The hope of the paper is that it might direct the field towards using evidence to promote healthy autonomous behavior.

In addition to providing a review on youth autonomy, you also introduce a framework for it. Can you provide a general overview of it for our readers?

Our framework consists of five evidence-based strategies that mentors can use to promote mentees’ autonomy development: role modeling; encouraging; providing access to resources, relationships, and experiences; advocating; and engaging in conversations about behavior change. These strategies differ in level of risks and opportunities. For instance, role modeling healthy food choices for a mentee is relatively low-risk, whereas having conversations about substance use could damage the relationship if done poorly. We encourage mentoring programs to carefully consider how they train, supervise, and support mentors in promoting healthy autonomous behavior. We pay particular attention to the inherent risks involved in mentoring, and how promoting healthy autonomous decision-making might mitigate those risks.

What are the key takeaways of your study?

 The key takeaway of our paper is that promoting healthy autonomy in young people is challenging but important. Most mentors are probably underprepared to address this important issue, and we hope that innovations in training, support, and supervision help prepare more mentors for this important contribution to youth development. We believe that mentors are particularly well suited to help their mentees learn how to make decisions that align with their values and well-being.  

What do you wish more people knew about youth autonomy in mentorships?

We wish more people knew that promoting youth autonomy in mentoring relationships can be very challenging. In our paper, we discuss the harmful autonomy-seeking spiral that often occurs when young people test the waters with autonomous decision-making.

What recommendations do you have for researchers and practitioners?

Each of the strategies provided in our framework comes with varying levels of risks. It is important that mentors weigh the risks of each strategy. For example, mentors should be cautious when talking to mentees about behavior change, as there are many pitfalls that both threaten healthy autonomous decision-making and the relationship quality between the mentor and mentee. Mentoring programs can support their mentors in this process through training, support, and supervision.

 Further, although researchers and practitioners across disciplines (e.g., psychology, education, etc.) have recognized the importance of autonomy-supportive behaviors, the field does not have a strong grasp on how to measure these behaviors. Measuring these behaviors appropriately is critical to evaluating how influential they are across samples and settings. We would love to see how researchers might measure some of these behaviors and associated outcomes as they continue to implement and examine autonomy-supportive strategies.