Schools are a place for learning, and a place for relating.

Search Institute’s decades of research shows us that young people’s development is rooted in their community and in their relationships. When young people have high-quality, positive relationships with parents, teachers, mentors, coaches, and peers, they are more likely to develop resilience in the face of obstacles, grow, learn, and develop social-emotional skills.

We believe that relationships are developmental when they help young people:

  • Discover who they are
  • Develop abilities to shape their own lives
  • Learn how to engage and contribute to the world around them

Developmental relationships improve students’ social and emotional wellbeing as well as academic success. Fostering developmental relationships means making relationship building an intentional part of your everyday interaction with students.

You might believe relationship building comes naturally, and in some ways you would be right! There are also simple elements and actions that you may not be using in your current routine to help increase the quality of developmental relationships with your students. 

The following are the five key elements involved in creating developmental relationships:

Emerging research from the latest Search Institute project funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) puts researchers in conversation with educators, administrators, and school staff to talk about what practitioners need and want out of trainings and school-based interventions focused on developmental relationships.

In our research, we are learning more about the barriers to connection with students: 

  • Competing pressures of schedules, testing goals, large class sizes, etc.
  • Lack of time and financial support
  • System constraints despite wanting the best for students

Educators across the nation are overwhelmed with their workloads and are stretched thin. They need to provide academic instruction, in addition to ensuring every student receives appropriate academic and social-emotional support, along with many other time commitments (developing family school partnerships, attending meetings and trainings, collecting evidence for evaluations, etc.). Educators say that there are often too many students and not enough time to reach and teach them all. 

The Developmental Relationships Framework offers concrete approaches that are infused in every-day instruction. For example, this short lesson for educators on giving wise feedback to students on their classwork is quick to complete and can foster developmental relationships within the work educators already do, instead of creating “one more thing” in an already packed schedule.

Lack of time is another major barrier practitioners face when building developmental relationships. In schools, time is always at a premium and most days it can feel like there is never enough of it to simply be present and available to students. This powerful activity designed to build trust with students takes just two minutes per day over the course of 10 days. In this activity, educators get to know a struggling student by listening and taking interest in the student’s life – two key actions that diverse students recognize in good teachers. Small changes like this, over time, can lead to big differences for students!

Practitioners consistently told us they want what’s best for their students, but systemic issues – such as constantly changing curricula or personnel gaps – often get in the way of the important work of building relationships. While many of these issues cannot be fixed by any individual or group of educators, evidence from research shows that practitioners can still make creative choices that are within their control, such as creating intentional, inclusive, and equitable classrooms. Even without system structures in place, educators can still cultivate a positive and supportive relational climate conducive to building strong developmental relationships.

At Search Institute, we want educators to have access to the tools they need to build positive developmental relationships with all their students. Check out our Resources Hub to get more concrete tools and strategies today.

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