The importance of community context in natural mentoring

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Schwartz, S. O., Chan, C., Rhodes, J., & Scales, P. (2013). Community developmental assets and positive youth development: The role of natural mentors. Research in Human Development. 10, 141-162.



Research on positive youth development has highlighted the importance of supportive community contexts (Youngblade & Theokas, 2010). In this study, Schwartz and colleagues explored how communities and involvement in organized activities affects the development of natural mentoring relationships, and how such relationships related to a variety of youth outcomes.


Participants included 1,860 fifteen year olds (51% male) from across the United States. The adolescents completed an online survey assessing the following:

  • activity involvement (how much time and activity type)
  • perceived community attitudes toward youth (i.e., whether or not adults in the community value youth and their opinions)
  • whether or not the youth had a mentor and the quality of that relationship
  • GPA, school engagement, mastery goal orientation (i.e., “one of my goals in school is to learn as much as I can”), prosocial values, ethnic identity, and sense of purpose.


  • Nearly half (47%) of youth reported having a mentor
  • Youth participation in organized activities and increased perceptions that a community values youth were associated with increased likelihood of having a mentor
  • Increased perception that a community values youth was associated with higher quality mentoring relationships, but activity involvement was not
  • Mentoring quality mediated, or helped explain, the relationship between community attitudes and most youth outcomes
  • The frequency of youth activity involvement was directly associated with positive youth outcomes


Overall, the results suggest that community organizations and attitudes may facilitate the development of mentoring relationships.

The study expands the view of natural mentoring as part of an ever-changing set of relationships in the youth’s lives.

Although organized programs are succeeding in connecting youth to adult mentors, many may be failing to provide supports to help strengthen those mentoring relationships.

Thus, suggestions for facilitating closer mentoring relationships include:

  • improving adult-youth ratios
  • training adults to be more intentional mentors
  • assigning staff to particular youth.

Another strategy is to utilize youth-initiated mentoring, in which the youth nominate an adult within their existing social network to be their mentor. Above all, this study demonstrates the importance of youths’ greater community contexts in promoting their positive development.