By Kent Pekel, Ed.D., President and CEO, Search Institute
Joe Biden didn’t speak about education very often during the presidential campaign of 2020 but, paradoxically, some of his best moments occurred when cameras captured him interacting with young people. Those moments included Mr. Biden’s exchanges with 13 year-old Brayden Harrington about overcoming stuttering, and the time Mr. Biden gave his lapel pin to a young man named Shamar and introduced himself as Barack Obama’s best buddy. There was also an older video from 2018 of the former Vice President comforting Corey Hixon, whose father had just been killed in the Parkland school shooting. That video was shared shortly before the election and it has since been viewed more than twelve million times.
President-Elect Biden and his team (notably including lifelong educator Dr. Jill Biden) should remember the public’s reaction to those videos as they begin to define his administration’s agenda for America’s youth. The images they capture illustrate the unique ability and opportunity that Joe Biden has as president to elevate the role of relationships in America’s efforts to prepare its young people to thrive.
If President Biden embraces that opportunity, it will be a profound and positive departure from federal education policy in recent decades. From Goals 2000 during the Clinton Administration to No Child Left Behind under President George W. Bush to Race to the Top under President Obama, many previous federal policies either ignored or actively undermined relationships.
Making relationships a focus of federal policy is long overdue given that decades of research have shown that relationships are the critical drivers of youth development. That focus is even more urgently needed today because so many relationships in young people’s lives have been ruptured by the closure of schools and programs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A new emphasis on relationships is also necessary because even in pre-pandemic days, building relationships was often overtaken by the many other priorities that schools and some out-of-school time programs are expected to address in our complex society. Interviews that my colleagues and I conducted with leaders of schools and youth programs in 2017 found that while the vast majority of those leaders personally believe in the power of relationships, many of their organizations underinvest in them. The leaders told us that their organizations often don’t make sufficient time for relationships, collect data on them, or provide staff with training and tools for building them. Given that lack of emphasis and investment, it is not surprising that a study of almost 13,000 students in grades 6-12 that we conducted just before the start of the pandemic found that 60% of students do not experience strong developmental relationships with their teachers.
To help close that relationship gap, President Biden should not seek to strengthen federal support for just any kind of relationship with young people. Rather, his administration should focus on developmental relationships, which include but also extend beyond familiar notions of being a caring adult.
At Search Institute, our research has identified five essential actions that adults can take to build developmental relationships with young people: expressing care, challenging growth, providing support, sharing power, and expanding possibilities. We have created a framework that articulates specific ways that adults can integrate each of those five elements into their relationships with youth. Additionally, we have found that when young people experience developmental relationships with adults, they are significantly more motivated to work hard in school, report stronger social and emotional skills, and achieve better educational outcomes.
Why should – and how could – President Biden integrate developmental relationships into his Administration’s strategy for education? Let me offer an example from among the priorities that candidate Biden told the nation he wanted to pursue as president.
Mr. Biden’s education plan calls for increasing federal funding for vocational training and for partnerships that link high schools, community colleges, and employers to prepare students for good jobs in today’s economy. I think that’s an excellent idea, but when President Biden and his team design their policies and programs to advance it, they should take note of a study that the Brookings Institution and Child Trends conducted in 2018. That research found that it is workforce development programs that feature strong relationships between teenage participants and adults, such as internships, apprenticeships, and mentorship programs, that were associated with higher-quality jobs at age 29. In contrast, the researchers found that work readiness programs that did not emphasize relationships, such as career majors, tech prep, job shadowing, and operating school-based businesses, were not associated with any sustained gains in employment outcomes. Informed by that study and others, the Biden Administration should make developmental relationships a required component of the workforce development programs it has pledged to support and scale.
In addition to advancing policies and programs that strengthen developmental relationships, President Biden can elevate the role of relationships in our schools, programs, and society simply by continuing to be himself. A study that Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner conducted on leadership concluded that, “the ultimate impact of the leader depends most significantly on the particular story that he or she relates or embodies.” Joe Biden’s story is all about relationships and children. A defining passage in that story was the death of his first wife and his young daughter in a car accident, and the years after that tragedy that he spent taking the train for four hours each day between Wilmington and Washington so that he could serve in the Senate and still tuck his two young sons into bed each night. Mr. Biden’s presidential campaign used images from those train rides to capture the essence of Mr. Biden’s character and to convey the way young people have been at the center of his life.
I hope that President Biden also puts building developmental relationships with young people at the center of his presidency. If he does, all of us who entered the fields of education and youth development because we believed in the power of relationships should see Joe Biden as our champion, and we should join him in seizing the moment ahead of us because it will not only be his, but ours.