Brief Instrumental School-Based Mentoring Program

*Note: The National Mentoring Resource Center makes these “Insights for Mentoring Practitioners” available for each program or practice reviewed by the National Mentoring Resource Center Research Board. Their purpose is to give mentoring professionals additional information and understanding that can help them apply reviews to their own programs. You can read the new full review on the Crime Solutions website. This review has an updated version of the program based on a fresh evaluation of the program. You can read the previous version’s insights here.


There are several notable features of the Brief Instrumental School-Based Mentoring Program that others providing mentoring in a school setting can learn from and think about building on. One of the most interesting conceptual ideas behind this program is that it builds on the theory, developed by researchers such as Tim Cavell and others, that a mentoring relationship can be viewed as a “context” in which other meaningful work occurs, rather than the relationship being the sum and the end of what is provided to a child. This idea speculates that perhaps it’s not the close and long-term bond between a mentor and mentee that matters as much as it’s the transformative power of the activities they engage in and the skills that get developed within the context of the relationship. This program very intentionally built on this idea, placing more emphasis on the sequential set of activities that matches did over time than on the fostering of a deep and long-lasting relationship.

This approach may have special appeal for schools or other institutional settings where building a meaningful long-term relationship can be difficult. The chaotic nature of the school environment, the frequent breaks in the school calendar, the relatively short duration of a school year, and youth moves between schools all somewhat preclude the establishment of the type of intense and lasting relationship we typically associate with mentoring. So the developers of this program decided to try something different in a school setting: They intentionally shortened the time that mentors and mentees would spend together and put a lot of thought and effort into developing a meaningful set of sequential activities that would, in theory, provide the youth with meaningful support around their academic achievement, school behavior, and connectedness to school and teachers.

This more instrumental form of mentoring, where purposeful activities drive the interactions between mentor and mentee, holds promise for programs set in schools (for example, a similarly-instrumental program reviewed by the NMRC Research Board was rated as “promising”). There were several program features that brought this more instrumental approach to mentoring to life:

  • The concept of academic enablers. One of the core ideas promoted by the program’s activities was the concept of academic enablers, things like good study habits and organizational skills that research suggests are pretty malleable and that can really boost a young person’s academic performance. This seems to be a good fit for the middle school population served in this program, since middle school is a time when more gets asked of students and those with poor study or organizational skills may begin to struggle with coursework and tests for the first time. The developers of this program built the activities on a framework from other research involving academic coaching, testing the idea that mentors could provide much of the same support.

  • Counseling skills. To facilitate the academic-focused work, and building on the “coaching” concepts that informed program activities, mentors in the program were trained in several strategies that have proven to work in other settings, specifically counseling strategies such as motivational interviewing. This client-centered conversational style helps clients (in this case students) set and achieve goals, primarily through facilitated conversations that follow some basic principles: “Ask, Don’t Tell”, “Avoid Argumentation”, and “Support Progress Toward Goals.” These approaches help the relationship avoid conflict and the feeling that the mentor is being “prescriptive” toward the youth, while making sure that the mentor’s words and wisdom are applied toward realistic goals that the youth has set for himself or herself. Along with the training mentors received in these strategies, they were monitored to ensure that they followed these principles in their meetings with their mentees.

  • An emphasis on Connectedness and Life Satisfaction. The program also tried to boost the feelings of connectedness to schools and teachers, as well as the student’s overall life satisfaction. Research indicates that both of these influence academic performance and engagement with school, so several program activities were designed to support growth in these areas, mostly by helping youth identify and overcome challenges and build skills that would help them experience academic success they could build on.

Given that this program was built on these concepts and principles that had proven to work in other settings, why did it not produce stronger results? The mechanisms for change seem very well conceived, yet the program produced only a limited number of positive effects (improved math grades, reduced disciplinary referrals, small increases in life satisfaction) while failing to “move the needle” on most of the outcomes the program was designed to address.

It turns out that perhaps the closeness and depth of that mentoring relationship matters more than we might think:

  • The mentoring relationship lasted all of eight sessions. The idea behind these relationships was that they would be more of a “working alliance” than an intimate, sustained relationship. And there is no doubt that these matches did bond some and got along well enough to engage in meaningful activities together. But only the first two of the eight sessions focused on relationship building and getting to know each other. After that, the remaining six weeks were focused either on goal setting and building academic enablers or problem solving and giving the youth feedback on their progress. While eight sessions with a mentor can surely be meaningful, one has to wonder just how close these youth felt to their mentors, how much weight they put on their words, and how deeply their messages sunk in. Ostensibly, there is a world of difference between having an adult you work on things with versus having an adult whose words and widsom carry power, whose opinions deeply matter. Unfortunately, the researchers behind this program did not measure relationship closeness. It would have been interesting to see how the participating youth viewed their mentors. One wonders what the results might have been if this program had emphasized the “brief” and/or the “instrumental” just a bit less or otherwise figured out a way to give the participants more time to build a stronger relationship rather than an “alliance.”

  • The mentoring meetings all happened in a designated mentoring room. Although not all matches met at the same time (they happened during youths’ free periods), it seems likely that matches at times were sharing this space with other mentors and mentees. The study doesn’t shed much light onto what the environment of the room was like, but one can imagine it being fairly chaotic and loud and not offering much privacy or room to really bond or discuss a sensitive topic.. School-based programs can really struggle with the question of where matches meet on campus, but it can be especially challenging if multiple matches are meeting in the same space. This could have been another barrier to relationship quality and the subsequent outcomes of the program.

So this winds up being a program with a very promising design, but one that fell short of some expectations in terms of outcomes. It based its design on the notion that the mentoring activities would matter more than the depth of the mentoring relationship. Without measuring relationship quality we don’t know if this assumption was necessarily proven wrong. Yet, as discussed above, there is reason to suspect that the activities could have benefitted from a stronger underpinning of a meaningful relationship between mentor and mentee.

The good news is that the researchers behind this program are continuing to adjust accordingly and are currently trying a next iteration of the program that might produce stronger results. In fact, the version of the program reviewed here was actually built on a previous program that had been evaluated with worse results. So with each iteration of the program, they are evaluating and refining the model, adding carefully selected elements and concepts designed to fix the gaps revealed in their research. This kind of evaluate-refine-reevaluate approach is commendable and something that all programs should aim for at some level. The only way to build a better program is to evaluate its effectiveness, learn where there might be weaknesses, and try again. This instrumental approach to school-based mentoring makes a lot of sense, and the hope is that a future version of this program might find the right balance between academic supports, instrumental activities, and meaningful relationships.

For more information on research-informed program practices and tools for implementation, be sure to consult the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring™ and the "Resourcessection of the National Mentoring Resource Center site.

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