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Importance of Developmental Relationships in Our Schools: What Research Is Telling Us

Importance of Developmental Relationships in Our Schools: What Research Is Telling Us

As a new school year approaches and administrators are evaluating the essential needs for students and staff, it is valuable to consider research on the importance of building effective relationships grounded in social-emotional learning (SEL) for academic success. Let’s take a closer look at what some of the research says, as well as aspects of relationship building that you can control through supportive curriculum and strategic tools. 

Search Institute’s data from a longitudinal study, the Developmental Relationships Enhance Academic Motivation (DREAM) project, in Bloomington, Minnesota, spanning the 2017–18 and 2018–19 school years, supports the importance of students’ perception of connection to adults as foundational in academic motivation. The findings show that developmental relationships between students and teachers propel motivation, learning, and academic achievement. 

Search Institute stated in the blog article, “Confronting Learning Loss by Building Developmental Relationships”:

The DREAM study looked at conditions and practices in schools that affected relationships between teachers and students—particularly those who have historically been marginalized and most affected by the [COVID-19] pandemic, including Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students and students from low-income backgrounds.

Here is what the DREAM study found:

  • Developmental relationships between students and teachers matter, especially for students from low-income backgrounds. 
  • A significant perception gap exists between students and teachers in how they rate their relationships with each other. 
  • As relationships improve over the school year, students report higher motivation levels. 
  • Most students report that their relationships with their teachers stay the same or get worse, especially students from low-income backgrounds. 
  • Students express clear ideas about how to improve their relationships with teachers (and teachers often agree). 

The main takeaway is that relationships matter at school, and when relationships are strong between students and educators, students can thrive. But how can you work to improve the dynamic in your school? Turns out, the answer might be in the right SEL program.

So how do I choose effective, connection-building curriculum? 

Supportive Curriculum:

Search Institutes’ Developmental Relationships Framework, identifies 5 elements and 20 specific actions that young people experience in relationships that affect their learning, growth, and development. Those five elements are: 

1. Express care: Actions that exhibit trust and show that the young person is known and valued

Curriculum should actively elevate student voice and have easy ways for teachers to engage around their reflections. This provides educators with a specific opportunity to know what is going on in their lives and to express care about a student’s world, passions, and challenges. It also allows educators to respond and intervene in timely ways when it is called for.

2. Challenge growth: Actions that push people to live up to their potential, take responsibility for their actions, and learn from setbacks and failures

Supportive SEL curriculum is rooted in evidence-based practice and engages students in deep thinking about their lives, skills, and interactions. Courses should include student voice about where they are now, opportunities for learning about the brain, skills for developing in the course focus area, and “what’s next” planning to challenge growth from where students are now to where they can be or where they see themselves.

3. Provide support: Actions that help the other person complete tasks and achieve goals, even in difficult situations 

Curriculum should provide support by building the skills of those engaged with it from where they are and should provide educators with guidance about lessons and common language for challenging topics as well, as the ability to explore their own SEL learning.

4. Share power: Actions that show respect, give choices, and give a voice to the other person

Strong SEL curriculum allows students to share power to tell their stories from where they are, to learn about and empower themselves in expanding their skills and dreams. Good curriculum should also empower educators with information about what students find important, laying the groundwork with easily accessible data for educators to engage with students and build connections. 

5. Expand possibilities: Actions that connect the young person to people, places, and ideas that broaden their options and opportunities for the future

Access to BASE Education courses like All or Nothing Thinking (grades 6–12), Growth Mindset (grades 1–5), Future Goals, Vision of Self, Empathy, Equity, and Healthy Relationships expand possibilities for students on the concept of who they are, who they want to be, and who they can be.

BASE Education’s grades 1–12 SEL curriculum meets the criteria of these five elements.  As students regulate their emotions and behaviors, develop relationship skills and social awareness, and practice critical decision making to plan for their futures, BASE Education is a powerful tool at the heart of that work.

Systemic Measurement and Strategy Tools:

Effective implementation of any curriculum is greatly dependent on school culture. So, you might ask, “How do I know if my school’s culture meets the psychological safety needs of the school community necessary for growing strong, schoolwide developmental relationships?” Here is a simple tool to help you think about this systemically.

You might also ask, “How can I measure connection in my school so that I can get a sense of how my students perceive relationships?” Here is a mapping resource from Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project that I have used. I think it is essential, given the research from Search Institute, to start with the extension activity, which allows students to map their perceived connection first/at the same time. Their perception is what drives academic motivation.

“Restoring and deepening high-quality developmental relationships can help young people gain the confidence and motivation they need to succeed in school and propel learning, even after the disruptions of the pandemic,” the Search Institute concludes.

Learn more about how Edmentum and BASE Education can support building these important developmental relationships in your district with over 100 SEL courses and flexible implementation.

Thank you to Search Institute for inclusion of its research in this post.

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Jen Perry

Jen Perry currently serves as the Director, Whole Learning and SEL at Edmentum. Jen joined Edmentum as the Learning Designer for Social-Emotional Learning after 30+ years of work with youth in educational and community settings. As a teacher, administrator, and trainer, her passion has been to help educators develop an understanding of the importance of social and emotional learning and build trauma-informed responses and systems. This work has included supporting youth, administrators, and schools in understanding behavior and implementing transformational change through strength-based approaches.