Mentoring programs aim to provide children with a relationship with a caring adult beyond family, teachers or other adults outside of school. When mentoring programs are based in schools, they often seek to improve students’ academic performance, usually with mentors providing tutoring or homework help. New research finds that the academic help has less effect on a child’s school performance than the quality of the relationship between the mentor and student.
Using data from a mentoring program sponsored by Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, researchers for MDRC, an education and social service research group, randomly assigned more than 1,000 students referred by school staff into treatment and control groups for examining whether mentoring brings academic progress. Treatment group students were paired with a mentor while those in the control group were placed on a waiting list to be paired at a later time. The students were entering 4th through 9th grades in 71 rural and urban public schools around the country. More than two-thirds qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.
Student surveys toward the end of the school year revealed that children who rated the relationship with their mentor as at least somewhat close showed the greatest academic improvement. Students reporting that they did not have a close relationship with their mentor showed no academic progress. These results held regardless of the amount of time the student and mentor spent on schoolwork.
Researchers Amanda Bayer of Swarthmore College, Jean Baldwin Grossman of Princeton University and MDRC, and David L. DuBois of the University of Illinois at Chicago say the results indicate that school-based mentoring programs should focus on setting up a high-quality matching process between students and mentors. They add that close relationships between students and mentors are more likely to happen when the pairs meet at varying times and places; the mentors are given structured activities to do with their students; and mentors are asked to meet with their students at least three times each month. Contrary to a popular belief that relationships between mentors and students take awhile to gel, most students who had close relationships with their mentors reported that the closeness developed after a month or two.