Other Youth Topics


  1. Youth Topics
  2. Mentoring
  3. Types of Mentoring Relationships

Types of Mentoring Relationships

Roles of Mentors

The roles of mentors vary greatly depending on the type, focus, structure, and participants. Mentors’ roles may also differ over the course of the relationship. These roles may include acting as

  • a role model,
  • a supporter or cheerleader,
  • a policy enforcer,
  • an advocate, and/or
  • a friend.

Formal and Informal Mentoring Relationships

Mentoring relationships can occur formally or informally. Most mentoring occurs through informal relationships between youth and adults. A 2005 survey found that of adults who mentor, 71 percent reported that they mentored informally, with only 29 percent reporting that they mentored youth through a formal and structured organization (MENTOR, 2006). These adults do not receive training or support from a structured organization or program. Within formal mentoring programs, the structure of the program can also differ. Some programs provide clear goals with training and support while others are more flexible, with loose goals and limited training and support.

Focus of the Mentoring Relationship

While all mentoring relationships aim to improve outcomes for youth, the scope and focus of the program and relationship can vary. Instrumental mentoring and psychosocial mentoring have been identified as two distinct types of mentoring. Instrumental, or topic-focused, mentoring focuses on a specific problem and is targeted at helping the mentee to reach a specific goal such as improving academic performance, preparing for employment opportunities or careers, or reducing substance abuse. This type of mentoring is often focused on action and activities. Psychosocial, or open-ended, mentoring focuses more on the process and is targeted at working with the mentee around positive youth development. This type of mentoring is often focused on conversation between the mentor and mentee (Jekielek, Moore, & Hair, 2002; Darling, Bogat, Cavell, Murphy, & Sanchez, 2006).

In addition, mentoring relationships can be characterized as developmental or prescriptive. Developmental relationships provide more flexibility and are more fluid. They are based on cues from the youth depending on their needs and interests. In contrast, in prescriptive relationships, mentors define the goals for the relationship and have defined expectations for the youth’s role in the relationship (Jekielek et al., 2002). Research suggests that programs focused on a developmental approach last longer and provide higher levels of satisfaction to both the mentor and the mentee (Jekielek et al., 2002; Spencer, 2007).


Mentoring programs can be based out of a variety of settings; MENTOR (n.d.) provides some examples of the different settings where mentoring occurs and the activities and focus of these types of mentoring relationships. Learn more about different activities typical in mentoring relationships.

Community-based mentoring relationships are typically not site-specific and can involve the mentor and mentee doing a variety of activities including tutoring, career exploration, life skill development, sports, games, and attending cultural events or other forms of entertainment.

School-based mentoring takes place at the school either during or after school hours and can include activities such as tutoring, playing sports, or other games.

Mentoring relationships that occur in faith-based communities often occur at the place of worship and have a tradition of being focused on spiritual exploration, putting faith into practice, and instilling values and morals.

Career-based mentoring typically takes place at work sites and includes tutoring, job shadowing, and career exploration.

E-mentoring takes place over the Internet and allows relationships to be developed through exchanging messages and online communications. This can allow youth to develop technical skills, connect with a variety of mentors around potential careers or special projects, and is more flexible in terms of scheduling.

Rhodes and DuBois (2006) suggest that site-based mentoring programs, including those limited to schools, workplaces, or afterschool, are on the rise in recent years. These types of programs now account for over half of all formal mentoring programs. The largest gains were found for school-based programs, more specifically elementary school programs. School-based programs have many advantages, including the ability to tap into the knowledge and support of adults already involved with the youth, a wider range of volunteers (including high school and college students), and an established sense of safety. A major limitation of school-based programs is the fact that they are often shorter in duration and less intense compared to community-based programs. Due to their structure, school-based programs are often limited to the academic school year and research suggests that the benefits associated with school-based mentoring do not extend past the end of the school year (Aseltine, Dupre, & Lamlein, 2000). In addition, findings suggest that mentors within school-based mentoring programs spend half as much time with their mentees as those in community-based programs (Herrera, Sipe, & McCalahan, 2000).

It is important to understand that different youth may benefit from different mentoring occurring in different settings. For example, out-of-school youth may best be reached in community-based programs or mentoring that occurs on the job, while youth in school might be reached more easily in mentoring relationships based in their schools. In addition, while e-mentoring may be useful for some youth, it is important to remember that all youth do not have easy access to technology and face-to-face interactions may be more beneficial.

One-on-One or Group Mentoring

Mentors and mentees can be paired up one-to-one or matched in groups where more than one young person is matched with one or more adults. There should not be more than four mentees per mentor in small-group mentoring situations. The average small-group mentoring situation includes three adults for a group of ten youth, or three youth for each mentor (MENTOR, 2006). Jekielek, Moore, & Hair (2002) found that for one mentoring program, the combination of one-on-one mentoring and participation in group activities provided more positive youth outcomes than youth who were not involved in mentoring relationships or only involved in group activities.

Target Group

Many mentoring programs are focused on serving youth who are at risk. For example:

  • Homeless youth
  • Youth in foster care
  • Youth with disabilities
  • Youth whose family members are in the military
  • Youth involved in delinquent activities
  • Youth who have an incarcerated parent
  • Youth who are first- or second-generation immigrants
  • Pregnant youth or teen parents

The 2005 MENTOR survey found that many adults suggested that they were willing to mentor youth from special populations, but the number reporting that they actually worked with youth from special populations was not as high. The survey suggested that the largest areas of need are for youth involved in the juvenile justice system as well as those who are pregnant or teen parents (MENTOR, 2006).

While research suggests that there are challenges and risks associated with working with at-risk youth, it has also found substantial benefits for these populations. For example, studies have found benefits for youth involved in foster care (Ahrens, DuBois, Richardson, Fan, & Lozano, 2008), youth with an incarcerated parent (Shalfer, Poehlmann, Coffino, & Hanneman, 2009), and youth who have been involved in delinquent behavior (Blechman & Bopp, 2005).

To address the diverse and complex needs of these youth, MENTOR (2009) suggests that mentors receive specific training with clear expectations. For example, they suggest that training focused on cultural sensitivity and the negative impacts of ending mentoring relationships early may be necessary to help mentors working with immigrant youth. These youth are often working to adjust to a new culture, enduring misunderstandings related to their culture, and may have already had to sever relationships with family and friends during immigration. Mentors of children with incarcerated parents may need training focused on how to deal with their mentees’ feelings of embarrassment around their parents’ incarceration and other challenges they may be facing.


Aseltine, R. H., Dupre, M., & Lamlein, P. (2000). Mentoring as a drug prevention strategy: An evaluation of Across Ages. Adolescent and Family Health, 1, 11-20.

Ahrens, K. R., DuBois, D. L., Richardson, L. P., Fan, M. Y., & Lozano, P. (2008). Youth in foster care with adult mentors during adolescence have improved adult outcomes. Pediatrics, 121.

Blechman, E. A., & Bopp, J. M. (2005). Juvenile offenders. In D. L. DuBois & M. J. Karcher (Eds.). Handbook on youth mentoring (pp. 454-466). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Darling, N., Bogat, G. A., Cavell, T., Murphy, S. E., & Sanchez, B. (2006). Gender, ethnicity, development and risk: Mentoring and the considerations of individual differences. Journal of Community Psychology, 34(6), 765-779.

Herrera, C., Sipe, C. L., & McClanahan, W. S. (2000). Mentoring school-age children: Relationship development in community-based and school-based programs. Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures. (Published in collaboration with MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership, Alexandria, VA)

Jekielek, S., Moore K. A., & Hair, E. C. (2002). Mentoring programs and youth development: A synthesis. Washington, DC: Child Trends. Retrieved from http://www.mentorwalk.org/documents/mentoring-synthesis.pdf (PDF, 68 pages)

MENTOR. (n.d.) Benefits of mentoring. Retrieved from http://www.mentoring.org/get_involved/for_mentors/benefits_of_mentoring/

MENTOR. (2006). Mentoring in America 2005: A snapshot of the current state of mentoring. Retrieved from http://www.mentoring.org/downloads/mentoring_333.pdf (PDF, 20 pages)

MENTOR. (2009). Elements of effective practice in mentoring. Third Edition. Retrieved from http://www.mentoring.org/downloads/mentoring_1222.pdf (PDF, 28 pages)

Rhodes, J. & DuBois D. L. (2006). Understanding and facilitating youth mentoring. Social Policy Report: Giving Child and Youth Development Knowledge Away, 10(3). Retrieved from http://www.srcd.org/sites/default/files/documents/20-3_youth_mentoring.pdf (PDF, 20 pages)

Shalfer, R. J., Poehlmann, J., Coffino, B., & Hanneman A. (2009). Mentoring children with incarcerated parents: Implications for research, practice, and policy. Family Relations, 58, 507-519.

Spencer, R. (2007). “It’s not what I expected”: A qualitative study of youth mentoring relationship failures. Journal of Adolescent Research, 22, 331-354.

Other Resources on this Topic


Technical Assistance

Youth Topics

Youth Briefs

How Individualized Education Program (IEP) Transition Planning Makes a Difference for Youth with Disabilities

Youth who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) and especially young adults of transition age, should be involved in planning for life after high school as early as possible and no later than age 16. Transition services should stem from the individual youth’s needs and strengths, ensuring that planning takes into account his or her interests, preferences, and desires for the future.

Youth Transitioning to Adulthood: How Holding Early Leadership Positions Can Make a Difference

Research links early leadership with increased self-efficacy and suggests that leadership can help youth to develop decision making and interpersonal skills that support successes in the workforce and adulthood. In addition, young leaders tend to be more involved in their communities, and have lower dropout rates than their peers. Youth leaders also show considerable benefits for their communities, providing valuable insight into the needs and interests of young people

How Trained Service Professionals and Self-Advocacy Makes a Difference for Youth with Mental Health, Substance Abuse, or Co-occurring Issues

Statistics reflecting the number of youth suffering from mental health, substance abuse, and co-occurring disorders highlight the necessity for schools, families, support staff, and communities to work together to develop targeted, coordinated, and comprehensive transition plans for young people with a history of mental health needs and/or substance abuse.

Young Adults Formerly in Foster Care: Challenges and Solutions

Nearly 30,000 youth aged out of foster care in Fiscal Year 2009, which represents nine percent of the young people involved in the foster care system that year. This transition can be challenging for youth, especially youth who have grown up in the child welfare system.

Coordinating Systems to Support Transition Age Youth with Mental Health Needs

Research has demonstrated that as many as one in five children/youth have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Read about how coordination between public service agencies can improve treatment for these youth.

Civic Engagement Strategies for Transition Age Youth

Civic engagement has the potential to empower young adults, increase their self-determination, and give them the skills and self-confidence they need to enter the workforce. Read about one youth’s experience in AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).