What is the “relationship gap” and why is it important?

By Search Institute

Helping Students Thrive: Closing the Relationship Gap in Schools and Youth Programs

We can not thrive in isolation. For young people, relationships are vital, because they are fundamental to their development. Relationships with caring adults are especially important for young people, and yet data routinely show that they don’t experience them as often or as intensively as they should.

We are learning more about what exactly happens in that “black box” of relationships and how to move organizations toward helping young people form the relationships they need to move into a thriving adulthood.

We have identified 5 key areas of a developmental relationship.

  • Expressing Care
  • Challenging Growth
  • Providing Support
  • Sharing Power
  • Expanding Possibilities

Studies indicate that when young people experience relationships that include those five elements their outcomes are significantly better and they are more likely to be on a positive path to the future. The problem is that many young people are not on that path. They are not experiencing enough of the life-affirming elements of developmental relationships, or not experiencing them often or intensively enough, to be transformative. They are caught in what we call a relationship gap.

What Can We Do To Close the Relationship Gap? 

Search Institute partnered with the Carlson Family Foundation in 2021 to conduct the State of Relationships study to find out what’s working and what’s not in creating relationship-rich spaces for all youth. This case study explored what schools and out-of-school time (OST) programs across one state are doing to build strong youth-adult relationships.

The study findings are from Minnesota but are relevant for any organization, school, or OST program that wants to invest in a relationship-rich organization. The series focuses on four critical aspects of becoming a relationship-rich organization.

  • Supporting Structures. The relational culture of an organization grows out of the supporting structures that prioritize and make space for relationship-building and recognize staff who are great relationship builders.
  • Intentional Relational Climate. Developmentally influential relationships do not happen by accident. Rather, we build those relationships with young people with explicit attention. This involves planning and regularly reflecting on ways to improve the connection.
  • Inclusive Relational Climate. The desire to belong and feel included are fundamental human needs. An inclusive relational climate prioritizes meeting this need and making all youth feel seen and welcome.
  • Equitable Relational Climate. Relationship-rich organizations center and continuously nurture equity in their relationship-building work. Leveraging relationships to meet youth where they are, and responding to their particular needs, is critical for bolstering individual young people’s developmental trajectories.

Turning Vision into Reality

While schools and OST programs are primarily committed to the goal of being relationally-rich spaces for all youth, we have considerable work to do in creating concrete, everyday ways to turn that vision into reality. Here’s what we’re learning about relationship building.

  • Most schools and OST programs express a commitment to relationship building, but not enough of them prioritize the financial, staffing, and other resources necessary for connecting with youth and building those vital relationships.
  • OST staff are consistently more likely than school staff to say they are intentional about ensuring their organizations are places where youth can be themselves and have a voice, and there is a strong sense of community, with clear rules that are consistently reinforced.
  • The vast majority of schools and programs valued being inclusive and equitable in promoting positive relationships among all groups of youth.

However, staff identify a number of barriers to being truly inclusive and equitable. These barriers include differences in the backgrounds of staff and the youth they serve and larger social issues, including the effects of systemic racism. Other issues include a lack of diversity in hiring and insufficient skills among staff for providing trauma-informed care and culturally responsive programs. It is important for leaders and staff to identify what their organization is doing well and uncover areas for improvement.

It’s All About the Relationships

The relational cultures of organizations ensure that all young people, regardless of background or circumstances, have the nurturing, support, and guidance they need to learn, grow, and thrive.

The findings from the Minnesota State of Relationships study provide opportunities for school and program staff and leaders to reflect on how they might work systematically and as individuals to create more relationship-rich, transformative spaces for the youth that they serve.

To access the resource, please click here.