Making the invisible visible: Student survey helps schools take action in building and maintaining student relationships

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Nov 18, 2020

COVID-19 has amplified the importance of relationships in students’ lives. Although schools are innately relationship-centered, even prior to the pandemic, only a small fraction of them were measuring students’ access to relationships and ensuring that positive relationships are equitably distributed. A long list of competing measurement priorities on tight budgets is certainly part of the challenge. Metrics tied directly to dollars or accountability—like enrollment, retention and graduation rates, or test scores—tend to take precedence. 

But there’s another reason that schools may be doing little to measure students’ relationships: a lack of well-established metrics. The field needs better tools for assessing all of the ways in which students are accessing and mobilizing relationships, and for measuring the resources and opportunities those networks unlock. Particularly with the rise of tech-enabled tools to broker and maintain connections, and as school systems devise new ways of staying connected to students, measurement can ensure that innovations scale with quality. In the current and post-pandemic years to follow, a school-wide plan for how to build and maintain strong student relationships will be mission-critical.

Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Kent Pekel, President and CEO of the Search Institute, a nonprofit that conducts research to promote positive youth development. Recognizing the dearth of reliable methods and metrics for measuring students’ relationships, his team launched the Developmental Relationships Survey. We discussed insights from their recent survey with middle and high school students; why they felt it was critical to add measures for equitable practices; and why actionable data on students’ relationships, both in- and out-of-school, and anchored in students’ own voice, is a must.

Mahnaz Charania: The Search Institute is best known for the Developmental Assets Framework. What was the impetus for launching the Developmental Relationships Survey? 

Kent Pekel: Everyone who works with young people in a school or a program knows that relationships matter tremendously to youth development. There is also a huge body of research that shows they are right about that. That said, research had not done much to help those practitioners build the kinds of relationships that help young people grow and thrive. So in 2013, my colleagues and I launched a program of applied research through which we are working to study and strengthen developmental relationships. Through both quantitative and qualitative studies, we have created the Developmental Relationships Framework, which identifies five essential elements of a developmental relationship: expressing care, challenging growth, providing support, sharing power, and expanding possibilities. The Framework breaks each of those five elements down into even more specific actions that adults can take to build developmental relationships with young people in their classes, groups, and also in their families. 

As we have conducted our research, we have developed and validated survey questions that measure young people’s experience of developmental relationships and factors that are related to them, such as the development of important social and emotional competencies. We are now making those measures available to schools and programs through the Developmental  Relationships Survey in order to help them assess and improve the relationships they build with young people. When practitioners see the data they receive through the survey, it is often incredibly enlightening and empowering because it makes visible what has often seemed invisible. The quality of relationships can be measured in valid and reliable ways and if they can be measured, they can be improved.

Charania: Your team recently published an Insights and Evidence brief in which you dig deeper into the intersection of developmental relationships, equitable environments, and SEL. What are some of the findings that emerged? What do the middle and high school students want us to know? 

Pekel: The brief summarizes data from a survey of 12,796 young people in grades 6-12 and it utilizes many of the measures that are included in the Developmental Relationships Survey. Analysis of that data told us that there is room for improvement in the relationships young people experience in schools, out-of-school time (OST) programs, and student support programs that work in schools like City Year and Communities in Schools. While 45% of those young people reported that they have strong relationships with their teachers and program staff, another 45% reported they have only moderately strong relationships and 10% told us they experience weak relationships. 

Of the five elements in our Developmental Relationships Framework, the element young people experienced most often and intensively in their schools and programs was challenging growth. The element they experienced at the lowest level was expanding possibilities.

We also found big differences in how young people and adults view their relationships. While 86% of the adults reported they build strong developmental relationships with young people, only 45% percent of the youth who attend the same schools and programs reported that they experience strong developmental relationships. We don’t know exactly what causes that discrepancy in youth and adult perceptions of relationships, and so it is an issue we will explore through future research. We can say right now, however, that one of the reasons that data like this is so valuable is that it gives us insight on how young people are actually experiencing relationships rather than how we think or hope they are experiencing relationships. 

Charania: COVID-19 is blurring the somewhat arbitrary lines between in-school and out-of-school relationships. And historically, schools haven’t been great at understanding the array of connections students have beyond campus. What do you see, from the data, that students are gaining from these out-of-school experiences that is worthwhile for schools to be aware of? 

Pekel: The data really highlights the powerful role that out-of-school programs and student support programs play in connecting young people to developmental relationships. 70% of the young people reported that they experience strong relationships in OST programs and 62% said they experience strong relationships in student support programs that work in schools but that are not staffed by school employees. In contrast, only 40% of the respondents reported they experience strong developmental relationships with their teachers in schools. While that finding suggests that schools can and should do more to help teachers and other school staff build developmental relationships with all students, the reality is that educators face many constraints in achieving that objective, starting with the fact that they must help students master a lot of important academic content. Given those constraints, our data suggest that increasing youth participation in OST and student support programs is another way to powerfully enhance young people’s experience of developmental relationships. 

It is precisely because developmental relationships with adults outside the home are so important that what we are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic is so concerning. Despite the incredible work that many practitioners are doing to connect with young people via technology, we know that it can be very difficult to make close personal connections during a group session on Zoom or another platform. And evidence suggests that a lot of kids aren’t logging on at all. That loss of connection to adults outside the home is a problem for all young people, but our data suggest it may be especially damaging for young people from certain communities. For example, our data, which was collected before the pandemic, suggest that Black/African American and Asian/Pacific Islander youth are much more likely to experience developmental relationships with staff in their schools and programs than their Multiracial, White, or Native American peers. If that is, in fact, the case, then being disconnected from schools and programs could have a disproportionately negative effect on those Black/African American and Asian/Pacific Islander youth. 

Charania: I’m excited to see the newly released version of the survey also includes measures of students’ social capital, given the significant but oft-ignored role that networks play in the opportunity equation. What led to this decision and what insights should schools and programs take from this data? 

Pekel: I am excited about that too. While our applied research initially focused on understanding and strengthening 1-to-1 relationships between young people and adults, it is now moving to understand the broader web of relationships that help young people and young adults thrive. That is where our new work on social capital is broadening the lens through which we think about developmental relationships. In particular, it is expanding our work on relationships between young people and adults in schools, programs, and families to encompass peer-to-peer relationships between young people. It is also expanding our work to include the relatively brief interactions with adults that might not be very long in duration and that may not have a significant emotional element, but that are nonetheless very important for personal development and advancement. For example, an adult who helps a young person or a young adult get a job interview might not constitute a full developmental relationship, but that adult has still played a powerful role in shaping that young person’s life trajectory. 

At present, the Developmental Relationships Survey includes one scale (which is a group of questions) that schools and programs can use to measure their students’ social capital. It’s a good measure but quite brief. By the fall of 2021, we will be able to make available much more robust measures of social capital that we are now developing through collaboration with the Christensen Institute and six nonprofit organizations, all which focus on strengthening social capital among young people and young adults from Black, Latinx, and low-income communities. All of those programs also help their participants prepare for and gain entry to postsecondary education, the workforce, or both. The development of these new practical and actionable measures of social capital is being funded by the Equitable Futures Initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and I really look forward to being able to make the measures widely available before the start of the 2021-2022 school and program year. 

Charania: As more schools and afterschool programs shift to becoming more purposeful brokers for students’ social capital, how do you recommend they integrate the Developmental Relationships Survey into their strategic priorities? 

Pekel: Many schools and programs don’t have much experience digging into data on relationships, and so I would urge them to just get started by using a validated instrument like the Developmental Relationships Survey to establish a baseline that can inform initial dialog about the state of relationships in their organizations. When they do that, it is really important to ensure that all young people complete the survey. If you only capture the perspectives of some of the youth you serve, there is a good chance you will miss capturing the perspectives of the young people who experience developmental relationships the least but need them the most.

Once you have the data, spend time not only with staff but also with young people talking about it and making meaning of it before you develop strategies to improve. We are currently creating a new workshop to help organizations do that, which we will offer in both virtual and in-person formats. In designing that workshop, we have found that bringing people together to look at data on relationships in itself strengthens relationships. So when it comes to building relationships, the assessment can also be an intervention.  

Mahnaz Charania, PhD is a senior research fellow at the Christensen Institute. Her work focuses on studying disruptive innovations in education that amplify equitable opportunities for students to achieve social and economic mobility. In her current role, she leverages her deep expertise in measurement and evaluation to drive innovations that expand students' social capital.