Building strong relationships in mentoring programs


In mentoring programs, careful attention must be paid to the development and quality of the mentor-mentee relationship, as this bond is crucial for attaining desired youth outcomes. Public/Private Ventures (P/PV) performed a study for the National Mentoring Partnership that identifies common practices of mentoring programs that foster close and supportive relationships (Mentoring School-Age Children, 2000). Program decisions — from how activities are chosen, to training and support offered to mentors — affect the relationship between mentors and youth.


Allowing a mentor and youth to spend time together does not guarantee that a strong relationship will evolve. To ensure the development of strong mentor-youth relationships, program staff must successfully implement the programmatic benchmarks identified in the P/PV mentoring study.


The P/PV study identifies four essential program practices that contribute to the development of close and supportive relationships between a mentor and youth, which can be implemented by staff in school- and community-based programs:

  1. Provide at least six hours of pre-match training and at least one post-match meeting a month.Mentors who receive more than six hours of pre-match training and orientation tend to spend more time with their mentees and report having the closest, most supportive relationships. Similarly, mentors who report having at least monthly contact with program staff once their matches had begun tend to develop closer and more supportive relationships than those with less frequent contact.
  2. Match mentors with youth based on common interests. Mentors and youth who share similar interests develop close, supportive relationships. While many programs match mentors and youth based on gender or ethnicity (whether based on program philosophy, liability concerns, or parental preference), this can have the adverse effect of limiting the pool of male and minority mentors. If matching based on interest is not feasible, then train mentors so that they can identify and draw upon shared interests with a youth. Some ways to determine compatibility and similar interests include:
  • Ask youth and/or volunteers to complete personality inventories or interest surveys.
  • Provide mentors with interest surveys to complete with youth.
  • Allow groups of mentors and youth to meet, and then give them the opportunity to note first, second, and third choices for a match.
  • In school-based programs, learn more about the child's needs and interests from school staff who know the child well.
  1. Encourage mentors to spend time engaging in social as well as academic activities. The extent to which youth and mentors engage in social activities (going to events together, having lunch, just talking, etc.) isthe critical factor in developing positive relationships. Engaging in academic activities also has a positive effect on forming strong relationships, as does giving youth a voice in deciding activities, and then making these decisions together.
  2. Focus more attention on training and supporting mentors who are working with older youth. Mentors matched with middle or high school students experienced less close and less supportive relationships, and this finding has implications for expanding program activities. According to the study, mentors paired with older youth tend to spend less time on academic activities (which is strongly related to supportiveness), may not be matched based on shared interests, may question their self-efficacy, and face more challenges.


Mentors who were given ample training and support from program staff, who engaged in social as well as academic activities with their youth, and who were matched with a youth with common interests reported having closer, more supportive relationships with youth than mentors who were not. These findings indicate that staff can facilitate relationship development through the implementation of the specified program practices.


The study is based on telephone interviews with 1,101 mentors in 98 mentoring programs (drawn from a sample of 722 mentoring programs previously surveyed for a descriptive study entitled Mentoring School-Age Children: A Classification of Programs, 1999). Among those, the research focused on the 669 volunteers in one-on-one matches in community- and school-based mentoring programs. The surveys were supplemented with interviews and focus groups with youth, school, and agency staff from eight exemplary programs. The report focuses on relationship development (not program impacts) from the mentor point of view.

For more information:

Related Resources: 

Building Relationships: A Guide for New Mentors

National Mentoring Center


Herrera, C., Sipe, C., & McClanahan, W. (2000). Mentoring school-age children: Relationship development in community-based and school-based programs. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures.

Sipe, C., & Roder, A. (1999). Mentoring school-age children: A classification of programs. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures. Retrieved from

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