Social-Emotional Skills

Social-emotional (SE) skills include the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary for youth to recognize and control their emotions and behaviors; establish and maintain positive relationships; make responsible decisions and solve challenging situations; and set and achieve positive goals.1,2 Sometimes labeled as 21st century skills,3 soft skills,4 non-cognitive skills,5 or character attributes,6 SE skills have been shown to be malleable and linked to academic, career, and life success.7 Based on this evidence, promoting these skills in young people has become a priority for both schools and afterschool settings.

Rhodes’ model of youth mentoring8 points to an important role for mentors in promoting SE skills. Mentoring relationships that are emotionally engaging (e.g., through trust, empathy, mutuality) are expected to produce social and emotional growth in young people that will improve their relationships with peers, parents, and other adults as well as their overall well-being and success in life. Indeed, meta-analyses have linked quality mentoring programs9,10 as well as quality afterschool programs11 to improvements in social and emotional development. These impacts extend across program types and across youth background and demographic characteristics. For example, cross-age peer mentoring programs have been indicated to contribute to improvements in mentees’ communication skills and social adjustment.12 In addition, youth with learning and behavioral difficulties have also shown social gains in areas of self-control and cooperation after engaging with a mentor.13 However, it is important to note that these effects are often small in magnitude and have not been consistent across all outcome measures relevant to SE skills or across all programs.

In deciding what SE skills from the broad array to include in this Toolkit, priority was given to those skills that have most consistently been linked to short- and long-term success in multiple domains such as mental health, behavior, and academics. Emphasis was also given to SE skills that, based on available evidence, seem most likely to be malleable to mentoring. It is important to note here that one should use caution with only collecting youth self-report data to assess SE skills. As self-awareness is also a key facet of SE skills, youth with poor self-awareness may not accurately report their other SE skills. In assessing SE skills as outcomes, it thus may be especially valuable to gather data from additional informants, such as mentors, parents, or teachers, as well as through objective assessments such as observations of behavior.


Self-control refers to one’s ability to regulate one’s emotions and behaviors.14 It may involve delaying gratification, controlling impulses, focusing attention, and following rules. Self-control is seen as foundational to the other SE skills. For example, successfully maintaining positive peer relationships or working constructively with others often requires the ability to control one’s emotions and act in socially appropriate ways. The ability to control one’s emotions and behaviors has been linked to success in all domains of life including educational, social, and vocational contexts. For example, seminal research by Mischel and colleagues has suggested that there are long-term effects of self-control on positive outcomes later in life; preschoolers’ ability to delay gratification was linked to academic, behavioral, and social success in adolescence as well as higher SAT scores, college completion rates, and income levels.15 Following a cohort of 1,000 children from birth to the age of 32, Moffitt and colleagues16 also linked childhood self-control in favorable directions to several developmental outcomes including physical health, personal finances, substance use, and criminal behavior. Surprisingly little research has directly investigated the effects of youth mentoring on self-control abilities. In a notable exception, an evaluation of Across Ages, an intergenerational mentoring program, found that program participants exhibited greater improvements in their self-reported self-control abilities.

However, these effects were not maintained following the end of program involvement.17 Another exception to the dearth of work examining the link between mentoring and self-control is a longitudinal study by Kogan and colleagues.18 Using data from a sample of rural African American youth, they found that positive natural mentoring relationships predicted greater self-control in these youth as rated by their parents, which in turn, was linked to less anger, rule-breaking behavior, and aggression.18

Social competence.

Social competence is the set of abilities needed to be assertive and to create and maintain positive relationships.19 These skills are necessary to get along well with others and to work constructively with others within established social norms across multiple contexts. For example, a consistent and robust body of research indicates that social competence predicts career success in terms of employment, workplace performance, income, and entrepreneurial success.4 Mentors can serve as a key resource for promoting social competence. Rhodes’ model of mentoring8 described this process and empirical evidence supports this idea. DuBois and colleagues’ meta-analysis of 55 evaluations of youth mentoring programs9 suggested that, on average, participation in mentoring programs significantly improved the social competence of youth. In the landmark Public/Private Ventures evaluation of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program,20 for example, findings indicated that mentored youth improved in their relationships with peers and parents as compared to non-mentored youth.

Problem-solving ability.

Problem-solving ability involves the capacity to identify a problem, collect information from multiple sources to consider options, and select a reasonable solution to that problem. Effective problem-solving has been conceptualized as involving “planning, flexibility, and resourcefulness.”21 Resilient children and adolescents growing up in adverse environments are often found to have strong problem-solving abilities.22,23 Theoretically, mentors can serve as role models for positive problem-solving by modeling a calm, thoughtful, and flexible approach to dealing with problems. In addition, mentors can serve as resources for advice to young people as they work through problems, such as in their relationships with family members, peers, and teachers. However, there has been very little empirical evidence examining the role of mentoring in affecting problem-solving ability (or similar higher-order thinking constructs such as decision making and critical thinking.)


The ability to set appropriate goals and effectively pursue them is widely understood to be central to healthy development.24,25 In line with this view, results from the Lerner and Lerner 4-H Study of PYD26 have consistently linked goal-directed skills to positive youth development outcomes. Helping youth to develop goal-setting and goal-pursuit skills is a key aim in the organization and structuring of many mentoring programs.27 Mentors may prove helpful in building these skills in youth through several ways.28 Mentors serve as teachers, role models, and advocates for youth as they provide opportunities for youth to practice these skills, examples of success and failure in pursuing goals, and access to social networks that align with youth goals. Only limited research has addressed these possibilities. In one recent study using data from 415 mentor-mentee dyads from mentoring programs around the United States, Bowers and colleagues29 found that mentor-mentee relationship quality predicted growth in youth goal-directed skills. In another recent study involving Big Brothers Big Sisters community-based mentoring programs,30 youth who were randomly assigned to receive support with development of skills for goal-setting and pursuit (along with other facets of thriving) did not show any greater improvement in this area than youth assigned to receive mentoring as usual. However, for a subgroup of these youth who reported having positive exposure to the activities that were designed to build goal-directed skills, it appears that they were indeed beneficial for promoting thriving and, in turn, reduced problem behavior. Further research will be needed to better clarify the conditions under which mentoring is most likely to help youth cultivate skills for setting and working toward goals effectively.


Perseverance refers to the ability to pursue one’s tasks to completion. It has attracted considerable interest from practitioners, researchers, and policy-makers, particularly in relation to its potential role in facilitating academic and career success. Youth self-reports of greater perseverance have been positively linked to measures of their GPA, healthy habits, and (as rated by teachers) academic performance, cooperation, effort, and organization, and has been negatively linked to youth depression, anxiety, and aggression. 31 A systematic review of program and learning models suggests that perseverance can be taught and developed.32

Most studies on the role of adults in promoting youth perseverance have been conducted in school settings. Reviews of this work indicate that youth are more likely to persist when they view adults as showing they care about them, having high expectations for their success, and holding them to high standards.33 In an evaluation of five after-school centers from the San Francisco Beacon Initiative,34 young people who participated in the Beacon centers for a year or more were 33 percent less likely to show a decline in self-reported perseverance (identified as “self-efficacy” in the study) over an 18-month period than youth who either did not participate in the Beacon center programming or who participated for less time. Increased participation in Beacon centers was also linked to increased levels of non-family adult support, which, in turn, significantly predicted positive changes in perseverance. A quasi-experimental evaluation of OneGoal, a college preparation program with the goal of college graduation and emphasis on social support, found that youth in the OneGoal program had higher rates of college enrollment and retention than comparison-group youth, and that growth in the SE skills of persistence and self-control was linked to college enrollment and retention for OneGoal participants.35

A construct related to perseverance is grit36–one’s sustained interest in and perseverance of efforts over years toward a long-term goal. A meta-analysis of findings from 88 independent study samples indicated that the perseverance of effort dimension of grit was much more strongly related to measures of academic performance than the consistency of interest dimension or overall grit scores,37 providing additional evidence for an important contribution of perseverance to youth success. It should be noted, however, that the potential for mentoring programs to promote perseverance has not been rigorously investigated.

Career exploration.

During adolescence, a youth’s sense of personal future develops, and identity exploration and commitment become important developmental tasks.38 Educational and career achievements are a typical focus of adolescent thoughts of the future.39 How youth approach career exploration has been linked to variation in indicators of positive youth development40 including school engagement41 and academic success.42 Career and academic processes, in turn, have been linked to youth perseverance and success in the subsequent school-to-work transition.43

Theoretically, mentoring relationships can help place young people on a path to career success. Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT)44 posits that career development is a lifelong process that can be facilitated in childhood and adolescence through career exploration and support, modeling, resources, and feedback from others including mentors, teachers, and counselors. For example, support from parents, close friends, and non-parental adults such as extended family members and teachers has been linked to career development in urban youth,45 and natural mentoring relationships have been linked to reported use of planful strategies to pursue long-term career goals among rural African American youth and emerging adults46 as well as indices of the career development of pregnant and parenting African-American teenagers.47 Natural mentoring relationships in adolescence have also been associated positively with work hours per week in the early twenties48,49 and with intrinsic job rewards (creativity, authority, and autonomy) in the early thirties.50 Analyses based on the same nationally representative sample further found that the reported presence of a natural mentor was linked to greater annual earnings during adulthood for males without fathers and especially so for African-American males without fathers.51 Similar possible benefits for annual earnings for young men, especially those at risk for high school dropout, were identified in an evaluation of the Career Academy mentoring program.52, 53 Males enrolled in the Career Academy earned more than those in the non-Academy control group over the 4- and 8-year follow-up periods via increased wages, hours worked, and employment stability. A recent evaluation of the iMentor program also found evidence of an effect of program participation on career planning.54 Evidence regarding the ability of programs geared toward younger youth and without a specific focus on career development to promote career exploration, however, is lacking.

Youth-centered outcomes.

As previously indicated, helping youth set and pursue their goals is a central task in many mentoring programs.27 However, with youth setting goals in diverse domains, programs  may find it difficult to assess youth progress toward achieving these goals. Measures of universal outcomes provide programs with a way to track youth progress toward their individualized goals using a standardized questionnaire format.55 Reviews suggest that these types of outcome measures - often referred to as idiographic in the research literature and which are referred to here as youth-centered - have the potential to capture change better than standardized measures often used in practice.56 For example, in a sample of 137 youth receiving mental health services, Edbrooke-Childs and colleagues reported that changes in progress toward goals was linked to changes in clinician- reported functioning and parent-reported satisfaction with care.57 The processes of setting and monitoring progress towards goals, which is encouraged for youth to do collaboratively with relevant adults such as therapists or, the case of mentoring programs, program staff and mentors,58,59 has itself been linked to a range of behavioral outcomes60,61 and psychological well-being and distress.62  In clinical research, for example, both practitioners and youth have reported that the process of reviewing and tracking goals motivated youth, empowered them to take ownership of their progress, and improved communication between the practitioner and youth and parents.63 Similarly, in a study of 176 mentors trained to use Goal Attainment Scaling, a youth-centered outcomes measure, Balcazar and colleagues found that that this process provided mentors with a helpful framework for working with youth, including clear direction for how to focus their support.64 However, it is important to note that ratings on youth-centered outcomes are subjective and may be subject to social desirability bias (i.e., a motivational tendency or investment on the part of raters, such as youth or mentors, to report positive progress).55 Several strategies may be helpful for mitigating the risk of bias in youth-centered outcomes. These include 1) developing a system and structure in which goals are discussed and reviewed in a consistent manner; 2) collection of goal progress data from multiple sources; and 3) encouraging mentors and others involved with gauging goal progress (e.g., staff) to temper unrealistic expectations of goal attainment and to consider how youth may be affected in the long run if assessments of progress are biased to be more favorable than is warranted.55 To summarize, the use of youth-centered measures has been uncommon to date in the mentoring literature and carries with it a number of important considerations. At the same time, these tools hold significant promise for enhancing sensitivity to detecting changes in meaningful outcomes among youth receiving mentoring as well as for enhancing beneficial processes in the mentoring relationship itself.

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