Bouncing Back with Intentional Relationships

By the Search Institute

Remember the Joni Mitchell lyric from “Big Yellow Taxi”: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” That phrase could apply to relationships during the COVID‑19 pandemic. During the long months of isolation, many of us realized what we had taken for granted: the chance to gather in person, learn, and talk with each other.

We missed those everyday moments of connection. However, now that some pandemic restrictions are being lifted, we also recognize that we could do a better job connecting in meaningful ways with the young people in our schools and communities.

Our research shows that activities can often be abstract, irrelevant, or not particularly engaging for young people. Even if we spend hours together in a classroom or program, conversations can be superficial.

Some of those challenges have grown during the pandemic, with many teachers reporting feeling overwhelmed and students becoming disconnected from school.

We have spent a lot of time asking young people what the adults around them can do to help them navigate through difficult circumstances and nurture the skills and traits that help them succeed in school and in life.

We start with this question: What happens in relationships that make them so important to our growth and learning? Our research has identified five key elements of a relationship that, like roots, are the source of nourishment, stability, and resilience for young people. We call it the developmental relationships framework. It’s fundamental to all the work we do.

Five Key Elements of a Developmental Relationship

Relationships where young people experience strength in the following five elements are considered developmental:

1. Express Care — showing young people that they matter

2. Challenge Growth — pushing them to keep getting better

3. Provide Support — helping them accomplish tasks and reach goals

4. Share Power — treating them with respect and giving them a say

5. Expand Possibilities — connecting them with people, places, and ideas that broaden their world

Now that we know and understand the elements that make developmental relationships, we have become more intentional about sharing ways that everyone who works with young people can deepen and strengthen relationships with the young people in their lives.

Building Intentional Relationships

How do you learn from these important discoveries and put them into action to build intentional relationships?  We have developed tools and approaches that have been proven to build stronger relationships in classes and groups. Some of these are structured activities and others are everyday approaches that can be integrated into existing programs or curricular activities.

  • Structured activities. These intentional and planned activities bring the five elements of Search Institute’s developmental relationships framework to life, creating personal connections with and among young people. Facilitators ensure that all young people in a class or group feel known, validated by, and connected with their peers and the adult(s) who are leading the class or group. The activities can also be used to build additional skills. Each activity can also include opportunities for participants to practice a variety of relational skills and CASEL’s Core Social-Emotional Learning Competencies.
  • Everyday approaches. Relationship-building approaches are techniques that can be seamlessly integrated into existing programs or classroom activities tied to curricular and programmatic goals. Approaches to enhancing developmental relationships can be integrated into almost anything adults do with young people in a class or group.

The activities and approaches are intended to be flexible and respond to a variety of needs and priorities.

Intentional Relationships in Your Classroom or Group

1. Start with a Relationships Check

When we listen to what young people say about relationships, we discover a gap between their perception of relationships and that of the adults that surround them. We want to help close that gap with tools that highlight the importance of developmental relationships and the power you have to strengthen those relationships for all young people to learn and grow. Search Institute’s Relationships Check is a tool for self‑reflection and conversation designed to assess where relationships with young people are strong and where they can grow.

Once you have an idea of where relationships are in your class or group, it’s time to discover intentional ways to make them better.

2. Learn How to Use Activities and Approaches Designed to Strengthen Relationships

Many of our activities are designed to integrate into classroom or group settings where an adult facilitator leads a group of young people, but can also work for youth leaders and their peers or groups of adults.

Some leaders find it helpful to begin with the activity Get to Know You and Establishing Group Norms. This 30‑minute activity is designed to build trust between group members by exploring what group members have in common and what makes them unique. It also creates a safe environment for participants to discuss what they need from the group to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings.

All of the activities are adaptable for use with different ages, program settings, and contexts. We encourage you to use your creativity to tailor activities to meet the needs of your group.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Prioritize adaptations that allow all participants to feel included and fully participate (physically, mentally, and emotionally).
  • Consider the needs of the group. Levels of trust, rapport, and maturity in a group are often stronger predictors of the success of an activity rather than age or grade. Also keep in mind your group’s strengths, interests, and areas of confidence/comfort, learning styles, and energy level.
  • Contemplate logistics: the amount of space available, the number of participants, the time allotted, and access to materials and resources.

3. Explore and Choose Activities That You Will Bring to Your Classroom or Group

Search Institute’s Resources Hub is brimming with ideas and practical solutions for intentional relationship building in classrooms and groups. These are fun, accessible ways for teachers, group leaders, and students to tap into the core of what matters most for young people. Here are just a few examples of what you’ll discover:

  • Approaches to Expanding Possibilities, Sharing Power, Providing Support, Challenging Growth, and Expressing Care — the five elements of the Developmental Relationships Framework
  • Start‑up activities that set group norms, help people get to know each other and introduce the Developmental Relationships Framework.
  • Activities that invite young people to explore their own experiences of developmental relationships, what they want in their relationships, and where they see gaps.
  • Activities to challenge growth by learning how to hold each other accountable to follow through in pursuing their own goals and commitments.
  • Activities designed to help young people trust and learn from each other
  • Activities where young people explore their cultural backgrounds and values

Bringing Mindful Intention to Relationships

In Portland, Oregon, a youth organization called Campfire was one of Search Institute’s partners working in marginalized communities that embarked on a mission to deepen their developmental relationships with young people. They found the developmental relationships framework and its underlying principles to be valuable resources for advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion. They illustrate the principles of:

  • Really seeing each young person
  • Nurturing intentional relationships
  • Start with yourself, and work toward a culture of belonging for all young people

“When developmental relationships are really utilized in an intentional and mindful way, they certainly can further equity.” — Elizabeth Guzman Arroyo, Campfire, Portland, Oregon

Intentional Relationships Start Now

Young people, even those growing up in difficult situations, can develop resilience and thrive when the adults in their lives recognize their strengths and build upon their supports. When a teacher, counselor, or coach recognizes the potential in a young person and encourages them to try new things and push past barriers, it initiates a cycle of success that leads to memorable, and lasting, change.

To access the resource, please click here.