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Developmental Relationships: The Roots of Positive Youth Development

10 Years of Youth Voice, Practitioner Wisdom, and Research Insights

It is difficult, if not impossible, to find any positive developmental outcome that isn’t shaped by relationships.

Increased academic motivation, greater self-awareness, a sense of purpose. How do we ensure young people aren’t just surviving, but thriving? Young people are more likely to grow up successfully when they experience developmental relationships with important people in their lives. 

Following a decade of work, we are excited to share Developmental Relationships: The Roots of Positive Youth Development, a position paper that reflects on the last decade of research findings around developmental relationships and discusses how practitioners, parents, educators, and all who interact with and serve youth, can work together to encourage and support thriving among young people.

Developmental Relationships by the Numbers

Search Institute conducted numerous quantitative and qualitative studies of developmental relationships involving youth and young adults, parents, and teachers and youth development program workers.

We also engaged in a deep partnership over three years with five national youth-serving organizations to help them put developmental relationships more deeply into practice. Through those partnerships, we co-created the Rooted in Relationships Model of organizational growth and change in order to help organizations become more relationally-rich places. We also commissioned FrameWorks Institute to help us better understand how experts and the public think about developmental relationships and how to cultivate them, an effort that involved another 7,200 youth, parents, program and policy experts, and adult members of the public in surveys and in-depth interviews.

Youth & Young Adults




Teachers & Youth Development Program Workers


This was grounded in more than two decades of work creating, studying, and applying the Developmental Assets® Framework and a decade of work studying young people’s development of deep personal interests or sparks and their relation to youth thriving.

Inherent in the decades of our applied research efforts toward understanding and building youth developmental assets, sparks, and thriving, was a commitment to equity, the principle that all young people deserved and needed these relationships and opportunities in order to develop positively and contribute beyond themselves.

It is at the intersection of youth voice, practitioner wisdom, and research insights that our Developmental Relationships Framework was created.

The positive link between developmental relationships and positive youth outcomes have been observed in both cross-sectional studies and longitudinal research that follows the same youth over time. When developmental relationships increase over time, so do positive youth development outcomes. The Developmental Relationship Framework provides a map that youth-serving organizations can orient around for creating a relationally-rich climate as a collective.

DR Framework graphic
"If we can all agree that every single young person deserves the opportunity to be seen, heard, valued, and safe, we need to start asking who is not feeling these things and why."
Benjamin Houltbert, Ph.D., Search Institute CEO Developmental Relationships: The Roots of Positive Youth Development

Perception Gap

There is often a large gap between what adults report and youth experience. Less than 3 in 10 youth have strong developmental relationships with at least 4 of 5 important adults in their life (parents, teachers, youth program staff), and 2 in 10 youth have no such strong developmental relationships at all.

All young people need and deserve developmental relationships, but not all youth have them. What gets in the way?

  • lack of resources
  • unmet needs
  • economic constraints
  • life experiences
  • racism and discrimination

We have to work together to remove the barriers that get in the way of building developmental relationships with youth.

Perception gap 2

Relationships are a journey, not a destination.

All young people need developmental relationships. More specifically, all young people need to be part of a network of relationships with a range of people—parents, peers, program staff, educators—that support their growth across settings and across different points of development.

This kind of work will be the focus of Search Institute’s efforts over the next decade, in order to help organizations, communities, and individual change agents intentionally cultivate developmentally powerful and inclusive connections among adults and youth, among youth peers, and among the adults around youth, that together provide equitable opportunity for all young people.

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Developmental Relationships: The Roots of Positive Youth Development

A position paper that reflects a decade of research findings and insights on relationships.

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