The many invisible forces: Why mentoring “best practices” are sometimes not enough.


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 by Jean E. Rhodes

Despite careful screening and interviewing, evidence-based training and case management, and even intuition informed by long experience, there is a fair amount of luck involved in determining whether a relationship ends up among the half that flourish or the half that fail. The stakes are high; so a growing number of studies have tried to discover additional indicators that might help us identify mentors and youth who will thrive, as well as those at high risk for early termination. Here are some key factors that matter.

Child’s Interpersonal History

Children and adolescents who have enjoyed healthy relationships with their parents may more easily be drawn to adults as role models and confidants. In such cases, the relationship may focus more on the acquisition of skills and the advancement of critical thinking than on emotional issues. Indeed, researchers have found that, compared with those who did not report having a natural mentor, adolescents with natural mentors recalled early relationships with their mothers as more accepting. This suggests that mentors may not entirely compensate for insecure family bonds. Instead, they may be beneficial as long as there is already a minimum level of support from at least one parent.

At the same time, those who have experienced unsatisfactory or difficult parental ties may initially resist the overtures of a caring adult, but over time develop more intense bonds with their mentors that help to satisfy their social and emotional needs. Mentoring relationships also may serve to compensate for absent relationships. Immigrant youths, for example, many of whom have suffered long separations from their parents, may gravitate to mentors for compensatory emotional support. Mentors may provide these youths with a safe haven for learning new cultural norms and practices, as well as with information that is vital to success in school (Roffman, Suarez-Orozco, & Rhodes, 2002; Stanton-Salazar & Spina, 2003).

Social Competencies

Youth who are better able to regulate their emotions and who have positive temperaments and/or other engaging attributes may be primed for higher levels of involvement with adults than are peers who lack these attributes. Werner and Smith (1982), for example, observed that youths who had thrived despite adversity tend to have hobbies or other interests and a capacity to connect with adults through those activities. More generally, youths with higher levels of social competence tend to be held in higher regard by their peers and teachers. The research on mentoring bears this out: Adolescents who are overwhelmed by social or behavioral problems tend to be less likely to benefit from mentoring.  Grossman and Rhodes (2002), for example, found that mentoring relationships with adolescents who had been referred for psychological treatment or who had sustained emotional, sexual, or physical abuse were less likely to remain intact. Such youths appear to have more difficulties trusting adults and may have little experience with behaviors that establish and maintain closeness and support.

Developmental Stage

The mentee’s age may also affect the nature and course of a mentoring relationship. For example, whereas early adolescents who are beginning to struggle with identity issues may wish to engage in abstract conversations with their mentors, children whose levels of cognitive sophistication are less advanced may benefit more from structured activities (Keating, 1990). In addition, adolescents on the brink of adulthood may be less interested in establishing emotional ties with mentors, instead gravitating to peers and vocational skill-building activities. Older adolescents tend to be more peer oriented than their younger counterparts and less likely to sustain their involvement in structured mentoring programs. Indeed, researchers have found that relationships with older adolescents are characterized by lower levels of closeness (Herrera et al., 2000), heightened risk for termination during any given month (Grossman & Rhodes, 2002), and shorter duration than those with younger youths (Bauldry & Hartmann 2014). A mentor who is attuned to his or her mentee’s developmental stage, and adjusts to it accordingly can create an optimal stage-environment fit and are better positioned to meet the child’s developmental needs.

Program Practices

Programs that offer adequate infrastructure increase the likelihood that relationships can endure difficult periods. In fact, program practices that support the mentor and relationship (i.e., training for mentors, offering structured activities for mentors and youth, having high expectations for frequency of contact, and monitoring of overall program implementation) produce stronger positive effects . These practices, which speak to a program’s ability to not only match mentors and youths but also sustain those matches, converge with the beneficial practices identified by other researchers. Unfortunately moving youths off long wait lists can sometimes take priority over creating high-quality matches. Even among the growing number of programs with careful recruitment, screening, and matching, a relatively smaller proportion devote themselves to in-depth training of volunteers or ongoing support to the mentors . Cost, combined with a general reluctance to make demands on volunteers, is the primary obstacle to providing more sustained involvement and infrastructure beyond the initial match.

Family Context

The likelihood of a child’s or adolescent’s forming strong ties with mentors may be affected by a range of processes in the family, including the encouragement and opportunities that parents provide for the development of such ties. Families characterized by sensitivity to others’ ideas and needs and open expression of views are more likely to encourage adolescents to become involved in positive relationships outside the family. With specific relevance to mentoring, children and adolescents with more supportive parental relationships and higher levels of shared family decision making have been found to be more likely to report natural mentors. Parents who actively cultivate connections and channel their children to community-based recreational and social programs also may increase the likelihood that their children will form beneficial relationships with adults beyond the nuclear family. Mentoring programs that reach out to parents tend to have greater success in shaping youth outcomes. Other family-related factors, including stability and mobility, can facilitate or hinder the establishment and maintenance of strong ties.

Neighborhood Ecology

Researchers have observed that extracurricular activities and supportive relationships with adults tend to be more beneficial to adolescents raised in urban poverty than to lower risk youths, who encounter more supportive adults in their everyday lives. Indeed, neighborhood characteristics and norms (i.e., neighborhood effects) can influence the availability of caring, informal adult ties as well as the willingness of volunteers to genuinely connect with children and adolescents. Changing family and marital patterns, crowded schools, and less cohesive communities have dramatically reduced the availability of caring adults in the lives of youths (Putnam, 2015). Even when they are available, however, fewer American adults are willing to offer support and guidance to unrelated youths. Parents have come to be considered solely responsible for their children, so the involvement of other adults is often met with suspicion and discomfort (Scales, 2013). Indeed, words like clergy, uncles, and even neighbors no longer simply conjure images of front-porch warmth and goodwill; they also evoke parental anxiety and confusion about the boundaries of trust and safety. Similarly, as mentoring programs increasingly accommodate volunteers’ busy schedules, they have eased requirements for relationship commitment and intensity. The result in some cases has been the formation of perfunctory ties that resemble, but share little in common with, the long-term community-based relationships from which they have evolved. In essence, changing family and neighborhood configurations, busy schedules, and shifting norms regarding adult involvement in the lives of youths have limited the likelihood that youths will engage in the sorts of caring relationships with mentors that can lead to developmental change.

As this review makes evident, there are many factors that affect the quality of the youth-adult relationship. Taken together, they can operate in ways that make mentoring either an uphill battle or a smooth ride.