Am J Orthopsychiatry. 2012 Apr;82(2):157-66. doi: 10.1111/j.1939-0025.2012.01151.x.Developmental relationships as the active ingredient: a unifying working hypothesis of “what works” across intervention settings. Li J1, Julian MM.
The authors argue that:
- “Developmental relationships constitute the active ingredient of effective interventions serving at-risk children and youth across settings. In the absence of developmental relationships, other intervention elements yield diminished or minimal returns.
- Scaled-up programs and policies serving children and youth often fall short of their potential impact when their designs or implementation drift toward manipulating other ‘‘inactive’’ ingredients (e.g., incentive, accountability, curricula) instead of directly promoting developmental relationships.”
- The authors then draw on studies that have that the presence or absence of developmental relationships distinguishes effective and ineffective interventions for diverse populations across developmental settings. The conclusion is that developmental relationships are the foundational metric with which to judge the quality and forecast the impact of interventions for at-risk children and youth.”
The authors conclude that “it is both critical and possible to give foremost considerations to whether program, practice, and policy decisions promote or hinder developmental relationships among those who are served and those who serve.”
Professor Tim Cavell responds:
I like the term developmental relationships and believe it is a useful construct for folks in the mentoring field. It captures a special kind of relationship that is imbued with the potential for transformative influence.
I also applaud the authors’ efforts to define the conditions that constitute a developmental relationship. They suggest there are 3 key conditions: a) an enduring emotional attachment, b) progressively more complex patterns of joint activity, and c) a balance of power that gradually shifts from the developed person in favor of the developing person.
It should not be surprising that developmental relationships predict positive outcomes: A child who can successfully participate in that kind of relationship is not only a child who has a hopeful future; he/she is also a child who is more apt to experience such relationships in the first place.
Unfortunately, some children struggle to form and sustain healthy relationship and might never cross the threshold into “developmental relationships”. This can happen even when parents/teachers/coaches/mentors are skilled and invested.
Similarly, some mentors will struggle to form and sustain developmental relationships, even when their mentee is not so challenging or difficuilt. Here’s a relevant quote from this paper: “Evaluations of Big Brothers Big Sisters have turned up mixed and somewhat short-lived results in terms of program impact on mentees (Grossman & Tierney, 1998;Herrera, Grossman, Kauh, Feldman, & McMaken, 2007). On the surface, this seems to contradict our hypothesis that developmental relationship is the active ingredient for positive development. However, even relationship-focused programs are not the panacea for the lack of developmental relationships.”
I do take issue with the authors’ poor use of logic when drawing their conclusion, which I’ve pasted below:
“Using empirical studies as case examples, this study demonstrates that the presence or absence of developmental relationships distinguishes effective and ineffective interventions for diverse populations across developmental settings. The conclusion is that developmental relationships are the foundational metric with which to judge the quality and forecast the impact of interventions for at-risk children and youth.”
I offer here a more accurate and logical conclusion: Effective and ineffective youth interventions are often distinguished by the presence or absence of developmental relationships. Thus, developmental relationships are an important metric to consider when considering the likely impact of a youth intervention.
Bottom line: Developmental relationships are the holy grail of youth mentoring, but so many of our matches will not get there. So let’s not be close-minded about the other possible “active ingredients” in youth mentoring.