Posted by jmeyer on May 24, 2022
We all like to look at the world around us and feel like we’re represented. Whether it’s race, sex, a disability, or anything else that makes us unique — spending quality time with others who have our specific view of the world can have a positive impact on our health and well-being.
Mentoring is one such way to connect people, especially youth, with people who may have had similar life experiences as a way of building a sense of independence and increasing social participation. But is securing the match enough to guarantee success for mentors and mentees in your program?
Research shows that early relationship closure of a mentoring match may lead to the mentee experiencing feelings of rejection and disappointment. This may be especially true for mentees with a disability. What additional training could be provided to match members to build a successful relationship and avoid premature closure? What other factors should mentoring programs be aware of to support matches involving mentees with a disability to avoid situations that may negatively impact and potentially undermine their match?
Research scientists Drs. Eline Heppe, Janis Kupersmidt, and Sabina Kef explored these ideas and published their findings in the Journal of Adolescent Research in an article entitled “Reasons for premature closure of a mentoring relationship: A qualitative study of mentoring youth with a visual impairment.”
The idea for the study came to Drs. Kef and Heppe after reviewing findings from 250 research participants who had a visual impairment. Interviews over a span of 20 years revealed that as the participants entered adulthood, they reported that receiving support during their adolescence from an expert through experiences with people such as a mentor with a similar disability could have been helpful and provided them with needed support.
“They said that having more support from someone with a visual impairment who had already lived through these experiences would have helped them, for example, during the transition from school to work, in finding a romantic relationship, and navigating peer relationships as they grew up,” said Heppe.
The study began with 36 matches. All the mentees had a visual impairment (VI); 18 mentors also had a visual impairment. All matches were asked to meet one-on-one at least monthly for 12 months. All participants in the study understood that the goal of the mentoring program was to increase the social participation of the mentees to promote their autonomy in the context of social relationships, leisure activities, and school or work.
Notably, 16 of the 18 matches involving a mentor with VI (89%) ended prematurely, which was much higher than the matches involving mentors without VI (8 matches ended prematurely or 44% of the matches) and also was much higher than the 38% average found for adolescents participating in one-on-one community-based mentoring programs. In this study, mentees were more likely to request premature closure of the match, and about a third of the mentors didn’t think that sharing the same disability would add value to the mentoring relationship.
“That was the biggest surprise,” said Heppe. “We didn’t expect such high premature ending rates in pairs who both had a visual impairment.”
“I naively thought that if a mentor had a visual impairment and a mentee had a visual impairment, they would have shared common life experiences, which would help them grow closer,” said Kupersmidt. “I thought that these mentors could be a role model to the mentee, and that they could provide each other with companionship and fun, but that’s not what actually happened in most matches.”
So, if adults with a visual impairment said they would have welcomed the influence of a mentor with a similar disability during their adolescence, why was the rate of premature closure in this study so high? Where is the disconnect?
The initial results revealed no red flags suggesting that matches containing both mentors and mentees with a visual impairment would result in high premature closure rates. Researchers said they didn’t find any difference in the quality of the relationships between those who had a mentor with or without a visual impairment.
Researchers did find that mentors with and without a visual impairment struggled to connect with mentees, especially when the mentee was not motivated to pursue the mentoring relationship or had other problems.
“A lot of studies show that people who have visual impairments have difficulties with social skills; for example, turn-taking in a conversation could be difficult,” said Heppe. “They can miss a lot of information from the other person’s face during conversations, which can be confusing for both people. So, I think if we were to do this mentoring program again, I would put more effort into training the mentors, but also into training the mentees. We need to include more details to help establish the mentoring relationship.”
In some cases, the mentee’s family placed additional hurdles in the way of building a match. Parents of children with disabilities can be more protective of their children, which Kupersmidt says can unknowingly undermine the child’s confidence and the ability to develop a close, trusting relationship with a mentor.
“Some parents didn’t really understand the value of their child having a mentor; there were situations where parents interfered with the mentor and mentee getting together for activities in the community.”
“Parents were sometimes hesitant of leaving their child or allowing them to meet away from the home with a mentor who was also visually impaired,” said Heppe. “This was a big challenge for mentors; they felt the parents were saying, ‘You’re not okay because you have a visual impairment,’ whereas mentors thought, ‘I can do this!’”
Heppe suggested that mentoring agencies should discuss these potential challenges with mentors and parents to make them all partners in the mentoring experience.
“Parents are concerned, and I think that’s very important for agencies to know,” said Heppe. “Agencies should consider how they can better guarantee the mentee’s safety: to make parents feel comfortable. Mentors should also be informed about the mentee’s background, so they can understand and guide the mentee to develop new social and communication skills.”
Setting realistic expectations for everyone involved in the mentoring relationship is another important lesson learned from this study. Just because a parent signs up their child, who may have a disability, to participate in a mentoring program doesn’t necessarily mean the child understands the value or relevance of the program.
Researchers also recommend pre-match training for mentors and mentees to better understand the program requirements, its goals, and each other’s roles and responsibilities. Providing training to mentees could help them learn how to talk about their disability to their mentor, especially about the effect the disability has on their daily life, how a mentor can help support them, and situations where help is not needed from the mentor. Training for mentors could give them opportunities to consider potential scenarios that may occur with their mentee related to the disability as well as to ask mentoring program staff members any questions they may have.
“A lot of programs don’t require mentee training, and I think it’s really important,” said Heppe. “Young people want to be with their friends, and they may not want to be with their mentor. I think it’s really helpful for youth to have a sense of the reason why they’re in this program and what it could do for them.”
To read the full research article, visit the Journal of Adolescent Research.