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Mentoring is About More than Mentors - A Call for Research and Practice to Catch Up with this Important Reality

JULY 6, 2017
BY: DAVID DUBOIS, NMRC RESEARCH BOARD CHAIR

One of my kids’ favorite pastimes when visiting relatives in Ohio is “catch a sundae.” This basically involves them standing at the bottom of a raised deck with bowls, trying to catch ice cream and assorted toppings dropped from above by their aunt and older niece. As might be expected, a lion’s share of the goodies land on the ground. But those that don’t make for a very delicious and satisfying treat! As odd as it may sound, this sugary family tradition offers an apt analogy for how I have come to see the status of our efforts to both understand and harness the power of mentoring in young people’s lives. On the one hand, the parts of mentoring that we are able to capture with our investigations and tap into with programs are undeniably important and a positive influence on the youth involved. On the other hand, I’m equally convinced that our research is failing rather abysmally when it comes to providing anything approaching a complete picture of a typical young person’s mentoring experiences. Current practices, likewise, are not geared toward ensuring that effective mentoring is infused throughout all parts of each youth’s day-to-day life.

My focus here – if it is not already clear - is on mentoring interactions. Mentoring interactions can be thought of as any social exchanges that a young person has with a non-parental adult or older peer that are geared toward helping guide or facilitate one or more aspects of that youth’s development. When these types of interactions are repeated often or otherwise experienced as particularly significant and meaningful, the individual providing the mentoring may come to be regarded by the child or adolescent as a “go to” person for support, advice, and inspiration. In short, a mentor. At the same time, the overwhelming majority of mentoring interactions that do (or, with appropriate supports and opportunity, could) take place during a young person’s development may well involve persons who never achieve mentor status.1 It is my conviction that we are doing a disservice to the youth we seek to benefit through our work to not take better stock of (as researchers) and do more to nurture (as practitioners) the full range of mentoring interactions that may not only prove instrumental for their health and well-being in the near-term, but also have lasting effects throughout their entire life course.

Consider that nearly all studies of mentoring limit their lens of examination to each young person’s interactions with just a single program-designated or self-identified mentor figure.2 This leaves the extent and nature of the youth’s social experiences not only with other mentors, but also myriad other potential providers of mentoring entirely unchartered. The typical assessment, moreover, provides a mere snapshot of mentoring received at just one point in the youth’s development, leaving both past and future experiences unaccounted for. One can easily hypothesize that the persistent but modest size associations between measures of mentoring and youth outcomes would amplify to unprecedented levels were there to be a more comprehensive cataloging of young people’s mentoring experiences across both persons and time.

Practitioners likewise have focused almost exclusively on expanding a young person’s opportunities to receive mentoring from just one person (a designated program mentor or, in some cases, an individual from the youth’s current social network). A majority of programs, it also seems clear, are limited to a particular phase of development and/or only one setting such as school. In contrast, imagine a scenario in which intentional efforts are made to enhance the mentoring interactions that a youth has with the panoply of non-familial adults and older peers with whom he or she comes into contact across multiple settings and stages of development. The prospect of an initiative like this yielding dividends that bring into sharper relief the transformative promise that has long been held out for mentoring interventions, but is yet to be persuasively documented, is intriguing and (for me at least) motivates further consideration.

We can start by reflecting on the “when”, “where”, “who”, and “what” of the mentoring that takes place in the life of a young person. The question of “when” brings immediately to mind the extent to which mentoring interactions are sufficiently abundant and fitted to a youth’s needs throughout all stages of a young person’s development. It also suggests the less obvious, but potentially key consideration of whether mentoring is available to a youth when most needed, such as during their navigation of significant life changes (e.g., entering a new school) or in the wake of potent stressors (e.g., a parent leaving the home due to incarceration). Whether a young adolescent entering middle school receives a well-timed injection of mentoring to help with negotiating increased academic demands, for example, and similar support provided outside of this transitional period could be quite consequential.3

The question of “where” readily calls to attention the ways in which a youth’s mentoring interactions are distributed in type and number across the major settings in which young people typically spend the majority of their time, such as home, school, neighborhood, and extra-curricular pursuits. Additional important considerations could include more nuanced accounts of mentoring experiences in relation to locations within these kinds of broader settings, such as different classes or subject areas in school (e.g., math, science, language arts) or varying types of extra-curricular activities (e.g., sports, arts, community service). If a teen is receiving mentoring in how to play a sport well, for example, but is left largely to his own devices when figuring out how to make the most of community service opportunities, this could be significant.

Turning to “who”, it may be useful to simply inventory the numbers of different persons involved in providing mentoring to a youth both at any given point in his or her development and more comprehensively over time. There also may be much to be gained from taking into account the characteristics of the individuals involved (e.g., gender, race or ethnicity, age, etc.) and their roles within the young person’s life (e.g., relative, teacher, coach). A youth who receives nearly all of her mentoring from several different relatives, for example, may not necessarily gain the same benefits as one for whom such experiences are distributed across the same number of adults who have more varied roles in her life.4

Finally, but certainly not of least significance, is the “what” in a youth’s mentoring interactions. Theory and research suggest a number of distinctions that could be important in this regard. The TEAM framework proposed by Karcher and colleagues, for example, points toward the potential significance of whether mentoring interactions are more goal-directed or relational in focus, oriented toward adult, societal conventions and future concerns or playful, fun, youthful purposes of the moment, and guided by the youth and/or mentoring provider.5 It is not difficult to see how a description of the prevailing features of a youth’s mentoring experiences, considered collectively, within these type of parameters could be highly informative. Consider, for example, that interactions that are predominantly goal-directed and geared toward meeting adult expectations may be of great value for certain areas of a young person’s development (e.g., success in school), yet possibly counter-productive for others (e.g., emotional health and well-being), whereas the opposite could be the case when mentoring is tilted instead toward relational purposes and recreation.

Clearly, the foregoing only begins to scratch the surface of what could be important in characterizing the mentoring interactions of youth. I have purposely avoided, for example, the ways in which the implications of different dimensions of mentoring interactions may be interdependent.6 I do hope that I have succeeded, however, in stimulating interest in what a more comprehensive and holistic approach to investigating and fostering mentoring interactions could offer to research and practice endeavors within the field of mentoring. Even for those with a desire to do so, putting this perspective in action will be no easy feat. Old habits die hard and in professional life tend to be perpetuated by forces that go well beyond the individual, such as organizational imperatives, funder priorities, and peer norms. Consider, for example, the challenges that a researcher might encounter if applying for a grant to investigate mentoring without the standard step of having youth first identify whom they regard as mentors so that they can limit their reports to those individuals. Or, the leader of a traditional one-to-one mentoring program who proposes to the Board of Directors that some of the program’s limited resources be diverted to the task of developing and piloting a training to cultivate the mentoring skills of adults in the community who come into frequent contact with the youth whom the program seeks to serve.

Some promising possibilities and exemplars for taking steps in these types of directions, however, do exist. In the realm of research, one very doable step would be to do a better job of gathering data about the full array of mentoring interactions that youth experience rather than just those involving an identified mentor. Surveys, interviews, and other tools (e.g., social network maps) developed for different, but related purposes in the children’s friendships and social support literatures could provide a good foundation for efforts in this direction. Additional exciting possibilities are suggested by newer technology-inspired forms of data collection. These include ecological momentary assessment or EMA for short.7 Using EMA, youth and/or those in positions to provide mentoring to young people could be surveyed at random intervals regarding their mentoring interactions with the aid of smart phones or other electronic data-gathering devices. Extrapolation from this type of information could provide invaluable insight into the sum total of mentoring received (or provided) by a young person as well as patterns of mentoring interactions across time, contexts, and persons. Likewise, on the practice side, there are pockets of innovation in which efforts are well underway to make mentoring interactions a more routine occurrence in young people’s lives. The work of the Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern PA is a prime example. As part of their ground-breaking Everyday Mentoring initiative, community members can participate in workshops that introduce them to skills for making a “mentoring difference” wherever they encounter youth in their everyday lives. I think we can all appreciate that catching the entirety of a youth’s metaphorical sundae of mentoring interactions will remain an elusive goal. Yet, as the foregoing possibilities illustrate, for those inclined to up their game, this is an area ripe for innovation and improvement.


David DuBois, PhD is a Professor of Community Health Sciences at Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the Chair of the NMRC Research Board. Learn more about his work here.


1 The distinction being made here is aligned with the difference between mentoring activities and mentoring relationships as discussed elsewhere on the NMRC website. It also shares conceptual lineage with the distinction between “strong” and “weak” ties in social networks (Keller & Blakeslee, 2014). Weak ties may tend to come and go relatively quickly and thus often not involve identified mentors. The interactions that take place in these relationships, however, may be uniquely important for purposes such as fostering bridging social capital that helps connect a young person to new opportunities and resources (Keller & Blakeslee, 2014). For further discussion, see: Keller, T. E., & Blakeslee, J. E. (2014). Social networks and mentoring. In D. L. DuBois & Karcher, M. J., Handbook of youth mentoring (2nd ed., pp. 129-142). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

2 In some studies, youth are asked about their general experiences of support from non-familial adults. Although somewhat responsive to the concerns that I’m raising, these measures fall well short of being a solution for several reasons. They lack attention, for example, to potentially crucial transactional details such as the identities and number of persons providing the mentoring and the contexts or settings in which it took place. The intended temporal breadth of these types of measures, furthermore, is typically relatively brief or ill-defined.  

3 For research suggestive of this possibility, see: McQuillin, S., & Lyons, M. D. (2016). Brief instrumental school-based mentoring for middle school students: Theory and impact. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion 9, 73–89. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1754730X.2016.1148620

4 Some research supports this idea. See, for example: DuBois, D. L., & Silverthorn, N. (2015). Characteristics of natural mentoring relationships and adolescent adjustment: Evidence from a national study. Journal of Primary Prevention, 26, 69-92. doi:10.1007/s10935-005-1832-4.

5 Karcher, M. J., & Hansen, K. (2014). Mentoring activities and interactions. In D. L. DuBois & Karcher, M. J., Handbook of youth mentoring (2nd ed., pp. 63-82). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

6 Consider, for example, the contrasting ways in which a heavy dose of mentoring focused on goals and the future could play out depending on whether received from a teacher or counselor in the school setting during a youth’s teen years or, alternatively, from an older peer in one’s neighborhood at a younger age.

7 Shiffman, S., Stone, A. A., & Hufford, M. R. (2008). Ecological momentary assessment. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 4, 1-32. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.3.022806.091415

Comments (1)

  1. Mandy Howard

Great article, David!

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