Featured Community Mar 12

Putting intention behind teacher-student connections: Search Institute partner spotlight

The Partner Spotlight blog series highlights an organization that has been instrumental in the research, development, and content creation of Along. This month, we are focusing on Search Institute, an organization focused on promoting positive youth development, advancing equity, and building connections that help all young people learn and grow. Along spoke to Search Institute’s president/CEO Benjamin Houltberg about the organization’s latest report, Developmental Relationships: The Roots of Positive Youth Development, a deep look at the impact of relationships on youth outcomes.

Search Institute conducts research, trains educators, and creates resources about youth development. What are you most proud of in your work?

I am proud when we see young people lighting up, feeling heard, seen and experiencing a sense of purpose because they have strong relationships with the adults around them. And when the teachers see the value of our frameworks and tools because those enable them to support thriving among young people. That means we are advancing our mission.

At Search Institute, we firmly believe that actionable knowledge arises at the intersection of rigorous research, practitioner and community insights, and the voices of youth. Striking a delicate balance among these invaluable sources of wisdom allows us to adapt our work to diverse cultures, contexts, and experiences, ensuring that our efforts genuinely advance equity for all young people. Everything we do—research, practical strategies, surveys, learning experiences—has to be done with a focus on balancing rigorous research with the quality, effectiveness and usability of every tool we develop.

What surprised you most about the latest report on Developmental Relationships?

The importance of a relationship model that is geared towards the development of the kid is really critical. By focusing on a framework that helps people begin to have a shared language, it helps people meet those needs in better ways. When young people have a support system of people around them saying “we will go through this with you”, they feel like they are worthy of striving for excellence, they are capable, and they want someone to challenge their growth and expect the best of them. When we share power and allow kids to have a voice, we are allowing them to lead and we are expanding their possibilities. As I look at that report, there are a number of outcomes and correlations between GPA and multiple indicators of thriving and social emotional learning. The common sense of that is almost surprising.

What is the biggest disconnect between the findings and what most people think as it relates to youth relationships with adults?

Most people in the fields of education or youth-serving organizations are there because they care about young people.Though many of us think we are naturally good at relationships, when we unpack it, well, we can get better at doing this. It’s important to have a multi-dimensional view of relationships. There is something uniquely needed for adolescent youth that requires intentionality towards it. This is really a call to action to say, ‘How do we get more intentional about what we are doing? But also, how do we have accountability for this to be having the impact that we are intending it to have?’ That’s what we all want. We all want a thriving generation of young people. A lot of what’s built into Along is not just the questions or activities. It’s also about supporting that teacher to say, ‘What is some self reflection that I need to do? What are some ways that I can grow? What is the relational network around me like so that I can give to the young people in my classroom?’ That thread is really critical as we think about developmental relationships.

Can you share more about the specific importance of teacher-student connections? 

School is a critical space for developmental relationships and it’s one of the most challenging places to do it when it comes to the ratio of teacher to student. There are so many things that have to happen in school that are really critical. Within schools, developmental relationships are so critical because they not only link to social emotional things, but they link back to success. Your efforts around relationships matter and even in small ways they can make big differences, but you can’t tell people you need to do more because it’s so overwhelming right now. They are investments and they take time and it’s a process.

The other thing I would say in the school space in particular is it’s about the individual connections you can make, but it’s also about the shared purpose together. I think that’s really critical in school and here’s why. We can have strong developmental relationships with some kids, but there are some kids who can be more challenging. Some kids are being more shaped by how you’re interacting with all students, from different backgrounds. Developmental relationships are critical when we are talking about youth from diverse backgrounds and different identity groups. We know that cultural responsiveness as a backdrop is important. Knowing that when I walk in the classroom, my identity will be celebrated or affirmed, makes a huge difference in school. 

What are some things that school leaders or educators can do in the classroom to affect these connections?

I think the first step is really the shared understanding piece of creating a language around relationships and that they’re important. It’s just starting to say, ‘Are there kids we can identify and start to do little things across that team?’ I might see a teacher in the hall and say, ‘I had Johnny in class today and I can tell something is going on. Can you just check in with him and provide some support?’ There are little moments that can help set the norms and values. But then there are the actions needed in the supportive systems. The leader has to set that tone. We have to also celebrate these things when we see them and we have to be able to provide professional learning, which is an investment. What the teacher is doing at the classroom level and the individual level with the student, we also have to mirror that and make sure schools are also prioritizing relationships. And that is equally challenging when you talk about all the pressures of performance and the connection to state testing. I believe that when you invest in relationships and your culture, you can become a relationship-rich organization and you will perform better. Period. We have some evidence when you look at GPAs. I’ve found that in many of my own studies. I’ve seen it in the outstanding coaches out there that are doing this work. It is a performance issue to invest in relationships, period. When there is a deficiency in relationships, it will always undermine performance. 

Want to learn more about the Search Institute’s latest report? Check it out here.


And, for more information about Along’s partners, please read this blog.

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