Adult-youth relationships: The critical ingredient across interventions

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summarized by Laura Yoviene

Li, J., & Julian, M. (2012). Developing relationships as the active ingredient: A unifying working hypothesis of “what works” across intervention settings.American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 82 (2), 157-166.


Much research and vast resources  focus on pinpointing the critical component or active ingredient that is responsible for producing the outcomes of interest in an intervention. Li and Julian argue, however, that there is only one active ingredient that determines if an intervention is effective and that is whether the intervention strengthens or weakens developmental relationships. To test their claim, Li and Julian provide a parsimonious definition of developmental relationships and then apply the definition to various case examples.

Current Paper:

Li and Julian define developmental relationships by the interaction of the following four criteria:

  • Attachment – any emotional connection that is natural, positive, and appropriate (i.e.) teacher and student, coach and player
  • Reciprocity – with sustained and frequent joint activities, the level and type of scaffolding/support from the adult is dynamic and adjusts with the youth’s development
  • Progressive Complexity – as an adult’s support fades or the activity advances, a child is engaged in progressively more complex patterns of behavior
  • Balance of Power– with increasing complexity and the decrease of adult scaffolding the child becomes more independent (power shifts from adult-driven to a balance with youth-driven)

The following settings were examined to demonstrate that when developmental relationships are prevalent, overall human development is promoted, and when these relationships are not available or are diluted, interventions show limited effects:

  • Orphanages
  • In traditional orphanages, there are many barriers to the development of the caregiver-child relationship (countless different caregivers,  routine rather than responsive care, minimal positive affect)
  • A developmental relationship focused intervention assigned 2 consistent caregivers to a small group of children and training the caregivers to be sensitive, responsive, reciprocal, and to follow the child’s lead
  • This focus on improving the caregiver-child relationship resulted in substantial improvements across all domains of child development (i.e. physical growth, socio-emotional, cognitive)
  • Elementary School Classrooms
  • Increasingly larger classrooms, adult-directed instruction, and a focus on outcome rather than process characterize low-quality classroom
  • Classrooms in which teachers are sensitive, provide feedback to promote learning and mastery, encourage child responsibility, and focus on learning over performance are characterized worldwide as high quality
  • Mentoring Relationships for At-Risk Youth
  • Even though mentoring programs are relationship-focused, relationship quality is an integral component as not all mentor-relationships can be considered developmental relationships. Some mentor-pairings are more prescriptive in nature, meaning that the adult mentor sets out to positively impact the mentee’s life through a series of predetermined activities and topics of conversation. Albeit being well-intentioned, the mentor is very controlling and fails to ask the youth for input, the mentor remains inflexible and thus non-responsive to the mentee’s needs; in these prescriptive relationships there is rarely a shift in power toward the youth. Prescriptive relationships are rarely long-lasting and often fail to yield positive outcomes.
  • Conversely, mentors having a developmental relationship with their mentees are responsive, flexible to the youth’s current level,  they ask mentees for suggestions or input, and gradually shift power toward youth. Over time, developmental relationships progress into a trusting and safe relationship, youth may come to a mentor to discuss problems and ask for advice, and further development and growth are possible.
  • The differences between prescriptive and developmental mentoring relationships demonstrates that not any well-meaning relationship can serve as an active ingredient in interventions, rather the relationship must meet the four aforementioned criteria.
  • Home Visits
  • The effectiveness of developmental relationships may also occur between 2 adults, such as a social worker and an adult client being served. Many home visit programs aim to provide instructional care, but lack a strong home visitor-parent relationship.
  • In cases with a relationship focus, the trust, empathy, respect, and patience may spill-over and positivity affect parenting practices.


Li and Julian argue that supporting developmental relationships as the active ingredient in human development interventions is crucial for promoting positive developmental change. This article exemplified the importance of developmental relationships across multiple settings and various populations of interest. The authors claim that when designing an intervention program the main question should be, “How does a (practice, program, system, or policy) help to strengthen relationships in the developmental setting?”

It is important to note that the great focus on developmental relationships does not mean that there is no need for sound curriculums  and/or social service systems, rather Li and Julian reason that “well-intentioned curriculums and social services system will not be effective unless the implementation builds on and enhances the quality of developmental relationships in the classroom or the community.”


Although the relationship is already a focus of many mentoring programs, this paper places added emphasis on relationship-based mentoring as opposed to more instrumental, activity-oriented mentoring. It is important to recognize that not all well-intentioned mentors (i.e. prescriptive) are beneficial for the youth. The goal of future mentoring programs, interventions, and individual relationships should be to foster quality developmental relationships that incorporate these four specific features – attachment, reciprocity, progressive complexity, and balance of power. This is necessary in order to most effectively promote positive outcomes and individual growth for at-risk youth in various areas, even those with a more instrumental/skill-attainment focus.