What We’re Learning about Developmental Relationships
Across a variety of studies, Search Institute is examining the state of young people’s relationships and how those relationships affect who they are, the choices they make, and who they are becoming. Below are some emerging insights from these studies.
- Strong, positive relationships are critical across all parts of young people’s lives. Yet too few young people experience a strong web of relationships. + −
Young people do best when they experience strong, positive relationships in all parts of their lives.
A great deal of research from numerous scholars in many different settings offer evidence that support this claim. Research to date shows that young people who experience strong developmental relationships across different parts of their lives* are more likely to show signs of positive development in many areas, including:
- Increased academic motivation;
- Increased social-emotional growth and learning;
- Increased sense of personal responsibility; and
- Reduced engagement in a variety of high-risk behaviors.
Too few young people experience a strong web of relationships in their lives.
A Search Institute study found that 22 percent of middle and high school students experienced no strong developmental relationships and 18 percent experienced just one strong development relationship. Only 28 percent experienced four or five strong relationships.*
* This study specifically asked five questions each about their relationships with parenting adults, sibling(s), friends, teachers, and program leaders.
Parent-youth relationships are viewed as strongest by youth
When we asked young people (grades 6 – 12) about their relationships with different people in a large community study, they most often pointed to their relationship with a parenting adult as most reflecting the five elements in a developmental relationship.
Following relationships with parenting adults, young people see relationships with friends as those most reflecting the five elements of developmental relationships. Relationships with teachers, program leaders, and siblings all reflected similarly lower levels of strength based on Search Institute’s developmental relationships framework.
- FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS: Developmental relationships in families are a source of strength and resilience for many youth. However, they tend to decline through adolescence, and they appear to be more challenging to maintain for families dealing with financial stress. + −
“Express care” is most common in relationships with parents.
Studies to date consistently show that parenting adults are most likely to “express care” in their relationships with their children and youth, with four out of five parents showing strength in this area. They are least likely to do things that “expand possibilities” for their children.
In some studies, we ask both youth and parenting adults from the same families about their relationships. Youth are somewhat less likely than parenting adults to report high levels of “express care,” “provide support,” and “ challenge growth” in their relationship. However they are just about as likely as their parenting adults to report sharing power and expanding possibilities.
Family relationships are strongly associated with youth well-being and thriving.
Developmental relationships between youth and parenting adults are consistently associated with multiple areas of well-being and thriving for young people, after controlling for demographics. Young people who have stronger relationships with their parenting adults are more likely to report:
- Greater social-emotional strengths, such as self-awareness, emotional competence, openness to challenge, and personal responsibility;
- Higher academic motivation and taking personal responsibility for their school success; and
- Stronger civic commitment, or seeing helping others as a personal responsibility.
Overall, parent-youth relationships statistically explain about 62 percent of the variance (i.e., differences) in these personal strengths in young people. In comparison, demographic factors (such as gender, age, race-ethnicity, urbanicity of residence, and perceived family financial strain) only account for 2 to 4 percent of the differences among youth in these indicators of well-being and thriving. (For more information, see Relationships First.)
Young people in families dealing with adversity do better if they have stronger relationships with their parenting adults.
Too many families face challenges, stresses, and adversity, which may range from the death of a family member, a serious illness or injury, being victims of crime, substance abuse, unemployment, and separation or divorce. Our early findings suggest that developmental relationships may contribute meaningfully to young people’s resilience in the midst of these kinds of stress, trauma, and adversity.
Looking only at a sample of youth in high-stress families (n = 122), we compared those who had strong relationships with their parents with those whose relationships were not strong. The young people who had strong developmental relationships with their parents were:
- 21 times more likely to manage their emotions well, compared to those who don’t have strong relationships.
- 17 times more likely to take personal responsibility for their actions.
- 5 times more likely to be good at making and keeping plans.
- 4 times more likely to have a sense of purpose in life.
Young people report declines in relational interactions with parents as they grow up, particularly during the middle school years.
A normal part of growing up is for young people’s relationships with parenting adults to shift—though research clearly shows that most parent-youth relationships do not experience ongoing, serious conflict. Yet, young people are much less likely to report key relational interactions when they are seniors in high school than when they are in sixth grade, according to Search Institute surveys of more than 120,000 students.
For example, while 61% of sixth graders say they “strongly agree” that they seek advice and support from their parenting adults, just 36% of 12th graders do. Thus, an important challenge for families is to adjust relationships and interactions as young people grow up, become more independent, and develop a broader web of relationships.
Parents from different racial-ethnic backgrounds report similar overall levels of strength in their relationships with their children. But they may experience different strengths within these relationships.
Across racial-ethnic groups, parents reported similar overall levels of developmental relationships. However, different groups exhibited different strengths in their relationships. In one study, parenting adults who identified as African, African American, Black, or other reported somewhat higher levels of challenging growth and expanding possibilities when compared to White parents. (There were no significant racial differences between African American and White parents on expressing care and sharing power.) Hispanic parenting adults reported significantly higher levels of sharing power and expanding possibilities than non-Hispanic parenting adults.
Financial strain appears to undermine developmental relationships in families.
When families experience financial strain (not having enough money to buy what they need), young people are less likely to experience developmental relationships with their parents than those who have enough money to buy whatever they need as well as special things. In one study of 622 parent-youth pairs in two communities, families that don’t experience financial strain were more likely to experience all five elements of developmental relationships than those whose families experience financial strain.
- Try these ideas for how parenting adults can strengthen developmental relationships with their children and youth.
- Learn about current projects that focus on family relationships.
- Review completed studies and research reports on families.
- Attend a workshop or a Keep Connected Institute on engaging families through developmental relationships.
- Visit ParentFurther.com to access quizzes, discussion starters, family activities, and other information to support families in building developmental relationships.
- STUDENT-TEACHER RELATIONSHIPS: Strong student-teacher relationships can be catalytic for student motivation and success in school. Yet too few students experience strong relationships with their teachers. + −
Student-teacher relationships play a critical role in student motivation and learning. But current research also highlights key gaps in student-teacher relationships from students’ perspectives.
Student-teacher relationships play an important role in student motivation and learning.
Students who reported stronger developmental relationships with their teachers were more likely to:
- Have higher grade point averages;
- Feel connected to school;
- Feel culturally respected and included; and
- Rate the instruction they receive as high quality.
Most students do not experience strong student-teacher relationships.
Despite the importance of student-teacher relationships, too few students report having strong relationships with their teachers. Across various studies, only about one-fourth to one-third of students report strong relationships with teachers.
For example, a study of 675 middle school students in a diverse suburban district found that only 29% of students experienced a strong developmental relationship with their teachers. Students are most likely to report that teachers “challenge growth.” They are least likely to report that teachers “expand possibilities” for them.
Strong student-teacher relationships are less common among high schoolers.
Younger students (middle school) are more likely than older students (high school) to report that their teachers care about them and push them to be their best—two aspects of a developmental relationship. Among 12th graders, only 16% of students “strongly agree” that their teachers really care about them and push them to be their best.
- Try these ideas for how teachers can strengthen developmental relationships with students.
- Learn about our current projects on relationships, motivation, and student success
- Review completed studies and reports on schools and academic achievement
- Attend a workshop on teacher-student relationships and academic motivation
- Examine Search Institute’s REACH Survey, which gives fresh insight into students’ motivation and their relationships with teachers.
- RELATIONSHIPS IN YOUTH PROGRAMS: Youth programs provide important contexts where young people can develop trustworthy, lasting relationships with adults and peers. However, participating youth do not consistently experience all elements of developmental relationships with program leaders when they participate. + −
Youth programs—which include recreation, athletics, arts, civic action and service, cultural identity, religious groups—have a unique opportunity to build and deepen relationships with young people.
Indeed, relationships can be a powerful factor in achieving a youth program’s mission. For example, a Search Institute study for the Student Conservation Association found that when young people experienced strong developmental relationships with program leaders during a conservation service experience, they were more likely to:
- Exhibit conservation leadership and social responsibility;
- Develop a sense of community identity; and
- Set goals and stretch themselves to reach goals.
However, a survey of 25,395 students, grades 6 – 12, in one U.S. community, suggests that young people may not always have strong relationships with their program leaders. Although two-thirds of the youth who participate in youth programs said their leaders challenged them to grow, only about half reported that their youth program leaders expressed care, provided support, and shared power with them.
- RELATIONSHIPS WITH PEERS: Peer-to-peer relationships are a critical, sometimes overlooked resource, for young people’s learning and development. + −
Friendships play a major role in young people’s development, yet we tend to overlook peer relationships as resources for positive development. When young people in a large community study were asked who interacts with them in ways that reflect the developmental relationships framework, they highlighted their friends right after their parents, with friends particularly emphasizing “expressing care” and “sharing power.”
A Search Institute study of leaders and participants in programs focused on strengthening peer relationships identified a number of areas of young people’s lives that were strengthened through these programs. These included:
- Self-discovery, awareness, and broadened perspectives on themselves, others, and the world;
- Self-confidence and life skills;
- Academic motivation; and
- Leadership skills and dispositions.
Teachers, youth workers, parents, and other adults can all play roles in helping young people develop the skills to nurture positive relationships with their peers. They can also create settings in which positive peer relationships can flourish.
- Try these ideas for how young people can strengthen developmental relationships with their friends.
- Learn about current projects on peer programs and peer relationships.
- Search Institute’s completed studies and research reports on peer relationships
- Attend a workshop on strengthening peer relationships.
- REFRAMING DEVELOPMENTAL RELATIONSHIPS: Seeking new, broader understandings of—and investments in—the kinds of relationships young people need to thrive. + −
Virtually everyone in education and youth work agrees that relationships are vital for young people’s learning, growth, and thriving. Yet as a society and in communities we continually underinvest in and even undermine developmental relationships – especially when it comes to young people from marginalized communities who most need and want them.
Why the gap? And—more important—what can be done about it?
Reframing Developmental Relationships, a two-year, multi-methods study from FrameWorks Institute, commissioned by Search Institute, tackles these questions. It calls for “a profoundly different orientation toward relationships and—specifically—how our society should approach them collectively, through policies and programs.”
- Read resources on reframing developmental relationships.