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STAR Project: A Systemic View of Youth Mentoring Match Closures

MARCH 9, 2017

Editor's Note: Several members of the NMRC Research Board participated in the 2017 National Mentoring Summit this past February, leading a research track that featured OJJDP-funded research and totaled 13 workshops across the multi-day event. We asked several Research Board members to share their key insights from the event based on a workshop they lead, an innovation they learned about, or a conversation they had with an attendee that made them think about the mentoring field in a new light. We will run several of these stories over the months of March and April in the NMRC blog to bring the Summit to life for those who could not attend.

At the 2017 National Mentoring Summit, Renee Spencer and I presented some preliminary findings from an OJJDP-funded study that we are conducting in collaboration with four large Big Brother Big Sister (BBBS) affiliate chapters. The goal of this project, called the Study To Analyze Relationships (STAR), is to understand how multiple program participants (mentor, mentee, parent/guardian, and program staff member) individually and collectively contribute to the development and duration of a new mentoring relationship. We have a particular interest in matches that terminate before reaching their initial one-year commitment for program participation. We want to provide BBBS agencies with evidence-based insights that will help them prevent premature match closures and foster longer-lasting relationships.

The STAR study assesses mentor, mentee, and parent/guardian characteristics, circumstances, and motivations prior to matching so that we can use this information to predict which relationships ultimately fare better than others. We track all the STAR relationships (n=358) over time and then administer surveys with all the participants when the match ends to get a retrospective account of what actually happened in the relationship. With a subset of closed matches (n=36), we go into much greater detail by conducting in-depth qualitative interviews with the mentor, parent, and match support specialist (MSS) to get the story of the match from each person’s perspective. We also obtain program records for the matches participating in the study.

Although previous studies of BBBS programs have reported up to half of the matches ending in the first year, the closure rate for STAR matches in the first year was 30%. For the MENTOR Summit presentation, we used both quantitative (survey) and qualitative (interview) data to provide preliminary information addressing two broad questions: why do matches end and how do matches end?

Based on agency records indicating the official reason for each match closure, approximately two out of three closures were due to the mentor, with the remainder attributed to the child or family. The most common explanations for match closures were: moving to a different home, having time constraints, losing contact (or non-responsive), feeling incompatible, or losing interest. Match support specialists also reported on additional/secondary reasons for the closures, which included communication challenges, mentors feeling overwhelmed by child and family circumstances, and mentors not feeling appreciated by the child and family. The in-depth assessment of closures focused on matches that ended for reasons other than moving or relocating, to better understand the interpersonal dimensions involved in match breakdowns.

The analysis of these matches examined the nature of all the relationships in the mentoring system, i.e. mentor-child, mentor-parent, mentor-MSS, parent-child, parent-MSS, and child-MSS. We found that, even when a relationship between mentor and child was strong and positive, a match could end because the relationships between the adults, such as mentor and parent, experienced challenges. For example, a mentor might fail to understand the stresses on the family and interpret difficulty contacting the parent as an indication that the parent was not supportive of the match and didn’t appreciate the mentor. Alternatively, there were cases in which the adults had cooperative and constructive relationships but the match ended because the mentor and child struggled to connect.

Few of the STAR matches that ended within the first year had a formal closure procedure. Overall, only about 30% involved an opportunity for the mentor and child to say goodbye to signify the end of the match. The MSS rarely had a role in facilitating the closure process. Although the MSS coached the mentor or parent about how to handle the closure in some cases, no closure meetings were organized or attended by an MSS. Typically it was the parent who communicated the closure to the child. In the subset of matches examined in greater detail, only 10% of closures had a final meeting that was planned and completed. In those cases, the mentoring relationships had been strong and positive, and the matches were ending due to significant life changes (e.g., mentor had a baby) that were easy for the mentees to understand. Thus, participants were unlikely to have formal explanations and goodbyes when matches ended under more difficult circumstances, precisely when a facilitated meeting might be beneficial for coping with the disappointment of a premature match closure.

Robust attendance and lively discussion during the MENTOR Summit session suggested a strong interest in addressing the topic of match closure. Several attendees shared their program policies and strategies for preventing and/or managing match closures. As we continue to analyze data and report findings from the STAR study, we look forward to future opportunities to exchange ideas with program professionals and develop recommendations for the field. We believe that, when handled constructively, even difficult match closures can offer valuable learning experiences on how to end relationships on a positive note.

Tom Keller, Ph.D., is a Professor at the Portland State University School of Social Work and a member of the NMRC Research Board. Learn more about him and his work here, or reach out to him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Renée Spencer is a Professor at the Boston University School of Social Work. You can learn more about her work here or reach out to her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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