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Developmental Relationships

Relationships to help young people thrive.

Developmental relationships are essential to help young people discover how to become their best selves.

Through the benefits of developmental relationships, young people move beyond surviving to thriving. Strong developmental relationships help young people of every age, race, and socioeconomic background discover who they are, cultivate the ability to shape their own lives and destinies, and learn how to positively contribute to the world.

What are developmental relationships, and how can we intentionally create them in our schools, programs, families, and communities?

What are Developmental Relationships?

Developmental relationships are close connections through which young people discover who they are, cultivate abilities to shape their own lives, and learn how to engage with and contribute to the world around them. However, too few young people are experiencing the power of developmental relationships. We know that one in five young people report no developmental relationships in their lives at all; another 20% have only one. That needs to change.

Through developmental relationships, young people discover who they are, shape their own lives, and contribute to the world. They move beyond surviving to thriving and show signs of positive development in many areas, including:

  • Increased academic growth and learning
  • Increased social and emotional growth and learning
  • Increased sense of personal responsibility
  • Reduced engagement in a variety of high-risk behaviors

We have to agree that all young people deserve to feel like they are people of value and they are safe. When we establish that and provide access to meet their basic needs, it’s pretty amazing to see their resilience. And if we move beyond that and begin thinking about their aspirations and potential, we can create experiences that challenge them to grow, expand their possibilities and connect them to bigger things – opportunities, resources and networks.

Benjamin J. Houltberg, Ph.D., LMFT

CEO, Search Institute

The Developmental Relationships Framework

Search Institute created the Developmental Relationships Framework, five elements—expressed in 20 specific actions— that are proven to catalyze young people’s lives: express care, challenge growth, provide support, expand possibilities, and share power. Our research and tools are designed for anyone who works with youth to understand the current state of their relationships with young people and discover ways to help all young people thrive.

When young people experience these relationships in their families, schools, programs, and communities, they are more likely to be resilient in the face of challenges and to grow up thriving. A few important things to keep in mind:

  • Developmental relationships are dynamic and evolving, reflecting changes and variations in people, timing, and contexts.

  • Developmental relationships are about bi-directional, two-way development, not simply the socialization or training of young people.

  • How the elements are expressed varies across different kinds of relationships, cultures, and contexts.

  • The developmental relationship elements are interrelated and not meant to be comprehensive.

DR Framework graphic

Five Key Elements of Developmental Relationships

  • Express Care: Show me that I matter to you.

  • Challenge Growth: Push me to keep getting better.

  • Provide Support: Help me complete tasks and achieve goals.

  • Share Power: Treat me with respect and give me a say.

  • Expand Possibilities: Connect me with people and places to broaden my world.

Be dependable

Be someone I can trust.


Really pay attention when we are together.

Believe in me

Make me feel known and valued.

Be warm

Show me you enjoy being with me.


Praise me for my efforts and achievements.

Expect my best

Expect me to live up to my potential.


Push me to go further.

Hold me accountable

Insist I take responsibility for my actions.

Reflect on failures

Help me learn from mistakes and setbacks.


Guide me through hard situations and systems.


Build my confidence to take charge of my life.


Stand up for me when I need it.

Set boundaries

Put in place limits that keep me on track.

Respect me

Take me seriously and treat me fairly.

Include me

Involve me in decisions that affect me.


Work with me to solve problems and reach goals.

Let me lead

Create opportunities for me to take action and lead.


Inspire me to see possibilities for my future.

Broaden horizons

Expose me to new ideas, experiences, and places.


Introduce me to people who can help me grow.

Help Young People be and become their best selves.

Measuring Relationships

In order to develop critical relationships in schools and programs, it’s important to address the needs of all young people. The best way to discover how to do that is to ask young people themselves, by administering youth self-report surveys. These measurements give schools, programs, coalitions, and other organizations the insights they need to improve programs and have a greater impact on the lives of young people.

The Developmental Relationships Survey

Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships Survey measures the unseen factors that contribute to strong relationships between adults and youth. It helps schools and organizations examine their developmental relationships, social-emotional competencies, and equitable practices. The survey can be customized to meet your needs and helps schools and youth-serving organizations better understand and reflect on their developmental relationships, social-emotional competencies, and equitable environments.

Listening to Young People

Measuring the effectiveness of relationships is the first step to being able to implement the kinds of solutions that young people need to be and become their best selves. Providing an environment that is equitable for relationships to thrive is a primary responsibility of every school and program. We need to understand young people’s experiences of bias and discrimination, perceptions of safety and justice, and their experiences with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) measures.

A Better Future

Across the country, and the world, people who work closely with young people are recognizing the rewards of building relationship-rich organizations.

When young people are supported and challenged to become their best selves, a new world is possible.

Explore Our Solutions

At Search Institute, we have 60+ years of experience helping youth-serving organizations, schools, and caring adults turn research into real life impact. Reach out and let us help you strengthen Developmental Relationships so all young people can thrive.

Solutions CTA DR Topic Page

Find solutions that are right for you.

Workshops: Attend interactive training sessions to explore research, receive practical tools, and learn from others as you connect research and practice.

Data-informed Surveys: Use flexible and validated measurement tools to uncover what shapes relationships with adults and youth in your own relational ecosystem.

Continuous Improvement: Move through a year-long partnership with measurement tools, data interpretation sessions, and strategic support from our team.

Learn more

Our Research 

Our solutions are backed by our strong commitment to actionable research and measurement. For a summary of the historical development of this research, download Developmental Relationships: The Roots of Positive Youth Development: 10 Years of Youth Voice, Practitioner Wisdom, and Research Insights.

Selected Articles

Featured Resources

Relationships Check

Take a quick assessment

The Relationships Check is a tool for self-reflection and conversation designed to assess where relationships with young people are strong and where they can grow.

Developmental Relationships: The Roots of Positive Youth Development

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

A position paper reflecting on the last decade of research findings around developmental relationships and how practitioners, parents, educators, and all who interact with and serve youth, can work together to encourage and support thriving among young people.

The DR + Math Toolkit

Explore relationship-building tools and activities in math contexts

The DR + Math Toolkit supports and encourages math tutors and educators in building culturally responsive developmental relationships with young people through practical ideas, activities, and research.

Resources Hub

Explore free research-based tools, activities, measures and more so you can build lasting relationships where young people thrive.