Support for Match Closure
*Note: The National Mentoring Resource Center makes these “Insights for Mentoring Practitioners” available for each program or practice reviewed by the National Mentoring Resource Center Research Board. Their purpose is to give mentoring professionals additional information and understanding that can help them apply reviews to their own programs. You can read the full review on the National Mentoring Resource Center website.
As with many evidence reviews of specific practices undertaken by the NMRC Research Board, there is a frustratingly small number of studies that have tested the effectiveness and value of supporting matches through the closure process. Almost all programs take this step seriously (although perhaps not always giving it the attention it deserves), but there was only one study available that examined whether specific strategies in the closure process that would make a difference in terms of participant experiences.
But the topic has been getting increased attention from the research and practice communities, including being the featured topic at the 2017 Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring. That event featured a strong blend of new quantitative and qualitative research that highlighted many of the nuances of why matches tend to fall apart and practitioner-sourced ideas for how programs might handle those closures based on different circumstances. The research presented also drew attention to just how often program staff struggle to provide participants with an adequate closure experience and minimize the damage that a poorly ended match can have on youth, parents, and volunteers.
In light of the small body of research we have to draw from, we offer some principles, extrapolated from observational research like that noted above, as well as practice wisdom, that may perhaps enhance the closure experience and minimize the impact of poorly handled closure situations.
1. Clarify expectations around the match up front with all participants.
One of those new research projects that might shed light on the reasons behind match closure is the Study to Analyze Relationships (STAR), funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and led by Dr. Tom Keller at Portland State University with qualitative support from Dr. Renee Spencer of Boston University. Their research into the match lifecycle has revealed some fascinating patterns around the expectations that mentors, youth, and parents all bring to the new mentoring relationship. For example, half of the new mentors at the beginning of the study said they expected their relationship with their “Little” to last either “forever” or “until my Little is grown up.” They thought that this would be a very long-term and emotionally resonant relationship. Yet, the reality is that 30% of these matches closed before the intended initial duration and of those, a third closed “abruptly” with little warning to either the mentee or the mentor. Most of those closures appeared to be stem from life circumstances like moving to a new city. Still, some were clearly related to those unmet expectations around how deeply moving and valuable this experience would be (in fact, analyses in the full STAR report noted that those mentors who thought the match would last “forever” were at greatest risk for early closure relative to all other expectations). That’s a lot to put on a child, especially one you just met!
The STAR interviews with youth and parents also revealed all kinds of expectations about what the relationship would focus on, how the mentor would communicate with the parent, and how program staff would interact with the youth and their parent. In those early-ending matches, findings suggested that it was very common for unmet, but also unexpressed, expectations around the match to lead to friction and tension that ultimately led to the match’s dissolution.
Extrapolating from these findings, we can speculate that all mentoring programs would be well served to not only explore the expectations that each participant has about the experience but to also facilitate the sharing of those expectations so that everyone can get on the same page about how this will go and what it will feel like over time. And certainly program staff have an obligation to rein in mentors when they enter the relationship with expectations (often potentially fueled by lofty marketing language) that are unlikely to be met. Common expectations that may be important to clarify include those relating to:
- The quality and emotional depth of the relationship
- Communication between staff, mentors, youth, and parents, especially between the parent and the mentor
- What closure will look like when it does happen⎯a mentor may be less likely to totally abandon a mentee if he or she has had a conversation with the youth or parent about the harm that could do and know what they expect when the end does arrive.
2. Don’t skimp on match supervision.
It is possible that one of the best ways to avoid harmful closure experience may be to keep matches from disintegrating badly in the first place and sapping the motivation of participants to see the closure process through. This may be especially important in community-based programs where experience tells us that misunderstandings and resentments around those expectations can really mushroom in the absence of staff engagement and intervention (something confirmed in some of the qualitative research presented at the 2016 SIYM). Unfortunately, it appears that many mentoring programs staff their match support roles with relatively inexperienced personnel and high-volume caseloads, making it difficult to meet supervision schedules and offer wise guidance and support when issues are detected (the STAR study also noted high rates of turnover in these positions, resulting in additional gaps in support). The NMRC Research Board has developed a tool to help mentoring programs better calculate exactly how much staff time goes into giving their matches quality support and guidance. This tool will allow programs to allocate resources in a way that better maximizes the help provided to mentors, youth, and parents throughout the experience, including during closure.
3. Program staff must “own” the closure process and ensure it happens.
One of the unfortunate circumstances detailed in the STAR study and other research by Dr. Spencer is the too-common problem of a young person effectively being denied a chance to say goodbye to his or her mentor and process the experience, due either to abandonment by the mentor or a parent pulling their child out of a relationship in frustration. In fact, only 26% of the youth in the study got a facilitated, in-person closure with their mentor—with 52% reporting literally no contact between the mentor and youth to end the match. In other words, half of the study matches offered youth no chance at even a goodbye phone call or letter. Although program staff may not be able to ensure a final “goodbye” meeting in every circumstance or get a reluctant mentor to participate in a closure activity, ethical considerations mandate that they take control of those situations and provide whatever help and support they can, especially to a child who might be grieving over a suddenly ended relationship. From this perspective, leaving a child, parent, or mentor dangling in the wind in the closure process is unacceptable regardless of what research may ultimately be able to reveal about the measurable consequences of such circumstances.
In the 4th Edition of The Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring™ MENTOR recommends that all participants go through a closure process, even if it’s just an exit interview with a staff member, that offers:
- Discussion of feelings about closure
- Discussion of reasons for closure, if relevant
- Discussion of positive experiences in the mentoring relationship
- A review of program rules for post-closure contact
- Creation of a plan for post-closure contact, if relevant
- Creation of a plan for the last match meeting, if possible
- Discussion of possible rematching
The first two of those bullets seem likely to be especially critical if our goal as a field is to do no harm and help participants grow from the mentoring experience, even if it went poorly or ended unexpectedly. A youth who walks away from a mentoring relationship feeling bitter or devalued is a youth who may reject future mentors and other, healthier relationships down the road. Practitioners should do everything in their power to keep that from happening and follow through on their closure practices with much care and conscientiousness. The impact of that may last a lifetime.
For more information on research-informed program practices and tools for implementation, be sure to consult the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring™ and the "Resources for Mentoring Programs" section of the National Mentoring Resource Center site.