Two new findings (and a surprise) about working with more challenging mentees

Group of elementary school kids running at school, back view

By Jean Rhodes and Elizabeth Raposa

In case you missed it, the recent commencement address, delivered by student speaker Donovan Livingston, Ed.M. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is a tour de force. The speech is especially powerful when Donovan recognizes the important role of his mentor.

“I was in the 7th grade when Miss Parker told me, “Donovan, we could put all your excess energy to good use, and she introduced me to the sound of my own voice. She gave me a stage, a platform, and she told me that our stories are the ladders that make it easier for us to touch the stars, so climb and grab them, keep climbing, grab them. Spill out your emotions in the big dipper and pour out your soul, light up the world with your luminous allure.”

Wow–we wish every teacher viewed students’ exuberance and excess energy as strengths in need of channeling. Far too often, particularly for young men of color, such behavior is met with exasperation, punishment, or even medication. In much the same way, mentors’ responses to the needs of more challenging mentees can make or break relationships. Every mentor experiences the frustration of missed meetings, unreturned phone calls, and backsliding that seems inevitably to follow success. But others face the far more serious challenges that accompany youth who are living in risky contexts or who sometimes have problems controlling their behavior. Sarah Schwartz and colleagues (2011) found that mentees who were at higher interpersonal risk tended to have lower quality, shorter relationships with their mentors, and their relationships were less effective in improving mentees’ academic performance, than peers who presented with only moderate risk. Likewise, a meta-analysis of youth mentoring programs suggested that the effects of mentoring were weaker for youth who had high levels of personal and environmental risk (Dubois et al., 2011). More recently, Carla Herrera and colleagues (2013) found that mentors of youth with high levels of risk reported more frequent cancellations by the youth, difficulty managing youth behavioral problems, and greater need for program staff support in interacting with the youth’s family, navigating social services, and addressing youth social and emotional needs. Similarly, Renee Spencer’s qualitative interviews revealed the stressful home lives of mentees can leave mentors feeling less efficacious and overwhelmed (see profile in this issue).

With a mentor like Miss Parker, Donovan thrived; but with another mentor, his excess energy might have been overwhelming and contributed to the erosion of the relationship. The stakes are high; yet few studies have examined the factors that account for mentor success in the face of mentees’ challenges. We recently analyzed a large experimental data set to identify some factors that might mitigate the influence of youth risk (Raposa, Herrera, & Rhodes, in press). Consistent with previous work, we found that mentees with high levels of stress tended to have shorter mentoring relationships. Likewise, mentee behavioral problems tended to result in less satisfying and lower quality relationships. Importantly, however, this was not so for mentors who, at the onset, had

  • Stronger feelings of self-efficacy.
  • Greater previous involvement with youth in their communities. These two factors seemed to buffer the negative effects of environmental stress and behavioral problems on match duration and quality. Of course, these factors are likely linked, with previous involvement in youth-related activities giving rise to higher levels of self-efficacy when working with kids.
  • Interestingly, however, mentors with previous formal mentoring experience appeared no better suited for working with at-risk youth than mentors without previous experience. In fact, main effects analyses showed that youth matched with mentors who had previous formal mentoring experience actually reported lower emotional engagement.

Why might this be the case?

We’d love your thoughts on this. One possibility is that mentors who had particularly successful previous mentoring experiences may have hoped that they could reproduce the experience. This, in turn, may have resulted in more rigid expectations, disappointment, and difficulty engaging with a higher risk youth. The expectations that mentors bring to relationships with youth based on past experiences are important to assess and address during screening and training, particularly given the link between disappointment and unfulfilled expectations and early termination of mentoring relationships (see Spencer et al., 2014).

Taken together, these findings highlight the importance of adequate training prior to beginning the match. Such training should provide mentors with exposure to the types of situations that they may face when working with youth, in ways that increase mentors’ confidence in their ability to work effectively with youth. The good news is that our recent, random assignment evaluations of Mentoring Central, found that the training led to more realistic expectations and a stronger sense of efficacy in mentors—two factors that seem to help them work with more challenging mentees. Training and evidence-based guidelines clearly play an important role in strengthening the impact of mentoring on youth of all backgrounds. And with stronger matches, even more young people can be encouraged to grab the stars.