Girls Group Mentoring Toolkit

This Girls Group Mentoring Toolkit provides the tools, resources and support to create, implement, deliver and evaluate a quality group mentoring program for girls, ages 9-13, in your community. The Toolkit is intended to be used in a range of communities, and can be adapted to the unique values, needs, strengths and challenges that each community encompasses.

Managing the Group Dynamic

Common Questions for Managing the Group Dynamic

It is crucial to recognize that every mentoring group will likely face some level of challenge or conflict over the course of the relationship development process. As outlined in the above sections on relationship development theory, conflict is normal and to be expected and can be constructive in facilitating honest, open connections between the girls and their mentors. The following list provides suggestions from programs in the field for some of the common issues you might come face-to-face with in your program.

What to do when conflict arises in the group

Even when intentional efforts are made to match the girls carefully, interpersonal clashes between girls can take place and must be managed to promote healthy relationships and ensure each girl feels safe and positively connected to the group. When conflict does arise in the group, it can be used as an opportunity to learn and practice conflict resolution in a healthy way, rather than lashing out, name-calling, ignoring or other unhealthy patterns that can often develop.

Some common conflicts and suggestions

  • Girls disagreeing with one another: When there is conflict directly between girls in the group, you should address and diffuse the situation immediately. If the behaviour is recurring, then the girl(s) who are instigating the conflict may need to be met with separately to uncover the issue. Often there may be an underlying issue or insecurity that is causing the frustration.
  • Mentors disagreeing with girls: Separate mentor meetings or debriefs can provide a space to explore some of these conflicts. If a mentor is taking too much of a directive role and not allowing for girl-directed planning and content, the issue can be approached in the debriefing meetings. Instead of calling out the mentor in question, the entire group can collectively brainstorm how to handle the situation. Ongoing mentor trainings can also allow space for revisiting topics such as ‘how to be a facilitator’ and ‘communicating effectively within a group.’
  • Girls forming cliques and excluding their peers: Mentoring groups will include a variety of personalities, and inevitably some relationships will forge more quickly and easily than others. As a result, sometimes the other girls in the group feel left out. It is important to do group activities that promote equal involvement from all of the girls. If two of the girls have bonded closely, consider activities that involve splitting them up to work individually or pairing them off with other girls. You may also plan activities that involve full group collaboration or more hands-on work and less discussion.
  • Girls who dont want to compromise: Some girls just do not want to be led or will be resistant in compromising their ideas. This is a huge challenge, especially for the mentors. How do you balance a group when one individual is constantly (loudly) expressing that her ideas should be the only ideas? One suggestion might include rotating decision-making among the girls. Each session, one group member can suggest a topic to discuss or an activity to do and this could rotate regularly to ensure everyone gets a turn without singling out the mentee unwilling to compromise. If you prefer to have the girls collectively develop activity ideas, consider employing formal methods for brainstorming.

What to do when a matched group isn’t working

Some suggestions from the field for managing a matched group that isnt working:

  • Open the dialogue with mentees or mentors for feedback and discussion around the group dynamic.
  • Open the channels of communication and close the door to complaints. Teach mentors communication builders and busters.
  • Build in-program checkpoints for the small groups. A checkpoint is a period in time that a group could conclude a relationship if appropriate and allow for a new beginning as needed. Checkpoints should occur roughly every 6−12 weeks. 
  • If the decision is to switch the composition of the mentoring groups, you may consider arranging another whole group activity to see who matches well together before reassigning.

Even when you have taken time to screen and match mentors and girls, sometimes the relationships will face roadblocks in developing positively. There are basic interventions that can be explored and taken as first steps. When this is not effective, you should consider redistributing or re-matching the girls if necessary. Identifying whether the challenges are resting with a single mentee or mentor will be helpful in developing the most effective course of action.

The first warning sign that a matched group isn’t working is recurring participant conflict followed by program withdrawal. Some other common signs include breaking group cohesion, hindering relationships, excessive group conflict, behaviours that did not occur before, self-sabotaging of the group, sabotaging the group for others, mentors or mentees quitting the group and mentors or mentees not showing up. Remember that if the group is in a state of conflict and lacks connectivity, participants will not feel attached to the group. In rare cases, some girls may actually be better suited to a one-on-one mentoring model.

If early efforts are not resolving the conflict or lack of connection within a matched group, you may consider reassigning the girls and mentor. This can be difficult since you don’t want to disrupt other successfully matched groups. If the challenges seem to rest mostly with the mentor, consider assigning them a general role in the program—sometimes an individual might not be the right fit for the mentor role. If the dynamic among the girls is not working, consider strategically distributing them among the other groups. Reassigning a group shouldn’t be a reaction; it should be planned so mentees and mentors do not feel that it was a failure or someone’s “fault.” Having a fun activity planned to initiate the new groups will help with this. Consider an outing, a special meal or a get-to-know-you activity.

What to do when co-mentors aren’t working well together

Co-mentoring presents a variety of benefits to a girls group mentoring program. From a staff perspective, there are many gains in coverage, scheduling and succession planning. From the girls’ perspective, it offers two supportive mentors to look up to and build relationships with. When matching two mentors to take on this collaborative process, however, sometimes conflict can arise. It is first important to try to diffuse and manage the conflict. The staff person should address the issues in a private conversation and a plan should be collectively agreed upon between all three individuals. This could include dividing up the role’s responsibilities or developing a list of principles to guide their collaboration moving forward, which could function like group rules. Staff should have check-in meetings pre-scheduled to monitor their progress. If there is a fundamental issue with their leadership styles or personalities that cannot be rectified, consider reassigning one of them to a different role within the program. 

What to do when a mentee has developed an unhealthy relationship or attachment

“Be consistent. Young people need boundaries to feel safe and understand social expectations. If you are not consistent, it can be confusing and uncomfortable”

-Bottomley (2012)

Maintaining boundaries within the girls group mentoring program is critical for supporting the healthy and positive development of relationships. At times a girl may develop an unhealthy attachment to a member of the program whether it be a mentor, staff person or another mentee.
First identify that the mentee is safe and clarify that the attachment is not linked to an external issue or crisis that needs to be addressed. Staff should have a private conversation with the girl to ensure her life circumstances are not presenting risks. In the absence of external issues, instead of explicitly reprimanding the girl, try to redirect her involvement in the program in different ways.

If the girl is attached to a staff person, for example, create opportunities for her to do special activities of interest within her matched group to entice her engagement elsewhere. You may consider setting up a separate session with her mentor to forge a stronger connection. If the attachment to the mentor is disruptive to the other girls in the group, try arranging activities that focus more on team-building and relationship-building with the girls only. Strengthening her connections to other group members can take the emphasis off of her attachment to the mentor. If these early interventions are not successful, you may consider matching her into a different mentoring group.

What to do when a mentee or mentor is in crisis

At Sarnia Lambton Rebound they use a 5-second or 5-minute rule: Can the information wait a couple minutes to be addressed or is it urgent that the information be shared with the Program Coordinator or Staff in charge right away? This is used in their volunteer training and orientation so that all mentors can use this as a guiding principle when facing a potential crisis within the group.

There should be processes in place and training that covers what a mentor should do in the event that a girl in their group is faced with a crisis. It is important that from the outset, the responsibilities of mentors are clearly distinguished from the staff person. The mentor should be responsible to report the concern and from there, staff should be responsible for taking action, making a referral or speaking with the girls’ guardian, school or the Children’s Aid Society. It is helpful to have a referral list and processes identified before starting the program so all staff are clear on the agencies available in their community to help a girl or mentor in crisis.

Finally, when there is crisis intervention for a girl or mentor in the group be sure that the staff engage in open dialogue with the other group members to ensure they are not vicariously affected and to reassure that these steps have been taken in the best interest of the girl’s or mentor’s well-being. Debriefing or supporting each group member when emotions are affected is of paramount importance.

What to do when girls aren’t showing up

You may encounter an issue with girls not showing up regularly for the program. This affects not only their experience, but also the other girls’ experiences in the group as well as the mentor(s) that they have been matched with. It is important to recognize that their inconsistent attendance may be due to a variety of reasons—many of which can be outside of their control. Some common challenges might include:  

  • Not feeling connected to the mentor
  • Not feeling heard or valued in the group
  • Conflicts with other girls in the program
  • Barriers to transportation
  • Parents or guardians are not supportive of the program
  • Childcare within the home—some girls are relied upon at home as babysitters to younger siblings
  • Illness or facing challenges to well-being, either physical, mental or emotional
  • A disability or inaccessible location
  • Cultural barriers
  • Feelings of insecurity or inadequacy within the group

Many of the challenges above can be rectified through conversation and action. It is first advisable to contact the girl to find out why she is not attending. Use the method of communication that she prefers and determine whether the irregular attendance is based on a conscious personal choice or from reasons outside of her control. You might also contact the parents or guardians since the absence may be attributed to them not fully understanding the commitment required for the program. Ensure parents or guardians understand the importance of ongoing attendance and that her absence affects how their daughter experiences the program and also the experiences of the other girls. Find out if you can help if there are barriers in place and if the parents or guardians need more ongoing communication to help keep them engaged.

 “You are all RICH! I live on the POOR side of town…”

A staff person from a girls group mentoring program stumbled upon this issue after driving the girls home after a field trip. When the first girl was dropped off, one of their mentees pointed out the obvious difference in the size of home her fellow mentee lived in compared to her own. This was the beginning of a withdrawal from the program for this mentee. Following this incident, the mentee continually compared herself to her peers and began skipping sessions to spend time with a friend that she felt closer with. It was difficult to re-attach this girl to her group, however they found it helpful to create space for her friend to join so she could feel more comfortable within the group. This has also informed future conversations and discussion around ‘privilege.’ The group subsequently had discussions about the things that made them ‘rich’ to identify that fortune came in different ways and that it didn’t make any single girl more valuable than any other.

What to do when mentors aren’t showing up

When mentors fail to show up at meetings, it creates a major challenge and can negatively affect the group of girls. This is sometimes beyond the mentor’s control when faced with crisis, illness or other issues. You can put practices into place to avoid this situation through the use of co-mentors, tri-mentors or backup mentors (see Program and Meetings section for more information). You should also be sure that your training and orientation process reinforces the importance of the mentor’s role and the need for their ongoing attendance and commitment.

If they cannot be present in the moment because of conflict or issues they are experiencing in their own lives, mentors should inform the staff person so they can better support them. They should know that it is okay if they need to take a break or focus on a crisis in their own lives.

If a mentor routinely misses meetings, connect with them directly to have a conversation about the reasons for their absence. Reinforce the importance of their role and confirm that they are able to continue the commitment and that the meetings still work with their schedule. Approach this in a sensitive and non-accusatory way since sometimes the mentors are facing challenges in their lives they cannot control. Find out how you can support them to regularly attend.

In the meantime, it is imperative that girls are not left without a mentor. This reinforces the importance and value of having a backup mentor available. If this is not an option in your program, have staff or another mentor take over the group. Recognize that having a new mentor or staff take over the group will alter the group cohesion in both positive and negative ways. To guide the girls during this adjustment, it can be helpful to engage them in the process, acknowledge the change and thank them for their cooperation. It is best not to break up the group of girls among different groups, but to keep them matched together.

What to do when relationships end early

“When handled well, it is believed that the termination process can solidify gains made, resolve issues that have arisen in the …relationship itself, and prepare the [youth] for maintaining healthy functioning without the support of [mentor]” that it is okay if they need to take a break or focus on a crisis in their own lives.

- Spencer and Basualdo-Demonico (2013)

Planning for the closure of a group and the termination of relationships is an important part of the mentoring model. Relationship closure implies the healthy and planned ending of a mentoring relationship. This takes place when a program communicates a clear end date from the outset and when this plan is followed through. 

When developing your program, specific policies and processes should be outlined for managing positive relationship endings, whether planned or unplanned. See Program & Meetings for details and suggestions on planning healthy closure.  

Relationship termination implies an unplanned relationship ending between a mentor and the girl(s) she is mentoring. This can take place for a variety of reasons, recognizing that both mentors and mentees have complex lives of their own. Engaging in a clear closure process can model healthy endings for youth who have experienced poorly-handled endings in prior relationships. This raises the importance of creating healthy discussion and activities that celebrate and close the relationship when it ends early. Conversely, poorly-ended relationships can reinforce negative working models of relationships and diminish optimism that things will go well or differently in future relationships. If a relationship ends early and is not handled properly, it can actually do more damage for the girl than if the mentoring relationship had never been initiated.

The best way to avoid early relationship termination is to ensure mentors are screened properly and have realistic expectations, and to run a well-structured and well-supported program. However, in a case when a relationship ends earlier than planned, it is important for program staff to facilitate a closure process for mentors and mentees. It is valuable to celebrate the learning that occurred from the relationship and to allow the participants a chance to say goodbye.

Some suggestions for managing the unplanned early termination of mentoring relationships include:

  • Have a discussion with the girls about the best part of the mentoring experience. Encourage them to celebrate their favourite moment and the thing they liked best about their mentor.
  • Reassure the girls that the early termination was not in any way their fault and speak honestly about the reason for the termination, if possible.
  • If a face-to-face meeting to say goodbye and celebrate the relationship is not possible, encourage participants to write letters to each other.
  • Take part in a group activity that celebrates change and discuss how the change will bring about new learning and new experiences. This could include brainstorming, drawing future visions or journaling about goals and dreams both individually and for the group.
  • Consider hosting a ‘Who I am?’ event. Have the girls celebrate their identities, think about how they have grown in their time together and who they want to become in the future. Photograph the event. Have the girls write letters to their future self.  Have the mentors write letters to the future mentees to be opened on a set date.

Take time to reflect on the reasons that led to early termination and how to best learn from the unplanned situation. Sometimes the early termination of relationships cannot be avoided, such as when a mentor faces a sudden crisis or has to move, however in some cases there are certain supports, training or information that could have been provided to mitigate the closure. It is important to embrace this as a learning opportunity to strengthen the experience of girls in your program moving forward.

Karcher (2012) highlights steps when managing the termination of mentoring relationships:

1. Explain the reason for the ending
2. Discuss what worked and what didn’t
3. Highlight what each found special about the other
4. Share how each other feels—both sadness and thankfulness for their year together
5. Hopes for each other about how each will take lessons learned to their next relationship’

- Karcher (2012)

Take the time to reflect on what was unique about this particular scenario:  

  • Was their reason for leaving based on external changes beyond their control?
  • Was the early termination due to relationship conflict or from a challenge the mentor felt in carrying out the role?
  • Could their expectations of the role be better or differently communicated from the outset?
  • Could greater measures be taken to support their ongoing involvement and management of the mentoring group dynamic?
  • What were some of their unique qualities or characteristics that seemed to conflict with the role or program?

At Cornerstone Family & Youth Inc., they find ways to celebrate the early departure of girls. When one of their mentees had to move, the group threw her a going-away party and had a chance to celebrate their time together and to say goodbye. They put together a gift bag with activities for her drive to her new town and an item that she could remember them by. They had cupcakes and all wrote special notes to her on a big poster card that she could hang on her wall. Every girl in the program had a photo to remember the day. A short while later, the group informed staff that they were keeping in touch through texts and Facebook.

Where there is the option, consider conducting an exit interview with the mentor to better understand their reasons for leaving. This would allow you to address some of these concerns or improve parts of the program to prevent future early endings. If a face-to-face interview isn’t possible, you can request their feedback through a survey shared by email. Emphasize the value they can add to the program by sharing their input.

Within a group mentoring context, there is disruption to cohesion when a girl has to leave the program early. The group dynamic can be altered and a loss will likely be felt by both the girls and mentors. It is important to celebrate her participation in the program and to make space for the girls to say goodbye. You might also consider encouraging their continued communication as a ‘pen pal’ with the group either traditionally through letters or with the use of social media.

Key Take-Aways

Managing the group dynamic is an important ongoing task in a girls group mentoring program. The key is to be prepared to handle common challenges that could arise once the program is up and running. When planning this component, keep in mind:

  • There are many stages of the relationship development process. Conflict may arise between the girls but can be used constructively as a learning experience.
  • Gain awareness of the different approaches to Relationship Development, Tuckman’s Theory and the 3 Stages of a Mentoring Relationship.
  • When mentors or girls aren’t showing up, there may be a variety of reasons for this. Understanding and addressing the root cause is paramount.
  • When a mentoring relationship is terminated early, it is important to facilitate a closure process to celebrate the learning and to give girls the chance to say goodbye.

Contact: mentoringgirls(at)canadianwomen.org