Relationships Are Important. How Do We Build Them Effectively With Kids?

 (iStock/ChristinLola)

Kent Pekel realized the importance of relationships in his own life in a new way when his wife passed away after losing a fight with breast cancer. He was left to parent three young children on his own. His children's preschool teacher gave him a piece of advice that changed the course of his life and career: "From now on, it all depends on the relationships – your relationships with those three kids. The relationship is a thing."

He knew it was important advice, but wasn't quite sure how to follow it. Over his career as an educator at all levels and now as the president and CEO of the Search Institute, Pekel has been trying to pry open the "black box" of relationships to figure out how we form strong, developmental relationships with kids.

"A gigantic body of research shows that the relationships in a kid's life are like the roots of a tree," Pekel said during a TEDx talk. "When kids have strong roots they can grow, they can thrive, they can withstand the storms life throws at them."

But many kids are growing up in soil that is not rich and may even have toxins in it. The Search Institute researches relationships and has come up with five key elements that are essential to the type of relationship building that helps kids grow into healthy adults.

1. Express Care

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"The goal is not just a nice relationship, it's a developmental relationship,"Pekel said. And while caring is a necessary requirement for a developmental relationship, it isn't enough.

2. Challenge Growth

"There's always a propulsive element to a developmental relationships," Pekel said. These adults are constantly pushing young people to grow.

3. Provide Support

Support doesn't mean becoming a helicopter parent and taking away all opportunity for kids to attempt something on their own and fail. The independence to make mistakes is important, but kids also need someone there who can talk through the mistake and what they might try next. They can't be left completely alone, which also happens to some kids.

4. Sharing Power

As a former high school teacher, Pekel knows this one scares a lot of people who work with large groups of kids.

"It doesn't mean relinquishing power," Pekel said. "It means giving kids voice and choice and letting them lead in moments that are appropriate and in ways that reflect their developmental stages."

5. Expanding Possibilities

Kids need to be exposed to things outside their limited world view. "Introduce them to new people, new places, new concepts," Pekel said.


When kids have relationships that reflect these elements, "their outcomes are dramatically better." They are more likely to be motivated, socially responsible, ethical and empathetic. They're also more likely to get good grades and stay away from risky behaviors like alcohol, drugs and suicide.

"Unfortunately, our research is also showing that there's a small but very significant group of kids in our country today who are not experiencing developmental relationships with adults," Pekel said. Search Institute surveys of students show that one in five kids report no developmental relationship, and another 20 percent say they have one person who meets the description.

Given how important relationships are to setting a kid on a positive trajectory, Pekel says society needs to be talking not just about an "achievement gap," but about the "relationship gap" that is likely part of the problem.

There are lots of reasons for this relationships gap, but Pekel said Search Institute research is showing "pretty much everyone who works with kids -- and for a significant extent parents too -- knows that relationships matter." Everyone talks about the importance or relationships, "but the reality is the day in day out investment we make in relationships doesn't reflect the reality," Pekel said.

He's not blaming teachers or after school workers. He's worked with enough schools and teachers to know many building leaders emphasize the importance of building strong relationships. And teachers agree. But when Pekel asks them if they are given time to work on relationships, professional development around how to build and deepen them, or even data on what's working and what isn't, far fewer people raise their hands.

But there is research on what works. Pekel shared just one tool his staff have used in many different settings with young people called the "Four S's interview." It can take as little as 15 minutes or as long as an hour.

Sit down with a kid and ask to understand their "Four S's:

1. Sparks - These are the things that get a person up in the morning, their passions.

2. Strengths - These are the abilities or values that a person loves about themselves

3. Struggles - These are the challenges, the things that keep us up at night. They could be typical growing up things or more substantial trauma a student may be dealing with.

4. Supports - These are the people and environments that make a person feel accepted and like they can be themselves.

Pekel stresses that before an adult jumps into asking a young person these questions they need to explain the four parts of the protocol, and why they are doing it.

"You want to convey to that young person that 'I want to know your whole self.'" Pekel said. "'I want to know what's great about you and where you're struggling.'"

Setting the conversation up carefully also conveys to the student that the adult is leading them through a process. And the order matters. Students are much more likely to open up about something they love or are passionate about. And it's nice to talk about strengths too. That builds some rapport to get into challenges, but talking about support reminds students they aren't alone with those challenges. There are people and places where they feel safe, hopefully.

If done successfully, Pekel said, "You will have an understanding of that kid that can propel a relationship that can be truly powerful and developmental."

He knows this sounds exhausting, especially to teachers who may see hundreds of students in a day, year after year. But, he said, investing in this way is worth it. And with relationships, there aren't corners to cut.

"I'm sorry, but that's what it takes," Pekel said. "It does take that level of effort. It takes that level of intentionality about relationships."

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Building developmental relationships will not only help kids, but it will also be rewarding for the adult. Deciding not to invest in relationships yields trees whose roots are so malnourished they struggle to stay standing. And that's difficult for everyone.

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