Problem Behavior

Problem behaviors include a wide range of negative youth behaviors that could result in significant personal, social, academic, or legal consequences for the youth. The impacts of those behaviors can also extend beyond the individual youth to affect family, peers, and the larger community. Problem behaviors include such outcomes as school misbehavior, aggression, delinquency, hyperactivity, inattention, and non-compliance. These types of behaviors can be a source of great distress for parents, teachers, and peers, and a wealth of intervention research has focused on preventing, deflecting, or remediating them.

Children who are served by community- or school-based mentoring programs often exhibit problem behaviors or are at heightened risk for developing such behaviors in adolescence and adulthood. Mentoring programs are generally successful in reducing some of these behaviors.1 In fact, DuBois and colleague’s recent meta-analysis2 suggests that mentoring programs are particularly effective when directed at youth with pre-existing difficulties (e.g., problem behaviors) or those who experience significant levels of environmental risk. Yet, it is not currently known whether the benefits of mentoring will accrue for youth with more severe antisocial tendencies.

In selecting problem behavior outcomes to review for this Toolkit, emphasis was given to outcomes in this domain that are often of concern to families, schools, mentoring programs, and program funders. The selected outcomes are youth delinquency, bullying, and disruptive behavior at school. Each of these types of behavior place youth at significant risk for difficulties later in life and thus are important targets for intervention and prevention efforts.


Youth delinquency is often viewed as a precursor to later criminality, particularly for those children who engage in delinquent acts at an early age. Youth who go on to perpetrate violent and nonviolent crimes impose a substantial cost to society.3 In the US, Cohen and Piquero4 estimate that each high-risk youth who becomes a career criminal costs society $2.6-5.3 million over a lifetime (e.g., lost wages, medical expenses, stolen property, costs of incarceration). Interventions that are effective in reducing youth delinquency thus have the potential to both improve the lives of individual youth and reduce the social burden imposed by delinquent activity. Youth mentoring is arguably one of the most commonly applied interventions to prevent delinquency or deflect youth off the path from delinquency to later adult criminality.1 In fact, as part of their prevention efforts, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), alone, invested $615 million in mentoring programs from 2008 to 2014. And studies support this investment with meta-analyses showing small to medium effects in this area.1,2


Bullying refers to aggressive behavior that is perpetrated repeatedly with the intention to inflict physical, psychological, or social harm on a peer.5 Children who bully their peers are often also aggressive with teachers, parents, and siblings and tend to experience a range of problems throughout childhood and young adulthood. For example, children who display early-onset conduct problems, including aggression, are known to experience school difficulties6,7 and peer relationship problems,8 and are less interpersonally skilled than their peers.9 During adolescence these children are likely to engage in higher rates of criminal activity10 and substance use,11 are more likely to experience teenage pregnancy,12 and are more apt to be diagnosed with a mental illness.13 As young adults, they are more likely to be unemployed and impoverished,14 to experience difficulties in romantic relationships,15 and to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder.16 These findings, coupled with the fact that many at-risk youth who are served by youth mentoring programs exhibit behavioral problems, were influential in our selection of bullying as an outcome. It is also clear that bullying is becoming a major public health problem in the US and abroad, and youth mentoring could complement school-wide interventions aimed at reducing bullying. Although limited, available evidence suggests that mentoring can lead to reductions in aggressive behavior,1 but more research is needed in this domain, particularly as it relates to the effect of mentoring on bullying per se.

Disruptive behavior at school.

This outcome reflects behaviors that disrupt or disturb academic or social activities, creating troubled learning conditions for students. Children who display heightened levels of disruptive behavior at school perform less well academically,17 have impaired social relations,18 and are at heightened risk for antisocial outcomes.19 Children’s disruptive behavior also negatively impacts the performance of teachers and students in the classroom. One study found that Big Brothers Big Sisters school-based mentoring was effective in decreasing serious school infractions including fighting, principal’s office visits and suspensions,20 suggesting that mentoring could be effective in this related domain.

Substance use.

Substance use by adolescents is a national concern.21 By the time they are seniors, just over 60 percent of high school students will have tried alcohol, nearly half will have taken an illegal drug, over a quarter will have smoked a cigarette, and 18 percent will have used a prescription drug for a nonmedical purpose.22 The desire for new experiences, an attempt to deal with problems or perform better in school, and simple peer pressure have been offered as some of the reasons adolescents begin to experiment with substance use.23 Mentors can provide a safe context for discussions and disclosures related to substance use and simultaneously transmit prosocial values, advice, and perspectives about the dangers of substance use.24,25 Dunn and colleagues conducted a review of 15 studies on mentoring and substance use in adolescents.21 Findings were inconsistent across the reviewed studies (only 6 of the 15 showed effects of mentoring on substance use). However, the authors concluded that higher-quality mentoring programs (e.g., providing mentor training and support) and more exposure to mentoring (i.e., mentoring relationships lasting more than one year) were linked with stronger effects in this area. Similarly, two systematic reviews conducted by Thomas and colleagues26,27 found evidence for favorable effects of mentoring on substance use (as did a meta-analysis by Tolan and colleagues1), but, again, findings were inconsistent across studies and were stronger for alcohol use than for drug or tobacco use. Among several issues in need of clarification in this area is the question of whether mentoring works equally well in preventing the onset of substance use or in curbing existing use.


Truancy is generally considered to be any unexcused or unverified absence from school28 and is a strong predictor of academic failure, school dropout, substance use, and criminal activity.28,29 In addition to its association with poor outcomes, in most states, truancy is considered a status offense (i.e., a noncriminal act that is a law violation only because of a youth’s status as a minor).28 Studies suggest that mentoring program participation can reduce truancy. This may be especially true in school-based programs, where school attendance may be particularly salient for the relationship. In fact, in a systematic review of three large-scale, rigorous evaluations of school-based mentoring programs, truancy was the outcome with the largest estimated effect across all of the outcomes tested.30 There is also some evidence suggesting the potential for community-based mentoring programs to decrease truancy.31

Cited Literature

1. Tolan, P., Henry, D., Schoeny, M., & Bass, A. (2008). Mentoring inter-inventions to affect youth juvenile delinquency and associated problems. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, Institute for Juvenile Research. Retrieved from

2. DuBois, D. L., Portillo, N., Rhodes, J. E., Silverthorn, N., & Valentine, J. C. (2011). How effective are mentoring programs for youth? A systematic assessment of the evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 12, 57–91.

3. Welsh, B. C., Loeber, R., Stevens, B. R., Stouthamer-Loeber, M., Cohen, M.A., & Farrington, D. P. (2008). Costs of juvenile crime in urban areas: A longitudinal perspective. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 6, 3–27.

4. Cohen, M. A., & Piquero, A. R. (2009) New evidence on the the monetary value of saving a high risk youth. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 25, 25–49.

5. Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

6. Dishion, T. J., Patterson, G. R., Stoolmiller, M., & Skinner, M. L. (1991). Family, school, and behavioral antecedents to early adolescent involvement with antisocial peers. Developmental Psychology, 27, 172–180.

7. Patterson, G. R., Capaldi, D. M., & Bank, L. (1991). An early starter model for predicting delinquency. In D. J. Pepler & K. H. Rubin (Eds.), The development and treatment of child aggression (pp. 139–168). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

8. Coie, J. D., & Kupersmidt, J. B. (1983). A behavioral analysis of emerging social status in boys’ groups. Child Development, 54, 1400–1416.

9. Panella, D., & Henggeler, S. W. (1986). Peer interactions of conduct-disordered, anxious-withdrawn, and well-adjusted black adolescents. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 14, 1–11.

10. Loeber, R. (1990). Development and risk factors of juvenile antisocial behavior and delinquency. Clinical Psychology Review, 10, 1–42.

11. Lansford, J. E., Erath, S., Yu, T., Pettit, G. S., Dodge, K. A., & Bates, J. E. (2008). The developmental course of illicit substance use from age 12 to 22: Links with depressive, anxiety, and behavior disorders at age 18. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49, 877–885.

12. Yampolskaya, S., Brown, E. C., & Greenbaum, P. E. (2002). Early pregnancy among adolescent females with serious emotional disturbances: Risk factors and outcomes. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 10, 108–115.

13. Kim-Cohen, J., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T. E., Harrington, H., Milne, B. J., & Poulton, R. (2003). Prior juvenile diagnoses in adults with mental disorder: Developmental follow-back of a prospective-longitudinal cohort. Archives of General Psychiatry, 60, 709–717.

14. Caspi, A., Wright, B. R. E., Moffitt, T. E., & Silva, P. A. (1998). Early failure in the labor market: Childhood and adolescent predictors of unemployment in the transition to adulthood. American Sociological Review, 63, 424–451.

15. Patterson, G. R., Reid, J. B., & Dishion, T. J. (1992). Antisocial boys. Eugene, OR: Castalia.

16. American Psychiatric Association (2000). The diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.

17. Frick, P. J., Kamphaus, R. W., Lahey, B. B., Loeber, R., Christ, M. A. G., Hart, E. L., & Tannenbaum, L. E. (1991). Academic underachievement and the disruptive behavior disorders. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 59, 289–294.

18. Hanish, L. D., & Guerra, M. G. (2000). Predictors of peer victimization among urban youth. Social Development, 9, 521–543.

19. Schaefer, C. M., Petras, H., Ialongo, M., Masyn, K. E., Hubbard, S., Poduska, J., & Kellam, S. (2006). A comparison of girls and boys aggressive—distruptive behavior trajectories across elementary school: Prediction to young adult antisocial outcomes. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74, 500–510

20. Herrera, C., Grossman J. B., Kauh, T. J., Feldman, A. F., McMaken, J., & Jucovy, L. Z. (2007). Making a difference in schools: The Big Brothers Big Sisters School-based Mentoring Impact Study. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures. Retrieved from

21. Dunn, Sarah, Jones, Janelle; Mekjavich, Ellen; Mukai, Gracie; and Varenas, Doug, "Understanding the impact of mentoring on substance abuse patterns in adolescents" (2012). Pediatrics CATs. Paper 16.

22. Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Miech, R. A., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2017). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975-2016: Overview, key findings on adolescent drug use. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan.

23. NIDA. (2014, January 14). Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide. Retrieved from on 2017, July 14.

24. Darling, N., Hamilton, S. F., & Niego, S. (1994). Adolescents’ relations with adults outside the family. In R. Monemayor & G. R. Adams (Eds.), Personal relationships during adolescence: Advances in adolescent development, pp 216-235. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

25. Rhodes, J. E. (2002). Stand by me. The risks and rewards of mentoring today’s youth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

26. Thomas RE, Lorenzetti D, Spragins W. Mentoring adolescents to prevent drug and alcohol use. Cochrane Database of Syst Rev. 2011;(11):CD007381.

27. Thomas, R.E., Lorenzetti, D.L., & Spragins, W. (2013). Systematic Review of Mentoring to Prevent or Reduce Alcohol and Drug Use by Adolescents. Academic Pediatrics, 13, 292 – 299. doi:

28. McKinney, S. (2013). Truancy: A research brief. Status Offence Reform Center.

29. McCluskey, C. P., Bynum, T. S., & Patchin, J. W. (2004). Reducing chronic absenteeism: An assessment of an early truancy initiative. Crime and Delinquency, 50, 214-234.

30. Wheeler, M. E., Keller, T. E., & DuBois, D. L. (2010). Review of Three Recent Randomized Trials of School-Based Mentoring: Making Sense of Mixed Findings. Social Policy Report. Volume 24, Number 3. Society for Research in Child Development.

31. Grossman, J. B., & Tierney, J. P. (1998). Does mentoring work? An impact study of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Evaluation review, 22(3), 403-426.

Request no-cost help for your program

Advanced Search