Mentoring and Problem Behaviour

Evaluations of planned mentoring show little evidence of positive behaviour change. Indeed, there is potential for mentoring to make things worse. This article summarises the characteristics of successful schemes and highlights possible pitfalls to be avoided by those planning such programmes.

Many schools and special units are turning to Mentoring as a form of behavioural intervention. In this article I refer to the research on one-to-one monitoring, delivered by a volunteer and organised as a dedicated project or scheme.

Why choose mentoring?

Attachment and resilience research found that disadvantaged children who succeed in life have almost always had a significant adult from outside the family who guided them through childhood. Mentoring aims to help to create such a relationship. Sometimes mentoring is selected to help children change their behaviour so that they can be reintegrated back into a class or school, or to help them with difficult family relationships. The mentoring relationship is expected to be a support to the young person and to provide them with guidance and advice.

Does mentoring work?

Overall, research from both the UK and the US indicates that both mentors and mentees can enjoy the experience, but there is little evidence that mentoring can change a young person’s behaviour ( Liabo, 2005). For young people failing to engage with their school and community, it could be argued that this relationship in itself is a positive outcome, irrespective of resulting behaviour change. Some US research has indicated that mentoring may actually increase offending, school drop-out and alcohol use in some young people.

What helps mentoring to be effective?

The most successful mentoring is that based on a specific theory of behaviour. Good outcomes increase the more the mentoring applies an explicit theory. Directive approaches are more successful, such as those using advocacy and behavioural contracts. The outcomes are strengthened when parents and carers are also trained in the theory and mentoring techniques, so that they can continue to use these when the mentoring is finished.

Risks of mentoring

Offered as a one-to-one scheme, mentoring can be expensive in terms of training, supervision and monitoring, especially if people drop out. Little research has been conducted into why so many young people and mentors terminate the relationship prematurely. There is some evidence that being allocated a mentor can in itself reinforce feelings of stigma and marginalisation.

Tips for setting up a Mentoring Scheme

  • Get hold of a good Theory*
  • Don’t expect too much from the mentoring. Not the best option for everybody.
  • Teach the approach to parents and carers.
  • Do everything you can to sustain the relationship by careful planning and monitoring.
  • Avoid carrying out mentoring in the school setting if you can. Mentoring carried out in the community or the mentor’s workplace is more effective.
  • Carefully match mentors and mentees.
  • Ensure full training of mentors ( e.g. over 8 weeks prior to meeting the young person).
  • Plan close and regular supervision of mentors throughout the programme.

* The Institute of Guidance Counsellors in the Republic of Ireland looked at a number of theoretical models to aid their practice, when they were setting up a national school guidance service in the 1980’s. They selected Glassers’ Choice Theory as the most appropriate model,  as the approach was developed with adolescents, is relatively free from jargon and can be taught to non-psychologists. In acknowledgement of William Glasser’s contribution to Guidance and Counselling here, the Institute of Guidance Counsellors awarded him an Honorary Fellowship in 1990.


Liabo K (2005) Mentoring and problem behaviour. London: National Children’s Bureau, 2 pages. ISSN 1365-9081

Liabo, K. and Lucas, P. One-to-one mentoring programmes and problem behaviour in adolescence. What Works for Children group: Evidence Nugget; September 2006.

Dubois, D.L., et al (2002) Effectiveness of mentoring programmes for youth: A meta-analytic review, American Journal of Community Psychology, 20, 2, 157-97.

Now Read: What Your Pupils Really Want

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