After decades of forming hypotheses, conducting surveys, crafting and rewriting definitions, analyzing data, and writing journal articles, Search Institute researchers and practitioners have arrived at a surprisingly simple conclusion: Nothing—nothing—has more impact in the life of a child than positive relationships.

Search Institute has spent the last decade of our work focused on defining, studying, and sharing practical insights on the developmental relationships that are key to student success.

Developmental relationships are close connections through which young people discover who they are, cultivate abilities to shape their own lives, and learn how to engage with and contribute to the world around them. 

What led us down this path of discovery? 

Here are 10 brief takeaways from our Developmental Relationships: The Roots of Positive Youth Development — 10 Years of Youth Voice, Practitioner Wisdom and Research Insights report about our ongoing mission to uncover and promote ideal conditions that will allow every young person to thrive in school, families, and communities. 

1. “A Tree Is Not a Forest”: The Ecosystem Matters

There is no single characteristic, opportunity, or resource that guarantees thriving for young people. In the same way that trees are dependent on the conditions of the larger ecosystem, all young people have the potential to make a significant impact on their schools and communities when provided with the right conditions.

Too many young people experience harmful conditions like intergenerational trauma, racism, and poverty that undermine opportunities for success. However, when young people can develop an interconnected root system of relationships, they are better able to discover who they are, what they are capable of, and how they can impact their world. 

2. Building on More than 30 Years of Work

When we launched our work on developmental relationships in 2013, we had already spent more than two decades fine-tuning the Developmental Assets® Framework, 40 positive supports and strengths that young people need to succeed. We also looked at the development of deep personal interests — or sparks — and their connection to youth thriving. 

In 2012, Junlei Li and Megan M. Julian published a groundbreaking paper where they concretely defined features of developmental relationships, including a strong and lasting emotional attachment, investment from both partners in the relationship, increasing complexity over time, and a shifting of power to give young people more autonomy as they grow. 

Search Institute’s developmental relationships framework grew out of this long history of studying and promoting relationships that would help all young people identify and nurture sparks that benefit them and their communities.

3. The Five Elements of the Developmental Relationships Framework Help Young People Thrive

After conducting numerous quantitative and qualitative studies of developmental relationships and developing deep and lasting partnerships with youth-serving organizations, we distilled our findings into five elements and 20 specific actions that make relationships powerful. The five elements of the developmental relationships framework are

  1. Express care
  2. Challenge growth
  3. Provide support
  4. Share power
  5. Expand possibilities

4. Developmental Relationships are Dynamic and Evolving

The developmental relationships framework is an action-oriented way of framing youth development. Just as every person is different, so too are relationships. A relationship with an adult leader in a youth development program may be just as developmental as one with a teacher in a public school — but the different contexts affect outcomes. Developmental relationships are about bidirectional, two-way development. Not only young people but also parents, teachers, coaches, and youth development workers are transformed by them. 

5 . Developmental Relationships Have a Positive Impact on Youth Outcomes

There are differences in the levels of developmental relationships reported by young people across various contexts and demographics, but both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies show that when developmental relationships increase over time, so do positive youth development outcomes. For example, reports of stronger developmental relationships

  • Contribute to stronger academic motivation, which has an impact on GPAs
  • Are directly related to stronger social-emotional competencies
  • Are directly related to stronger experiences of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a more culturally responsive environment in those settings
  • Contribute to higher levels of work readiness skills

In short, developmental relationships are helping young people thrive.

6. Families, Schools, and Organizations Make Up a Relational Ecosystem

For most young people, their web of positive developmental relationships starts within their families and extends to schools and out-of-school time programs. What makes youth programs and settings successful is less about the features of programs and more about the qualities of relationships — the intentional cultivation of a relational ecosystem.

7. Not All Young People Have Developmental Relationships

Our research so far has shown that youth in out-of-school time programs report significantly stronger developmental relationships than young people in school or student support program settings. Only a minority of students report that relationships with teachers get better over the school year, and as students enter high school, they report fewer developmental relationships than middle schoolers. 

Youth experience the different elements of developmental relationships at different levels. For example, Expand Possibilities and Share Power are the elements young people experience the least. This may contribute to equity and opportunity gaps, especially for historically marginalized youth of color.

8. We Don’t Yet Have a Shared Understanding

When it comes to developmental relationships, we have identified a large perception gap between what adults report and what youth experience. Often adults feel much better about their actions toward youth and report stronger developmental relationships than the young people they work with report. 

When we ask young people about their relationships, fewer than 3 in 10 youth report strong developmental relationships with at least 4 or 5 parents, siblings, peers, teachers, or youth program staff; 2 in 20 youth have no such strong developmental relationships.

This perception gap is a barrier to a shared understanding, and we need to remove it in order to build better developmental relationships with young people.

9. It Takes Intention to Build Developmental Relationships

We know that parents, teachers, practitioners, coaches, and young people all want quality relationships. In fact, roughly 9 out of 10 adults report that staff in their school or organization view a relationship-rich culture as something worth investing in. However a gap exists between intent and impact. A large percentage (25% to 41%) of staff and leaders report that developmental relationships are often overlooked or undervalued as a topic for professional development. 

We’ve learned that the following actions can help us become more intentional in our efforts to cultivate developmental relationships:

  • Creating a shared understanding of developmental relationships
  • Making a shared commitment to plan and implement relationship activities and approaches across all five elements
  • Having a relational mindset focused on continual improvements both as individuals and  collectively
  • Collecting and using data that captures multiple perspectives on relational actions

10. We Need to Be More Inclusive in Our Efforts to Cultivate Relationships with Young People

If we can all agree that every young person deserves the opportunity to be seen, heard, valued, and safe, we need to continually ask ourselves who is not feeling these things and why. By measuring what matters the most, we can do a better job of creating culturally responsive approaches and activities that are key to young people’s growth and development. Our research shows that the following actions and approaches help to expand the ecosystem of relationships for all young people.

  • Assessing who is and who is not experiencing a sense of belonging
  • Making sure that relational approaches and activities are culturally responsive
  • Affirming the identities of all young people in your space
  • Providing ample opportunity for youth voice and responding with action

For many young people, developmental relationships are necessary but not sufficient to overcome disparities that exist in access to resources and opportunities. An equity-centered approach to developmental relationships acknowledges these barriers while also working to provide opportunities and resources young people need to thrive. 

Relationships Are a Journey, Not a Destination

As we look forward to our next 10 years and beyond, we will continue to invest in a future where all young people are part of a network of relationships with parents, peers, program staff, and educators. We envision a world where each young person feels cared for, supported, and challenged. 

We will also continue to pursue the question of how to infuse developmental relationships into youth-serving organizations in ways that center equity and support organizational change. 

In this age of extreme challenges, we want all parents, practitioners, and teachers to know that it’s not about “doing more.” With a shared vision and commitment, we can collectively “be more” for young people.

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