What to Do When the Mentor-Mentee Relationship Is Challenging

Photo of student with mentorA question often asked during Check & Connect (C&C) training is what to do about a mentor-mentee relationship that isn’t working.  As with many questions, the answer isn’t simple, but here are some things to consider based on the elements of Check & Connect and the role of the mentor.

The element of long-term commitment comes to mind first, as I’m sure it does to any mentor struggling to establish a relationship with a student.  On its face, it means that the C&C intervention should be implemented for a minimum of two years.  In its execution, it means much more.  This element is grounded in resilience theory, which maintains that the long-term presence of a caring adult in the life of an at-risk child or youth builds resilience in them. Many of the students referred to C&C have not had adults, particularly school-affiliated adults, stay in their lives for even two years. These youth have learned not to count on relationships with adults lasting very long, so it takes time to build trust with them.  The two-year commitment provides that minimum amount of time.

Persistence-plus is an equally important concept in the Check & Connect approach to mentoring. The Check & Connect manual states that “the mentor is a persistent source of academic motivation” (p. 4). Again, there’s more to this than a definition can describe. By working with a student for a minimum of two years, by saying “I’m still here” over and over to a student who avoids entering into a relationship, the mentor provides a compelling example of persistence, the kind of persistence that is being asked of the student in making a commitment to be successful in school. Thus the mentor models exactly what will be required later, when the trusting relationship can be leveraged to provide a bridge to re-engaging the student with school and learning. And while providing a model of persistence, the mentor is also demonstrating to the student that he/she (the mentor) is not going anywhere – the mentor is building trust with the student by being that consistent caring adult in the student’s life.

So, the elements of the intervention are clear that commitment and persistence are part of the deal when a student is assigned and enrolled in C&C.  The role of the mentor also speaks to this issue. The C&C manual notes that among other things, the personal characteristics of a mentor include “a personal belief that all students can make progress and change their level of engagement…and the willingness to persist with students, despite their behavior and decision-making…” (p. 12).

The manual also advises that mentor-mentee relationships cannot be forced – it takes time to get to know students and for trust to be established. Mentors understand this and give the student as much time as he/she needs to develop trust in the mentor. Mentors are persistent in their outreach to students, but they understand that what worked to quickly connect with one student may not work for all students on their caseload, so they individualize the strategies they use to connect with students and the pace at which they get into the work of checking and connecting with students.  Individualizing strategies for connecting, both formally and informally, may take some creativity. The connection may begin with something as simple as a greeting in the hall and move to finding an activity the student might enjoy. Mentors may also enlist other school staff and students in making connections and encouraging the student to join activities.

Experienced mentors find simple ways to connect with students such as posting the daily lunch menu in the mentor office, offering the mentor’s office as a place to stop and take a short break during the school day, having an extra computer in the mentor’s office which students can use to complete homework assignments, or having a stash of juice boxes and granola bars for hungry students.

Not giving up on students is the bottom line. Mentors may need support to do this.  That’s where a coordinator and colleagues can make a real difference.  In team meetings, these colleagues can give the mentor both support and ideas and remind the mentor that building a relationship can be difficult and time-consuming, but it is the bottom line in the C&C intervention.  Meanwhile, peers can offer some ideas to keep the persistence going.

Finally, moving a student to another mentor’s caseload may send a message of rejection. This message may add to the student’s feelings of disengagement. Hopefully, by revisiting the elements of the C&C intervention—long-term commitment and persistence and the personal characteristics of the mentor­—the decision to assign a student to another mentor can be averted. A relationship with a student can turn around in a moment. The impact of a persistent mentor may last a lifetime.

Your Ideas on Connecting with Students?

We’d like to hear your ideas. What creative ways do you have to reach out to students, especially when the mentor-mentee relationship isn’t going so smoothly? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.


About the Author: Karen Stout, Ph.D. provides training nationally and internationally on Check & Connect, serves as an investigator on several Check & Connect research projects currently underway, and is one of the authors of the 2012 Check & Connect manual, “Implementing with Fidelity”.

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3 thoughts on “What to Do When the Mentor-Mentee Relationship Is Challenging

  1. Hello! One of the ways that I initially engage a student is to give them “Get to know you” worksheets with general but personal questions that give you an idea of what you might have in common with them. Also by discussing the questions, I find kids seem to open up a little about themselves. I have one called “About me” which I give them 10 blanks to fill. I ask them to tell me 5 things about themselves and then ask me 5 questions about myself. That gives them a chance to be the one in control. I also have one called “Favorites” that has the general stuff about them (What’s your favorite: food, song, car, month, number etc.). Then like I said, we discuss the answers. That pretty much takes up a lot of time, gives you some insight, lets them see that you are interested in them and that you are not all business (Many kids initially think I am the probation officer or detention monitor before they actually figure it out).

    • The 2012 Check & Connect manual includes a strengths-based interview which can be used with students. Questions are provided for getting to know the student as well as gaining the student’s perspective of and experience with learning. Mentors can select questions which are appropriate to each individual student and ask these questions over time.
      The getting to know you questions include ice breakers such as, “What made you laugh this week?” Also included are family questions such as, “What pets do you have at home?” “Do you wish you had a pet?” and social support questions such as, “Who do you like to spend time with? Why?”
      All 49 questions can be found on the Check & Connect website.

  2. Pingback: CEHD at University of Minnesota helps mentors connect with students

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