Mentoring Relationship Quality and Characteristics

The relationships that develop between youth and their mentors are thought to be the central route through which mentoring can benefit (or, inadvertently, harm) youth (Rhodes, 2005; Karcher & Nakkula, 2010a). Thus, it is important to be able to assess the salient characteristics, or “quality,” of youth’s mentoring relationships.

Mentoring programs generally understand the importance of relationship quality and its potential role in fostering program benefits for youth. In fact, many programs have made relationship quality a central component of their internal evaluation activities. But programs often struggle to determine which components of relationship quality are most essential to measure and often use “homegrown” tools or limited measures of relationship satisfaction, rather than digging deeper into how the relationship is experienced across many dimensions or from multiple viewpoints. And when programs do try to use research-backed measures, they are faced with a dizzying array of options to choose from and it is difficult for them to gauge their relative merits and potential fit with their programs.

This section of the Measurement Guidance Toolkit is intended to help programs with this process of selecting reliable and valid tools for assessing the quality of the mentoring relationships that they are cultivating through their efforts.

A Framework for Understanding Relationship Dimensions

To guide our selection of measures to include in the toolkit, we followed a framework developed by Nakkula and Harris (2014). This framework highlights the following aspects of relationship quality: Internal match quality (consisting of relational and instrumental components), match structure, and external match quality.

Internal Match Quality encompasses how the mentor and youth feel about their relationship and each other as well as more objective indicators of quality:

  • Relational aspects of this dimension reflect how the youth and mentor feel about each other and the way they relate to each other, including their perceptions of compatibility as well as feelings of mutual closeness, trust, and overall satisfaction with the relationship. Objective indicators in this category include the frequency and duration of meetings and the longevity of the mentoring relationship;

  • Instrumental aspects of internal match quality reflect the degree of growth orientation in the relationship. Specific indicators include the extent to which the mentor and youth focus on achieving goals together and the youth’s satisfaction with the support received. More objective indicators include the types and frequency of support received.

Match structure includes what the mentee/mentor want to do together, how they decide what to do, and objective measures of the types of activities in which they ultimately engage.

Finally, External Match Quality includes elements outside of the mentoring relationship that can affect its development, such as perceived program support and the degree of parent engagement in the match. We did not focus on this last component this year, limiting our review to the measurement of relationship components that occur within the relationship. Exploring measures that assess these external influences on mentoring relationships may be a priority in future additions to the Toolkit.

We selected the Nakkula and Harris (2014) framework from several strong and influential theoretical frameworks in the field (see Karcher & Nakkula, 2010a), mainly because it is extremely comprehensive in the facets of relationship quality that it includes and thus would support our goal of considering measures of a broad range of different aspects of mentoring relationships. The framework also reflects, or accounts for, elements emphasized in other important frameworks in the field. For example, early seminal work by Morrow and Styles (1995) emphasized the importance of mentor approach, with findings suggesting that a developmental approach (focusing on youth’s voice in the relationship) is most conducive to relationship success, relative to a prescriptive approach (letting the adult’s goals for youth guide the relationship). Hamilton and Hamilton’s (1992) conceptualization of mentoring focuses on the instrumental roles that mentors take on when helping youth achieve different goals (see also Hamilton, Hamilton, DuBois, & Sellers, 2016). The TEAM framework (described in Karcher & Nakkula, 2010b) emphasizes the focus, purpose and authorship of the mentoring relationship and how these factors can interact in shaping its tenor. Keller and Pryce’s (2010) framework conceptualizes all relationships in terms of power (i.e., whether the relationship is vertical as in a parent-child relationship or horizontal as in friendships) and permanence (the degree to which the relationship is obligated or voluntary). Mentoring relationships are a unique combination of these elements (i.e., both unequal in power and voluntary). A mentor’s ability to maintain this hybrid role in her or his approach is posited to be key to relationship success (Keller & Pryce, 2012). All of these conceptually rich frameworks provide some guidance in which aspects of the relationship may be important to measure and are highly recommended for review as programs consider which aspects of relationship quality may be particularly telling for their specific program.

Selected measures.

A total of nine measures of mentoring relationship quality are included in this section of the Toolkit (an overview of how the measures were selected can be found on the About This Toolkit page). The recommended instruments are organized into three groups.

The first group, multi-faceted measures, consists of three measures. These measures are designed to provide insight into multiple aspects of relationship quality or, more specifically, at least two of the aspects of relationship quality outlined in the Nakkula and Harris framework (2014). These measures consist of multiple scales and thus are relatively lengthy but compensate for that length in richness and scope. Two of the measures include both a mentor and a youth version.

The second category consists of unidimensional measures. These instruments assess one dimension of relationship quality, in most cases, using only one scale. The two selected measures may be particularly attractive options for programs that can ask their participants only a limited number of questions. Nakkula and Harris (2014) propose that if only one aspect of relationship quality can be assessed, the relational aspect (as described above) is most central. In fact, almost all of the instruments we reviewed focused, at least in part, on relational aspects of relationship quality—and both of the unidimensional measures cover this feature of relationships—suggesting general agreement in the field that this is one of the more telling aspects of relationship quality.

The final category consists of measures of specific facets of relationships. These measures are oriented toward assessing aspects of mentoring relationships that, although likely to be relevant to many programs, are not routinely captured by more general-purpose measures of mentoring relationship quality. Illustratively, recent survey data indicate that as many as 1 in 3 youth served by mentoring programs meet with their mentor in a group context (Garringer, McQuillin, & McDaniel, 2017). Yet, none of the recommended measures in the other two categories described above are geared toward capturing the nature and quality of the various types of interactions and group dynamics that may take place within these types of programs. Thus, one of our recommended measures in this category covers this important area.

The four facets of mentoring relationships assessed by the measures in this last category are:

  1. Youth-centeredness: Youth’s “voice” in the relationship--that is, the extent to which youth feel that the activities and direction of the relationship reflect their own interests and needs. Morrow and Styles (1995) in their qualitative study of Big Brothers Big Sisters community-based mentoring relationships provided important early evidence of the importance of youth voice in contributing to successful relationships. More recent work (Herrera, DuBois & Grossman, 2013) has linked youth reports of youth-centeredness to youth reports of a stronger growth/goal focus in the relationship (see “Growth focus” below) and to program supports (i.e., those mentors who are trained and better supported have mentees who report higher levels of youth centeredness in their relationship).

  2. Mentor cultural sensitivity: The mentor’s attention to supporting her or his mentee’s cultural identity (Sánchez, Pryce, Silverthorn, Deane, & DuBois, 2018; Spencer, 2007). Studies suggest that improving mentor’s attention to this important component of youth identity can foster higher-quality relationships (Sánchez, Pryce, Silverthorn, Deane, & DuBois, 2018; Spencer, 2007). In fact, mentors’ reports of multicultural competence have been found to be correlated with their reported levels of satisfaction with their relationships with both the mentee and the mentoring organization as well as the quality of their relationship with the mentee’s family (Suffrin, Todd, & Sanchez, 2016). Reports by youth of color of receiving mentor support in this area were also found to be positively associated with the youth’s own reports of satisfaction with relational and instrumental aspects of the mentoring relationship (Sanchez et al., in press).

  3. Growth focus: The extent to which the relationship includes a focus on growth or goal achievement (Karcher & Nakkula, 2010b). Youth reports of growth focus in their mentoring relationship have been linked positively with the mentor’s receipt of training (both early on in the match and ongoing training) and receipt of higher quality support from program staff (Herrera et al., 2013). In the same study, youth who rated their mentors as higher in youth centeredness also tended to report a stronger growth/goal focus in their relationships.

  4. Group mentoring processes: The various interactional processes that occur when mentors meet with youth in a group context (Kuperminc & Thomason, 2014). Relatively few studies have been conducted that explore this important area. One recent study, however, reported that youth reports of their experiences within their mentoring group predicted several key youth outcomes including self-efficacy, school belonging, and school participation (Kuperminc, Sanford, & Chan, 2017).

We hope this section of the toolkit helps programs strategize more thoughtfully about the aspects of mentoring relationship quality that help both the relationships and youth they support to thrive and how they might go about measuring these qualities at various points in the mentoring relationship. Please also remember that any mentoring program can get free technical assistance to help think through how best to assess mentoring relationship quality in their program by requesting assistance through this website.

Cited Literature

Bayer, A., Grossman, J. B., & Dubois, D. L. (2015). Using volunteer mentors to improve the academic outcomes of underserved students: The role of relationships. Journal of Community Psychology, 43(4), 408-429. doi: 10.1002/jcop.21693

DuBois, D. L. and Neville, H. A. (1997). Youth mentoring: Investigation of relationship characteristics and perceived benefits. Journal of Community Psychology, 25, 227-234. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1520-6629(199705)25:3<227::AID-JCOP1>3.0.CO;2-T

DuBois, D. L., & Neville, H. A. (1997). Youth mentoring: Investigation of relationship characteristics and perceived benefits. Journal of Community Psychology, 25, 227–234.

Garringer, M., McQuillin, S., & McDaniel, H. (2017). Examining youth mentoring services across America: Findings from the 2016 National Mentoring Program Survey. Boston, MA: MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership.

Hamilton, S. F., & Hamilton, M. A. (1992). Mentoring programs: Promise and paradox. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(7), 546. 

Hamilton, M. A., Hamilton, S. F., DuBois, D. L., & Sellers, D. E. (2016). Functional roles of important nonfamily adults for youth. Journal of Community Psychology, 44(6), 799-806.

Herrera, Carla, David L. DuBois and Jean Baldwin Grossman. (2013). The Role of Risk: Mentoring Experiences and Outcomes for Youth with Varying Risk Profiles. New York, NY: A Public/Private Ventures project distributed by MDRC.

Karcher, M. J., & Nakkula, M. J. (2010a). New Directions for Youth Development, 2010.

Karcher, M. J., & Nakkula, M. J. (2010b). Youth mentoring with a balanced focus, shared purpose, and collaborative interactions. New Directions for Youth Development, 2010(126), 13-32.

Keller, T. E., & Pryce, J. M. (2010). Mutual but unequal: Mentoring as a hybrid of familiar relationship roles. New Directions for Youth Development, 2010(126), 33-50.

Keller, T. E., & Pryce, J. M. (2012). Different roles and different results: How activity orientations correspond to relationship quality and student outcomes in school-based mentoring. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 33(1), 47-64.

Kuperminc, G., Sanford, V., & Chan, W. Y. (2017, February). Building effective group mentoring programs: Lessons from research and practice on Project Arrive. Workshop presented at the National Mentoring Summit, Washington, DC.

Kuperminc, G. P., & Thomason, J. D. (2014). Group mentoring. In D. Dubois & M. Karcher (Eds.), Handbook of youth mentoring (2nd ed., pp. 273-289). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Morrow, K. V., & Styles, M. B. (1995). Building relationships with youth in program settings: A study of Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures.

Nakkula, M., & Harris, J. (2014). Assessing mentoring relationships. In D. Dubois & M. Karcher (Eds.), Handbook of youth mentoring (2nd ed., pp. 45-62). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Parra, G. R., DuBois, D. L., Neville, H. A., Pugh‐Lilly, A. O. and Povinelli, N. (2002), Mentoring relationships for youth: Investigation of a process‐oriented model. Journal of Community Psychology, 30, 367-388. doi:10.1002/jcop.10016

Rhodes, J. E. (2005). A model of youth mentoring. In D. L. DuBois & M. J. Karcher (Eds.) Handbook of youth mentoring (pp. 30–43). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Rhodes, J. E., Schwartz, S. E., Willis, M. M., & Wu, M. B. (2017). Validating a mentoring relationship quality scale: Does match strength predict match length?. Youth & Society, 49(4), 415-437.

Sánchez, B., Pryce, J., Silverthorn, N., Deane, K., & DuBois, D. L. (in press). Do mentor support for racial/ethnic identity and cultural mistrust matter for girls of color? A preliminary investigation. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology

Spencer, R. (2007). “It's Not What I Expected” A Qualitative Study of Youth Mentoring Relationship Failures. Journal of Adolescent Research, 22(4), 331-354.

Suffrin, R. L., Todd, N. R., & Sánchez, B. (2016). An ecological perspective of mentor satisfaction with their youth mentoring relationships. Journal of Community Psychology, 44(5), 553-568.

Thomson, N., & Zand, D. (2010). Mentees’ perceptions of their interpersonal relationships: The role of the mentor-youth bond. Youth & Society, 41, 434-447.

Zand, D. H., Thomson, N., Cerventes, R., Espiritu, R., Klagholz, D., LaBlanc, L., & Taylor, A. (2009). The mentor–youth alliance: The role of mentoring relationships in promoting youth competence. Journal of Adolescence, 1–17. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2007.12.006



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