Developmental vs Prescriptive Mentoring

by Tami Shaver, Program Director

At Big Brothers Big Sisters, we are continually searching to figure out what makes good matches excel and great matches fail. All of our Bigs come into mentoring with a common goal: to help a child achieve success. The approach Bigs take to fulfill that goal can vary greatly and impact whether or not they succeed.

Prescriptive mentoring tends to be more mentor driven and focuses on sometimes unrealistic expectations of transforming the child. This includes believing the Little needs to take equal responsibility in maintaining the match relationship.  I believe this type can start innocently, with parents looking for someone to come in and help their child learn responsibility or improve behavior. And Bigs come in with high expectations of what they hope to do for the Little, so they jump head first into coming up with solutions to problems of bad grades or social issues instead of focusing on building trust and relationship. Unfortunately, this focus on transformation can lead to the Big being too controlling in decision making and lead to a frustrated and discouraged match when neither side is happy.1

Developmental mentoring tends to be more about the relationship. Mentors spend a lot more time just getting to know their Littles, are flexible with their expectations and take cues for activities and needs from the Littles themselves, whether the Littles tell them verbally or the Big observes and listens to hear what the Little would enjoy.  Mentors are flexible, adaptable and persistent in Developmental relationships.1

Big Brother Patrick Kinnamon and Little Brother Nik talking and building with Lego’s together.
Big Brother Patrick Kinnamon and Little Brother Nik talking and building with Lego’s together.

How do the different approaches play out in real life? According to a 2002 paper on mentoring, “Programs based on a “developmental” approach to mentoring, instead of a “prescriptive” approach, tended to last longer and be more satisfying for both mentor and mentee… An in-depth, nine-month study of 82 Big Brothers/Big Sisters matches found that matches based on a prescriptive approach developed growing tension, which led, in part, to the abandonment of the relationship. Two-thirds of the mentors and mentees in prescriptive matches no longer met nine months after the first study interview, whereas only about 10 percent of the developmental relationships had ended.” 2

My advice for Bigs: Be Developmental in your approach. Take time to just get to know your Little. Be a friend. Try not to force your Little to fit into the box of your own expectations. Be flexible and adaptable. Follow their lead for activities. Remember that they are still young and probably not great at returning phone calls or texts when they should. Be understanding that they are still learning and your patience will help them not feel judged as they stumble and grow. You wanted to mentor so you could make a difference in the life of a child. And you will…you are, just be open enough that you don’t miss out on the great relationship you can build together.


  1. Morrow, K. V., & Styles, M. B. (1995). Building relationships with youth in program settings: A study of Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures
  2. Mentoring: A Promising Strategy for Youth Development By Susan M. Jekielek, M.A., Kristin A. Moore, Ph.D., Elizabeth C. Hair, Ph.D., and Harriet J. Scarupa, M.S. February 2002
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