When non-family adult mentors, such as teachers and coaches, make adolescents feel like they matter, it has the power to reduce delinquency and destructive behavior, according to a new study published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review.

“If you are made to feel useful and important to others, especially in this case by a non-kin and education-based mentor, then you are more likely to have a reduction in delinquency and dangerous behavior,” said lead author Dr. Margaret Kelley, associate professor of American Studies a the University of Kansas.

Kelley conducted the study with co-author Meggan Lee, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

For the study, the researchers looked at the role of natural mentors — informal mentors outside of one’s family — and their association with delinquency and dangerousness outcomes in adolescents. They pulled information from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health data, known as Add Health. The study included three waves of data collected via interviews in 1994, 1996 and 2000.

In the data, the young respondents reported whether they had participated in various delinquent activities  in the previous year that included lying to their parents, shoplifting, getting into a physical fight, hurting someone, running away, taking a car without permission, stealing, burglary, using a weapon, selling drugs and more.

When older, they were also asked about identity theft, deliberately writing bad checks and being part of a gang.

Previous research has shown a link between mentoring relationships and increased levels of social capital, like self-esteem, education and employment achievements for adolescents as well as lower rates of some types of problem behaviors.

However, the type of mentor and characteristics of the mentoring relationship had complicated the past findings, Kelley said. The researchers wanted to determine exactly what could make a successful mentoring relationship.

The findings show that of the natural mentors respondents identified, teachers or coaches at their school had a significant impact on increasing the feeling that they mattered and reducing dangerous behavior.

“Adolescents identified mentors who made an important difference in their life, and those who had non-kin adult mentors also said they mattered to other adults more,” Kelley said. “It seems like if they feel like they are important to other people, that’s the mechanism that’s making this work.”

The findings are encouraging for teachers, parents and other adults who work with young people, especially in trying to prevent at-risk teens from heading down a path of delinquency and dangerous behavior that could jeopardize their future and possibly put them in contact with the criminal justice system, she said.

“Making them feel appreciated and providing a sense of belonging for them at this crucial point in their adolescence can change those trajectories,” Kelley said.

In addition, the study results can provide clues for those who run formal mentoring programs to youth, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and others.

“These programs need to do more than just fill time. They need to really nurture those relationships and have accountability,” Kelley said. “We need to do more than just talk the talk. We need to actually get out there and make these kids feel like they’re noticed, needed, and socially accepted.”

The findings also show the importance of helping children establish non-kin mentoring relationships early in life.

“Sometimes when we are doing interventions, they are crisis oriented. They should be, but we also need to have the sustained long-term commitments to really help the growth and development of all kids,” Kelley said.

In addition, the researchers found different types of mentoring behavior were dependent on the sex of the mentor and the mentee. For example, males tended to receive guidance and advice from their mentors while females tended to receive emotional nurturing. More females than males, for example, believed their mentor acted like a parent.

The findings also indicated the importance of women mentors in serving as positive role models. This is timely, Kelley said, given renewed interest in women’s rights and the increased visibility of women in leadership roles.

Source: University of Kansas