Cultivating Connections: Resources to Foster Developmental Relationships in High School

As young people transition to high school, building strong relationships with adults and peers is critically important. Research shows that students who experience a strong web of Developmental Relationships (DR) in their families, classrooms, youth programs, and faith communities are likelier to thrive. Yet, many young people do not experience Developmental Relationships, and that number tends to decline as they reach adolescence. 
This blog will briefly discuss the Search Institute's Developmental Relationships framework and how the UChicago Network for College Success (NCS) utilizes it to help educators center student voice in their work. We will also share resources to help educators consider the best course of action to support and strengthen these relationships with their students.

What are Developmental Relationships?

Developmental Relationships are close connections with adults and peers that help young people shape their own lives, build resilience, and thrive. The Search Institute, an organization that promotes positive youth development, has identified five elements that make relationships powerful in young people's lives. These elements are…
  • Expressing care
  • Challenging growth
  • Providing support
  • Sharing power
  • Expanding possibilities. 
As previously stated, the framework is applicable to high school education, and educators can play a role in cultivating these relationships with their students.
By building relationships with high school students, particularly ninth-grade students, educators can help them successfully navigate their transition into high school and onto successful postsecondary pathways. Research has shown that when ninth-grade students experience high school positively in the first year, they are more likely to succeed to and through 12th grade. These kinds of strong, meaningful relationships not only support students in the classroom but can also help them discover who they are in the world.

Integrating Developmental Relationships into Our Work

When thinking about how to best utilize the framework, educators need to ask themselves whether or not they are centering “student voice” in their practice. Student voice emphasizes the importance of involving students in decision-making and giving them a meaningful role in shaping their educational experiences. 
NCS believes that when adults are attentive to student voice, they develop stronger relationships with students and create opportunities to transform school communities. Additionally, giving student voice power creates opportunities for youth to contribute to their school community, develop a sense of belonging, and build self-esteem. Listening and responding to student voice can, as a result, lead to stronger Developmental Relationships.
Counselors and educators partnering with the Network for College Success (NCS) have worked on Developmental Relationships within their respective school communities for over two years, including implementing the DR survey. The DR survey, also developed by the Search Institute, helps measure how young people perceive their relationships with important adults in their lives. This academic year, NCS’s Postsecondary and Freshmen Success Coaches are supporting partner school teams to analyze the survey data collected and test ways to improve practices that build stronger relationships with students. Learn more about our team’s focus areas on our website

Resources for Educators

Educators can find several resources to learn more about Developmental Relationships and how to support them in their respective contexts. Here are a few:
Resource #1: The Developmental Relationships Framework
The Developmental Relationships framework identifies five elements to strengthen and deepen the relationships that help young people grow and thrive. 
Decades of research from the Search Institute show that young people's development is rooted in their community and relationships. When they have high-quality, positive relationships with parents, teachers, mentors, and peers, they are more likely to develop resilience in the face of obstacles, grow, and develop social-emotional skills. 
See the Search Institute's webpage for more information and accompanying activities. 
Resource #2: "Relationships Matter"
This Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development article discusses the importance of positive relationships between teachers and students. 
Children share more with teachers who are affectionate and nurturing, leading to higher engagement and achievement. In addition, adolescents work harder for teachers who treat them as individuals and are interested in their personal lives outside school. 
Caring and supportive teachers hold students accountable while providing the necessary support to succeed. Teachers who feel respected, trusted, and cared about can offer the same support to their students. 
Sustained contact between teachers and students, small schools and class sizes, and multiyear grouping are some ways to support positive student-teacher relationships.
See the full article in the Tool Set B in “Understanding Research & Applying Data” of the Freshman On-Track Toolkit
Resource #3: "Easing the Transition to High School"
This article from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development highlights the importance of building relationships with ninth-grade students in high school, citing research that suggests that academic achievement is strongly influenced by the quality of a student's social environment and how strongly they feel attached to the school. 
The article goes on to highlight the success of one suburban high school's Freshman Advisory program, which is designed to build connections and provide academic and social survival skills. 
See the full article in the Tool Set B in “Understanding Research & Applying Data” of the Freshman On-Track Toolkit
Resource #4: Expanding 9th-Grade Possibilities to Combat the 3rd Quarter Slump
Earlier this year, we published a blog that discusses the 3rd quarter slump, a period when there is a significant drop in students' academic performance that threatens schools' progress. 
The Freshman Success Improvement Community (FSIC), a professional learning community facilitated by NCS that brings educators together to focus on ninth-grade transitions, is working to reduce the impact of the 3rd quarter slump using Developmental Relationships. 
The blog outlines nine elements to supporting ninth-grade students, including peer relationship activities, which allow students to build relationships with their peers. Another example includes family communication activities, which are used to engage families in community-building activities and gather feedback regarding the school's outreach efforts. 
Read the entire piece on the NCS blog

Building strong Developmental Relationships is crucial to helping high school students thrive and succeed in all aspects of their lives. Educators play a critical role in building and supporting these relationships. 
The Network for College Success is committed to integrating the theory and practice of Developmental Relationships into our professional learning spaces with educators and school leaders. By establishing and nurturing strong Developmental Relationships, educators can help students transition into high school, navigate academic and social challenges, and achieve their postsecondary goals.
If you are interested in learning about NCS’s approach to building transformational high school experiences for students, visit our homepage.