Relatively little research has explored the mediating variables that function between natural mentoring relationships and adolescent risk behaviors; this is especially true for mentoring relationships that occur in schools (i.e. only between 0 and 32% of respondents in previous studies indicated school-based mentors [17
]). In an attempt to advance the literature in this area, we tested the hypothesis that school attachment mediated the longitudinal relationship between school-based natural mentoring and several adolescent risk behaviors. Our findings showed significant indirect effects for the proposed mediation pathway across all eight dependent variables in the hypothesized direction after adjusting for demographic covariates and baseline dependent variable score. This consistency of results across the dependent variables and across the different recall periods for these variables (i.e. past 2 weeks, 30 days and 12 months) increases confidence in our findings. However, it is important to note that the mediation effect sizes were small. Indirect standardized effect sizes ranged from −0.02 to −0.04 for substance use outcomes and −0.04 to −0.05 for violence outcomes. These effect sizes are similar to those found in a previous cross-sectional study, whereby natural mentoring relationships had an indirect effect on adolescent risk behavior through school attitudes and youth avoidance of negative peer influences (effect size range = 0.03–0.04 [22
]). Our findings supplement this previous work by indicating that similar small effects may also be identified with prospective longitudinal data when considering school attachment as a mediator.
Our findings are also consistent with previous research that suggests natural mentoring relationships are protective against adolescent risk behaviors, specifically those studies investigating substance use [24
] and violence outcomes [17
]. We found an inverse relationship between natural mentoring relationship scores and substance use and violence through an indirect effect of school attachment for all dependent outcomes. Natural mentoring relationships also showed a direct effect on three risk behavior outcomes (i.e. alcohol, marijuana and hard drugs) after accounting for the mediation path. Our findings support studies that have found significant positive associations between natural mentoring relationships and adolescent conventional engagement in educational pursuits [17
]. We found a significant bivariate correlation between natural mentoring relationships and school attachment at baseline (r
= 0.37), and a significant association remained between these variables after adjusting for covariates in our path models (standardized beta estimates ranged from 0.35 to 0.37, all P
values < 0.001). However, some of our findings were inconsistent with previous literature. Our results differed from those studies that did not find a significant association between natural mentoring relationships and binge drinking [17
] or alcohol use [25
]. These inconsistencies may be due to the different time frames used to measure binge drinking, differences in the natural mentorship measures used and/or small sample sizes that limited previous studies’ power to detect a small effect.
Our findings corroborate with the frameworks of SDM [13
] and the MYM [14
], which postulate that mentoring relationships reduce adolescent risk behavior by engaging youth in prosocial activities such as school pursuits and conventional relationships, which then steer youth away from risk behavior. Based on our findings, it appears that ‘school-based’ natural mentoring relationships may also influence youth in this manner. Consequently, to reduce adolescent risk behavior, it may be important to consider ways in which school-based natural mentoring relationships can strengthen youths’ school attachment in an attempt to reduce risk behavior.
The MYM gives a practical framework to inform us how natural mentoring relationships may be useful to strengthen youths’ school attachment. The MYM proposes that a mentor can influence three specific domains of youth development during the course of a mentoring relationship. These domains include social–emotional, cognitive and identity development and are central attributes of the school context. Youth encounter school-based relationships and activities on a daily basis, which may contribute to healthy or unhealthy development in areas of emotions, cognitions and self-identity. For example, based on school experiences and relationships, students may develop perceptions of school that are positive (i.e. a place of learning, opportunity and social support) or negative (i.e. a place of fear, embarrassment and social exclusion). Natural mentoring relationships may play an important role to enhance positive experiences and reduce negative experiences among youth in the school context.
Natural mentors can work with youth to address negative emotions such as stress, fear, anger and embarrassment that arise from engaging in school-related activities (i.e. homework, tests, peer and teacher relationships and social events). Further, mentors can assist youth in developing positive emotions toward school-related activities such as excitement, enjoyment and confidence by engaging them in conventional pursuits that fit the youths’ interests (i.e. art, music, dance and sports). When mentors help youth decrease negative emotions about school and increase positive ones, youth may become more engaged in and attached to school pursuits. Second, these mentors can assist youth to develop cognitive skills in areas of self-regulation, abstract thinking, information processing and problem solving. These cognitive skills may work directly to enhance school attachment by increasing students’ academic performance and competence. Finally, mentors can help youth internalize the value of school by modeling and expressing prosocial attitudes and behaviors. When mentors observe youth modeling these prosocial attitudes and behaviors, they can provide positive reinforcement through verbal feedback and rewards, which may motivate youth to engage further in school. These proposals give initial consideration on how to strengthen school attachment through school-based natural mentoring relationships; however, research is needed to examine these proposals empirically (for a manual of additional recommendations for engaging youth in school, see [38
Although our findings suggest one possible mechanism whereby natural mentoring relationships influence adolescents’ risk behavior through its association with school attachment, limitations are noted. First, attrition analyses indicated that respondents with missing data differed from the analysis sample; non-completers were older, reported lower natural mentoring relationship scores and less school attachment at baseline. However, we examined the baseline correlations between these three variables and dependent variable scores at baseline across completers and non-completers. Differences in correlations were prominent only for the age variable, suggesting that our findings may be generalized only to younger adolescents. The use of FIML procedures also increased the generalizability of our results relative to using other procedures such as pairwise and listwise deletion or mean imputation. Second, because baseline data were obtained from paper-and-pencil survey only and follow-up data were obtained from a combination of paper-and-pencil survey and staff-administered telephone interviews, social desirability bias, caused by lack of privacy over the telephone, may be the reason that substance use prevalence was lower at follow-up as compared with baseline. This is an important limitation considering that substance use often increases on average across the teen years. Moreover, because student self-report was our only method of assessment, our findings are vulnerable to systematic error and recall bias. Although previous research has shown that student self-report of substance use does not contain strong self-report bias when confidentiality is guaranteed [39
], as was the case in our study, researchers should consider employing multiple measures including biological measures for substance use and collateral reports by mentors in future studies. Third, the ‘natural mentoring relationship’ scale was somewhat indirect as it measured the degree to which students had a caring relationship with school-based personnel. Previous studies have assessed mentorship more directly, obtaining a binary response to the question, ‘Other than your parents or step-parents, has an adult made an important positive difference in your life at any time since you were 14 years old?’ [17
]. Measurement scales similar to ours may be of interest to future researchers because students may not formally identify school personnel as a mentor even though these adults appear to function as a mentor in the school context and because our measure captures more information about a mentoring relationship relative to a binary measure. Our measure of school attachment showed relatively low internal consistency reliability; however, follow-up factor analyses indicated that the items showed convergent and discriminant validity. Future studies should replicate our proposed model based on a more reliable set of school attachment items and use both direct and indirect measures of school-based natural mentoring relationships.
Finally, there are limitations to our mediation model. First, although our mediation model fit the data well, it is only one of many models that can theoretically fit the data well. For example, it is possible that students with greater school attachment are more likely to seek out or be sought out by natural mentors. Second, our mediation model included an independent and mediating variable that were both measured at baseline. Thus, future studies are needed to test our model against alternate hypothesized mediation models and to use three different measurement periods to verify our findings. Our results also indicated that effect sizes were small. However, small effect sizes do not necessarily infer a lack of importance. Small effects are not unusual when the dependent variable is difficult to influence, as is the case with adolescent risk behaviors [40
]. Considering this, our study still found small effects over a 1-year time interval even after adjusting for demographic covariates and baseline level of the dependent variable.
Natural mentoring relationships have been shown to occur frequently among youth; however, little is known about these relationships and how they function to protect against adolescent risk behavior. Although the majority of adolescents do not formally report school-based personnel as a main mentor in previous studies, in our study, it appears that youth report school-based personnel to provide many of the functions of a mentor. Specifically, our findings suggested that school-based natural mentoring relationships may facilitate small protective effects on a variety of adolescent risk behaviors, and these effects function at least partially through youths’ school attachment. Implications for our findings are based on the model of youth development and suggest that school-based natural mentors can possibly enhance youths’ school attachment by addressing school-related issues in the domains of socioemotional, cognitive and identity development.