By Kent Pekel, Ed.D.

Nearly a decade ago, an important meta-analysis showed that implementing high-quality social and emotional learning (SEL) programs in schools can lead to significant increases in students’ academic and behavioral outcomes (Durlak et al, 2011). Partly as a result of that study and others like it, thousands of schools and out-of-school time (OST) programs have since adopted SEL curricula and programs to strengthen young people’s social and emotional competencies (Boston Consulting Group, 2018).

More recently, however, a growing number of prominent researchers and practitioners have argued that implementing structured programs and curricula is only part of a successful strategy for strengthening SEL. Beyond adopting programs, they suggest, educators and youth program staff need to take a systemic approach to SEL, integrating it into every aspect of the school and program day and also into what happens during extracurricular activities that take place during afterschool hours (National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, 2019; Mahoney et al, 2018).
But how, in practice, can a youth-serving organization integrate SEL into everything it does? A recent Search Institute study points to two potential answers:

  1. Build developmental relationships with all youth
  2. Ensure all youth experience and embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)

Our study was based upon a diverse sample of 14,088 young people in grades 4-12. Those youth were surveyed in schools (80%), OST programs (13%), and student support programs (7%). On the survey, developmental relationships were assessed with a 20-item scale capturing the five elements of Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships Framework: express care, challenge growth, provide support, share power, and expand possibilities (Pekel et al., 2018). Young people’s experience of DEI was assessed with a 6-item scale focused on embracing diversity, fairness, and reaching across racial and cultural boundaries. SEL competencies were assessed with a 19-item scale capturing the five categories of the CASEL framework for SEL: relationship skills, responsible decision-making, self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2017).

The research found that both developmental relationships and commitment to DEI were strongly associated with SEL. Bivariate correlations showed that youth who reported stronger developmental relationships, on average, also reported greater relationship skills, (r = .39, p < .001), responsible decision-making (r = .37, p < .001), self-awareness (r = .35, p < .001), self-management (r = .39, p < .001), and social awareness (r = .34, p < .001). Similarly, bivariate correlations showed that youth who experienced greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in their schools and programs, on average, reported greater relationship skills (r = .33, p <.001), responsible decision-making (r = .33, p < .001), self-awareness (r = .26, p < .001), self-management (r = .29, p < .001), and social awareness (r = .32, p < .001).

But while both developmental relationships and DEI were in themselves significantly associated with SEL, our study suggests that combining the two approaches could be even more effective. When both developmental relationships (β = .39, p < .001) and commitment to DEI (β = .27, p < .001) were included in the same regression model, the combination of the two factors was positively associated with young people’s development of social-emotional learning competencies. A significant interaction effect between developmental relationships and DEI was also found (β = -.12, p < .05), such that youth who experience both strong developmental relationships and a strong commitment to DEI tended to report higher levels of social-emotional competence.

Our study does not suggest that youth-serving organizations should discontinue adopting SEL programs and curricula, but that emphasizing developmental relationships and DEI may create the context in which those programs are more likely to succeed.

I look forward to sharing more information about this study during a webinar that I will host on September 16 at 12:00 PM, Central Time. In addition to describing the associations we found between developmental relationships, DEI, and SEL in greater detail, I also look forward to sharing information on these other important findings from our study:

  • Of the five elements of Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships Framework, young people most often experienced the element of challenge growth and least often experienced the element of expand possibilities
  • Young people’s experience of developmental relationships with adults in youth-serving organizations continuously declined from elementary school to middle school to high school
  • Young people were more likely to experience developmental relationships with staff in out-of-school time programs and student support programs than with their teachers in schools
  • Across sectors, adults reported that their relationships with young people were stronger than the young people reported they were.

At this moment of deep social distancing, I hope you will join me for a discussion of the one thing that matters most to our young people and to our collective future: developmental relationships.

Kent Pekel is the former CEO of Search Institute.

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Boston Consulting Group. (2018, August). Social, Emotional, and Academic Development Field Landscape Analysis. Washington, DC: National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. Retrieved from
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2017, January ). What is SEL? Retrieved from
Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D. & Schellinger, K.B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82 (1), 405–432.
Mahoney, J.L., Durlak, J.A., & Weissberg, R.P. (2018). An update on social and emotional learning outcome research. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (4), 18-23.
National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (NCSEAD). (2019). From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope. Washington, DC: ASPEN Institute.
Pekel, K., Roehlkepartain, E. C., Syvertsen, A. K., Scales, P. C., Sullivan, T. K., & Sethi, J. (2018). Finding the fluoride: Examining how and why developmental relationships are the active ingredient in interventions that work. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 88 (5), 493-502. doi:10.1037/ort0000333

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