The Intervention is a Relationship

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 12.50.57 PMBy: Kent Pekel, Ed.D and Peter C. Scales, Ph.D.

Originally posted at Search Institute blog

“I’ve read Paul Tough’s book and seen Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk and I’m sold that these noncognitive skills are important. What my school needs is a way to build those skills, but we also need another program like a hole in the head. What can we do?”

That was how a high school principal introduced himself at a recent Search Institute workshop on The Perseverance Process, a new strategy for strengthening academic motivation and persistence that we have developed through two years of applied research. Our response to the principal was not a simple one, but it could be expressed in a single word: relationships.

New research we are conducting at Search Institute finds that young people are highly motivated by relationships with parents, teachers, and other adults when five actions occur within the relationship: expressing care, challenging growth, providing support, sharing power, and expanding possibility. Expressed from the perspective of a young person, those five actions mean the following:

  • show me that you like me and want the best for me (express care);
  • insist that I try to continuously improve (challenge growth);
  • help me complete tasks and achieve goals (provide support);
  • hear my voice and let me share in making decisions (share power); and
  • expand my horizons and connect me to opportunities (expand possibilities).

We are testing this framework for developmental relationships in schools and other environments that matter in young people’s lives. For example, in a forthcoming study of families with children between the ages of 3 and 13, we analyzed data from a survey of more than 1,000 parents. Twenty-seven percent of the respondents to the survey were people of color and 38 percent had household incomes of less than $35,000 per year. In the study, we demonstrate that although all five actions in our Developmental Relationships Framework have positive effects, it is the sharing of power with children, as appropriate for their developmental ages and stages, that most predicts how well they are seen to be doing, academically and in numerous other ways.

In a separate ongoing study of developmental relationships in schools, we are finding that students who have stronger developmental relationships with teachers do significantly better on numerous measures of motivation and executive function that are essential for academic success. These measures include self-regulation, mastery motivation, academic confidence, and openness to challenge.

Our ultimate objective is not only to understand the impact that developmental relationships have on young people’s lives, but to find practical ways to start and strengthen them. Toward that end, we are observing and interviewing the great relationship builders that exist in almost every school, family, program, and community. Through that work we are learning, for example, that when adults take time to talk with young people about their sparks – the talents, interests, and goals that students are passionate about – it dramatically strengthens relationships and can have tremendous motivational impact. Students whose sparks are nurtured by adults in their lives are 68 percent more likely to want to master what they’re learning at school, and 50 percent more likely to give their best effort at school.

The motivating power of sparks can be even stronger if the adult periodically brings up the young person’s spark during later conversations without waiting for the young person or circumstances to prompt the discussion. When the adult proactively talks or asks about the young person’s spark, the young person is likely to feel authentically seen and known, and an important step toward a deeper and more developmental relationship has been taken.

The five essential actions that comprise Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships Framework might seem like easy and fairly obvious things to do, but both our quantitative and qualitative studies have found that young people believe that adults who do two or more of those things are relatively rare. For example, in a study of more than 89,000 6th through 12th graders in 26 states, we found that just 22 percent of students experienced both a caring school climate and high expectations from teachers. For the rest of the students, school was a place defined by challenge without much caring, or by caring without much challenge.

In highlighting the motivating power of developmental relationships, we do not mean to suggest that there is no need for high-quality social emotional learning programs in schools or out-of-school time settings. In fact, over the course of the Perseverance Process workshop we spend quite a bit of time discussing the findings from research on such programs. But for organizations where lack of resources or initiative fatigue make the adoption of a new program a nonstarter, relationships can be the intervention.

The connection between perseverance and relationships was illustrated by a report that the America’s Promise Alliance released last year, which found that in order for students who had dropped out of high school to “reach up to a place where longer-term investment in the future was possible,” they desperately needed “connections with adults and peers who cared about them, people who provided support and guidance….” Unfortunately, the authors observed that although those students were genuinely trying to bounce back from adversity, “they were trying, in most cases, alone.”

We often conclude our Perseverance Process workshops with the observation that while perseverance is ultimately an individual act—a personal decision to stick with something in the service of a larger value or goal—young people most powerfully develop the capacity to persevere through relationships with others. It is developmental relationships that convince young people that perseverance often pays off, and that it is possible and empowering. Even more fundamentally, it is developmental relationships that show young people they are not “trying alone.”

Kent Pekel is President and CEO, and Peter C. Scales is Senior Fellow at Search Institute, a nonprofit applied research organization based in Minneapolis.