Young people develop resilience to face life's challenges when they have at least one well-rounded, strong, and sustained relationship in their lives. And they begin to thrive when they experience a broader web of relationships in their homes, schools, programs, and communities. But developmentally influential relationships do not happen by accident. Rather, we need to build those relationships with young people on purpose and with inclusivity and intention top of mind.
As an educator, youth program staff member, coach, or mentor, you may find yourself repeating relationship-building methods that aren’t connecting with your students as well as you’d like. You may want to change things up but are not sure how to go about it. Fundamentally, you want to know: “How do I build meaningful relationships with the young people I serve?”
This may be a good time for a refresher on building Developmental Relationships and the relationship skills that come with it.
We define Developmental Relationships as close connections through which young people discover who they are, gain abilities to shape their own lives, and learn how to interact with and contribute to the world around them. The following are the five key elements involved in creating Developmental Relationships:
By understanding the elements (and the actions associated with them) that help create Developmental Relationships, you are becoming more intentional about building relationship skills. Each of the five elements have actions associated with them (find them by clicking on the links above). You can embed these strategies in your daily practice to create a stronger connection with young people.
Take Expressing Care, the first element of building Developmental Relationships, for example. When you click on the link and dig down, you find there are 10 approaches, or actions, that help you show young people that you are there for them and care about their well-being:
We may care deeply about our students or youth, but they may not see or experience that care, particularly if we’re not at ease expressing it. Consider the above everyday actions—some that you likely already do—that communicate that you value each young person. They help young people come to know they can trust you.
By “showing up,” taking these actions, and doing some of the suggested activities on a regular basis, you are reinforcing your caring connection with your students. Over time, it will become a part of your practice, possibly even second nature.
Challenging Growth, the second element, has the following action-oriented approaches:
Students may be experiencing appropriate challenges that can elicit healthy motivation, growth, and learning. Or they may be pushed to do better for less-than-healthy reasons (like unhealthy competition for grades) or to make someone else happy. Practicing the actions above help you to nurture a healthy-growth mindset that grounds young people while challenging them to go beyond their comfort zone.
There are suggested actions for the other three elements of Developmental Relationships as well: Providing Support, Sharing Power, and Expanding Possibilities. Following the suggested approaches, finding ways to incorporate them into assignments, and trying out new activities and ways of interacting with your students—these will become skills that you can wield in multiple ways to build relationships that youth need in order to thrive.
They also can be worked into the informal interactions you have with young people in the hallway, after class, on the playground, during afterschool activities, or on the front steps while they wait for a ride home.
A helpful next step is to assess where you are in terms of relationship skills. Search Institute’s Relationships Check is a tool for self-reflection and conversation among practitioners, educators, peers, and families. It helps everyone who works with youth to gain insights into their relationships with important young people in their lives. It helps you learn where relationships are strong and where they can grow.
The relational culture of an organization plays an essential role in ensuring that all young people, regardless of background or circumstances, have the nurturing, support, and guidance they need to learn, grow, and thrive.
Because relationships happen within and beyond structured activities that occur in programs, classrooms, and other settings, the relational culture of an organization plays an essential role in ensuring that all young people, regardless of background or circumstances, have the nurturing, support, and guidance they need to learn, grow, and thrive.
The Relational Culture Checkup will help you identify what your organization is doing well and uncover areas for improvement. It will also help you reflect on the core mindsets, skills, practices, and supporting structures needed to cultivate and sustain a relationship-rich culture.
Relationship skills-building takes intention and perseverance. It’s a mix-and-match process of finding what works and is comfortable for you—and this is unique to each person. The relational culture of your organization also plays a part by how well it supports and prioritizes relationships. This too can be enhanced by coming together as teachers, staff, and administrators to create the time and space for, and recognition of, relationship skills.
It’s important to keep in mind, as we confront many competing demands each day, that resilience, thriving, and future success for our young people is the ultimate goal. Creating connective Developmental Relationships, with practiced skills and organizational support, can make that positive vision a reality.