The importance of the closure process in formal mentoring relationships

Spencer, R., Keller, T. E., Perry, M., Drew, A. L., Clark‐Shim, H., Horn, J. P., Miranda‐Díaz, M., & McCormack, M. J. (2021). How youth mentoring relationships end and why it matters: A mixed-methods, multi-informant study. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1483(1), 67–79.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Despite how common mentoring terminations are in formal mentoring relationships, not many studies pay close attention to this phase.
  • This study analyzes data from a multi-informant study that explored the closure process experiences of youth mentees,  their primary guardians, mentors, and mentoring program staff.
  • Although many mentors took the initiative to end their relationships with their mentees, and some mentors were clear about the closure process, findings indicated that many mentoring relationship closures were still unclear and confusing for program participants.
  • It is important for mentoring programs to establish clear standards and expectations on how to properly handle mentorship closure. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Scant empirical attention has been devoted to understanding endings in youth mentoring relationships, despite the frequency with which they occur. This study examined data from a mixed‐methods study of mentoring relationship endings in which youth mentees, the youth’s parents or guardians, mentors, and program staff were surveyed about the closure process, and a subsample of program staff, mentors, and parents or guardians also participated in in‐depth qualitative interviews. Findings from a descriptive analysis detailing the perceptions of multiple stakeholders in the closure process as reported in surveys are presented along with case studies derived from a case‐based analysis of in‐depth qualitative interview data. Most relationship endings were initiated by the mentors, and although some matches engaged in an intentional and direct closure process, more often the endings were unclear or even confusing to program participants. Implications for practice are discussed, including recommendations for more training and greater involvement of program staff in the closure process, as are implications for future research.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Taken together, the survey and interview data collected from multiple informants paint a sobering picture of how formal youth mentoring relationships end. Some matches did engage in an intentional process to end the mentoring relationship with all participants sharing in a clear understanding that the match was ending, as illustrated by the first case study. However, much more often, the endings were messy, with confusion and even surprise about the ending, unclear communications about how the goodbye should be carried out, and occasionally participants described by others as simply vanishing. Consistent across participant types were reports that in most of the cases (almost three‐fourths) there was no direct goodbye between the mentor and youth, whether in person or by telephone. All participant types also reported that in at least half of the cases, the PSP did not play a role in the closure process, including not arranging a closure meeting, coaching the participants in how to say goodbye, or following up to see that closure steps were successfully completed.

The high rate of incomplete or otherwise unclear endings is concerning in light of reports from most of the PGs surveyed that the mentoring relationship was of significant importance to their child and that, for many, the closure of the match came as a surprise. Considered alongside evidence on relationship endings from related fields (psychotherapy and social service relationships) and suggestions from within the field of mentoring that youth–adult mentoring relationships may, in some cases, serve as a secondary attachment relationship,34 this evidence points to the importance of planned and clear adult communications during the closure process, guided by the PSP and agency program model. The confusion and even distress expressed by some youth in their responses as to why they did not have a chance to say goodbye to their mentor warrants the need for intentionality on the part of the PSP in orchestrating closure steps. Most mentors, youth, and PGs likely need structure and scaffolding in order to navigate the ending of a mentoring relationship well in order to reduce the potential for harm.

Also notable in the findings, when program staff did assist with the closure process, they were more likely to have coached the mentor than the youth or PG; yet, in most cases, it was the PG who was ultimately left to manage the closure of the match with their child. Surprisingly, few mentees reported that the program worker had discussed with them how to say goodbye to the mentor or had inquired about their feelings regarding the ending of the match. The focus on the mentors observed here reflects a larger tendency within the field of youth mentoring to attend to the needs of the volunteer mentors, who are often perceived to be a scarce resource given that the numbers of youth seeking mentors through formal programs outpaces the number of volunteers signing up to serve.35 How program practices around match closure and their implementation affect the youth may be less often considered, and the importance of PGs in the mentoring system may be overlooked entirely.36 That said, the written responses from the mentors regarding why there was no goodbye with their mentee indicate that mentors struggle with the endings as well and can be left with negative and even hurt feelings in the process. Although program support may focus on helping mentors say goodbye, the findings here point to an important role for match support to also help mentors recognize and address the feelings the ending of the mentoring relationship may raise for them.

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