Nurturing relationships are at the heart of what youth need to learn, grow, and thrive. Fostering connections between supportive adults and young people builds resilience and the ability for them to envision and create a positive future, even in cases of poverty, discrimination, COVID-19 isolation, substance abuse, neglect, or other hardships.

Developmental relationships are the strong roots of thriving and resilience for young people, regardless of their background or circumstances. Through these relationships, youth discover who they are, cultivate abilities to shape their own lives, and learn how to engage with and contribute to the world around them. At the heart of it, young people require only a few basic things to thrive. They need to:

  • Know that they matter

  • Be challenged to learn and grow

  • Have help to complete tasks and achieve goals

  • Engage in an environment of respect, inclusion, and collaboration

  • Be connected to people and places that broaden their world

Building a Pathway to Developmental Relationships

Young people thrive when they experience developmental relationships in all areas of their lives — in their families, schools, programs, and communities. Growing evidence suggests that strategically and systematically investing in building developmental relationships can be catalytic for effective education, programs, and services for children, youth, and families. 

Fostering deep connections with teachers and after-school program leaders are key ways to build these vital relationships outside the home. But how do teachers and other educators begin?

  • Get to know each other. Listen, be warm, and share interests. Pay attention.

  • Build mutual trust. Be dependable and bond through appropriate self-disclosure.

  • Confirm shared commitments. Encourage, challenge, set boundaries.

  • Invest in each other’s growth. Put energy into reaching goals and adapt the relationship to match growth.

Most educators recognize the importance of student-teacher relationships. However, it can be challenging to focus on building relationships when accountability is elsewhere and when you teach dozens, if not hundreds, of students each term. Teachers can invest more fully in fostering connection with students when their school or organization prioritizes it in meaningful ways, such as budgeting resources, offering training, developing expectations, and allocating time for cultivating developmental relationships. Putting relationships first makes a difference.

Tips for Fostering Connection

All young people, all teachers, and for that matter, all adults, are unique, and there are as many ways of fostering connection between them as there are individuals. Whatever time and resources may be available, teachers, parents, and caregivers may take the opportunity to foster connection in myriad ways. Here are few successful examples:

  • Follow up with young people when you learn that they are going through something, rather than waiting for them to bring it up again. 

  • Make time for lightness. Share in some humor, fun, and laughter amid practical tasks.

  • Highlight future goals. Talk with young people about the things they look forward to or dream about. 

  • Expand their thinking by asking hard questions, providing alternate explanations, and encouraging openness to different opinions. This helps them expand their own thinking. 

  • Offer information and practical help to solve a specific problem, or loan them something they may need. Show young people how to ask for help when they need it. 

  • Shift levels of support. Give more support when young people are struggling, and less when they are making progress. Step back as their skills and confidence build.

  • Introduce young people to a wide range of people, places, ideas, cultures, and vocations. Start with ones they’re curious about.

  • Strive to understand and show sensitivity to students’ feelings. Use varied teaching strategies to make learning enjoyable, and to help students connect with you and each other.

  • Emphasize mastery and self-improvement more than doing better than others. Challenge students to reach high expectations. Hold them accountable.

Fostering connection doesn’t need to be hard; in fact, it can be fun, because it’s about storytelling and listening. By sharing stories about yourself and encouraging your students to be open about themselves, you're helping young people to build resilience and create a positive future. The key is to do these things intentionally and regularly. There are lots of great resources out there to help you.

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