Why are many formal mentoring relationships ending prematurely?

Spencer, R., Gowdy, G., Drew, A.L., McCormick, M.J., & Keller, T.E.. (2020). “It Takes a Village to Break Up a Match: A Systemic Analysis of Formal Youth Mentoring Relationship Endings.” Child & Youth Care Forum 49(1): 97–120.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • Many mentoring relationships end prematurely within formal programs
    • This can lead to ineffective or harmful outcomes, especially for higher-risk youth
  • The authors used a systemic modeling approach in order to better understand why mentoring relationships are ending prematurely 
  • Findings indicate that having a solid mentoring relationship doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to last long 
    • Significant interruptions from the system can negatively impact strong mentorships
  • Results also show that program practices, policies, staffing, etc. play a role in mentorship durations
  • Conclusions highlight the importance of considering the context of the programs, as well as the parents/guardians, in preventing mentoring relationships from ending prematurely 


Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)


Although early closure of formal youth mentoring relationships has recently begun to receive some attention, more information about factors that contribute to premature endings, and how those factors interact, is needed so that empirically-based program practices can be developed and disseminated to prevent such endings and to ensure that youth reap the benefits mentoring can provide.


This qualitative interview study applies a systemic model of youth mentoring relationships (Keller in J Prim Prev 26:169–188, 2005a) to the study of mentoring relationship endings in community-based mentoring matches to understand why these matches ended.


Mentors, parents/guardians and program staff associated with 36 mentoring matches that had ended were interviewed about their experiences of these relationships and their understanding of why they had ended. Thematic analysis of the interview transcripts and mentoring program case notes for each match followed by systemic modeling of the relationships yielded three major findings.


A strong mentor–youth relationship is necessary but not sufficient for match longevity. The mentor–youth relationship, even when relatively strong, is unlikely to withstand disruptions in other relationships in the system. Agency contextual factors, such as program practices and policies and staffing patterns, have a critical role to play in sustaining mentoring matches, as they directly influence all of the relationships in the mentoring system.


These findings highlight the importance of considering not just the mentoring dyad but also the parent/guardian and program context when trying to prevent match closures. They also point to several program practices that may support longer mentoring relationships.


Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Using a systemic framework to examine individual, relational, and program factors, as well as interrelationships among them, brought into bold relief the ways that many mentoring relationship endings are multiply determined. In particular, the importance of considering the relationships surrounding the mentor–youth dyad was made apparent, highlighting how the mentoring relationship is influenced by the larger social network within which it is situated (Keller 2005a; Keller and Blakeslee 2013). Mentors are central in the mentoring process, as others have noted (Herrera et al. 2013; Spencer 2012), but this study revealed opportunities for other participants in the system to intervene, such as a parent who can encourage a mentor with flagging spirits, or program staff who can scaffold a mentor whose skills need developing. Overall, the findings emphasized the significance of the strength of the mentor–youth relationship, the influence of the network of relationships surrounding the match, and the importance of the agency context.

The findings of this study reinforce previous research indicating that interpersonal connection and mutual commitment between mentor and mentee are critical for sustaining a mentoring relationship (Rhodes 2002; Spencer 2006). Both parties need to have some initial investment in and commitment to the match. They also need to engage in and build a new interpersonal relationship. A few youth participants did not seem willing or able to enter into this type of mentoring relationship. In some cases, their enthusiasm dissipated during a long period on the waiting list, resulting in youth disengagement from the outset. Several mentors seemed ill-suited to the task, whether because of personal circumstances that interfered with their commitment to the relationship, ignorance of the daily hardships many families face, or inadequate relational skills that made it difficult for them to connect with the youth in a way that was developmentally appropriate and in keeping with the mentoring role. As previous research has noted, mentoring relationships can falter when poor interpersonal skills, lack of enthusiasm, or miscues and misunderstandings on the part of the mentor lead to awkward, tentative interactions or to disengagement and avoidance (Pryce and Keller 2013). Also observed were instances of mentor dissatisfaction that arose from unrealistic and inflexible expectations for the relationship (Spencer 2007). In such cases, some matches seemed to fail because the mentor lacked the capacity for attunement, or the ability to interpret and adapt to cues from the youth or the situation (Pryce 2012). Other mentors became disenchanted and their commitment waned when they felt their time and effort devoted to the mentoring relationship was not acknowledged and valued by the youth or family.

Another important finding was that even a strong mentor–youth relationship may not be able to withstand the challenges that can arise in the ancillary relationships in the mentoring system. Particularly problematic were difficulties in the relationships between mentors and parents/guardians. Some mentors became frustrated when communication with the PG was inconsistent or challenging in some other way, even when the mentors were aware of significant events affecting the availability of the PG (e.g., a family member is hospitalized). They were quick to judge and interpret the PG’s behavior negatively, which made it difficult for them to connect with the youth in a way that was in keeping with their role and developmentally appropriate. This tendency to adopt a more deficit-based view of PGs was similar to what has been reported in studies of parent involvement in mentoring (Basualdo-Delmonico and Spencer 2016) and indicates a lack of empathy and understanding of the family circumstances on the part of the mentor. Notably, another study found mentors more likely to report challenges associated with the youth’s family (e.g., youth not ready for outings, cancelled meetings, not getting support from family) in situations where the family experienced higher levels of environmental risk (e.g., financial adversity, family disruption, housing instability), suggesting mentoring relationships may be harder to sustain when families contend with day-to-day stresses due to poverty and other adversities (Herrera et al. 2013). On the other side of the equation, PGs in the current study sometimes felt judged by the mentor and were uncomfortable or mistrustful as a result. In other cases, PGs became frustrated with what was perceived to be a lack of commitment on the mentor’s part. The perceptions of parents regarding their children’s helping relationships can be influential, as shown in research on the psychotherapy relationships of children. Parents are more likely to discontinue their children’s therapy when they perceive the therapist as not competent or effective and not invested in the child and parent (Garcia and Weisz 2002). Likewise, parents’ perceptions of a poor relationship with the therapist and other stressors and obstacles associated with treatment contribute to termination of therapy (Kazdin et al. 1997). Just as a strong working alliance between parent and therapist is associated with parent investment in services and effectiveness in child psychotherapy (Hawley and Weisz 2005), the current study points to the importance of the quality of the partnership between PG and mentor in maintaining a youth mentoring relationship.


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