Instrumental relationships: A potential relational model for inner-city youth programs.

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 3.23.02 PMHalpern, R. (2005). Instrumental relationships: A potential relational model for inner-city youth programs. Journal of Community Psychology, 33 (1), 11-20.


Many inner city youth face heightened psychological and situational barriers affecting their ability to take advantage to specific opportunities that are afforded to them. Youth programs  are faced with the challenge of how to best address these barriers in order to help adolescents overcome these vulnerabilities. One way to do this is through instrumental relationships, in which youth  are set up with non-familial adults who  aim to help the youth develop specific skills in their area of expertise. Halpern focuses a specific Chicago youth initiative in order to explore how some youth may benefit from such instrumental relationships with an adult.


The Chicago youth initiative called, “After-School Matters” coordinates 10 to 20 week apprenticeships (3 hours a day, 3 days a week) for high school students (n= 3,000) in the following areas: visual and performing arts, creative and professional writing, video and computer technology, sports instruction, and lifeguarding.

– The first few weeks the apprenticeship introducing the youth to basic concepts, techniques, group-building, and informally addressing apprentices’ skills.

– The next 5-6 weeks focused on rehearsal, production, and refinement of skills

– The last 2 weeks were spent refining the product or performance, which would be displayed and/or performed to the school community and families

The apprenticeships are led by individuals with knowledge and skill in a particular area, but generally lack any formal training for working with youth. Much research has shown, however, that despite having an instrumental objective, many youth require an emphasis on the relational component in order to benefit from the relationship. Thus, this type of instrumental relationship raises the question of “whether adults’ personal qualities of matter less, the same, or in different ways in adult-youth relationships that are task-oriented.”


When adults work in an instrumental relationship with a youth, they are viewing the adolescent as an individual who is capable of doing such work, as well as taking them seriously based on their effort and skill, not because they belong to some “special category” or “high-risk group.”

The idea of “jointness” – focus on a shared task and use of jargon specific to the task allows for the authority and power (between teacher and learned) to be put aside. Also, the knowledge that the project is a work in progress that needs to frequently be corrected and improved creates a type of “decentering” which allows for an openness to constant feedback throughout the duration of the project. These qualities can allow for “incidental discussion of personal issues, aspirations, and a range of matters not directly related to the work at hand.”

Halpern makes the case that instrumental relationships in the context of inner-city youth programs, allow for the reworking and development of youths’ “selfhood.” This is not an automatic nor an easy task, however,  beneficial relationships can be achieved by adults with no prior training in youth work or relationships. For example,  when the adults take the youth and their subsequent work seriously, are respectful and provide realistic feedback the youth tend to benefit most.  Halpern does recognize that some youth need more emotional support than perhaps strictly instrumentally oriented relationships provide.


Halpern’s findings hold implications for youth mentoring relationships; specifically, this study goes against the argument that strictly instrumental relationships are not beneficial when mentoring high-risk youth.  In addition to helping youth gain a particular skill, instrumental mentoring relationships may actually help high-risk youth with their identity development and/or restructuring of “selfhood” as well as creating a more positive view and reciprocal interaction style within the context of youth-adult relationships.