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Rooted in Relationships: Episode 2.5 Clay Cook


Rooted in Relationships: Episode 2.5 Clay Cook

Resource Audience

Adults Youth Program Leaders Teachers School / Youth Program Staff School / Youth Organization Leaders District Leaders

Resource Type


Read Time

31-60 Minutes

Clay Cook - Establish, Maintain, Restore

How do you implement relationships with young people and keep those relationships intact over a long period of time? In this episode of Rooted in Relationships we talk with Clay Cook, John W. and Nancy E. Peyton Faculty Fellow in Child and Adolescent Wellbeing at the University of Minnesota. Clay discusses the Establish, Maintain and Restore system of approaching intentional relationships with young people, and how something as simple as greeting students at the classroom door can have incredible effects on relationship-building.

Welcome to the Rooted in Relationships podcast, where we talk with renowned researchers and experts to explore how connections to resources, relationships and social networks provide the key conditions that all young people need to thrive. Kicking off season two of the podcast, Search Institute CEO Ben Houltberg introduces Kent Pekel, education leader and former CEO of Search Institute. Today, Kent is joined by Clay Cook to discuss the establish, maintain and restore system of approaching intentional relationships with young people. Clay is the John W. and Nancy E. Payton Faculty Fellow in Child and Adolescent Wellbeing and at the University of Minnesota. He is also a Professor and core faculty member in the Institute of Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health.

To begin, Clay walks us through his own journey which led him to the career he has today. Many of his family’s struggles transferred into Clay’s own educational experience. Sports and the relationship he had with a teacher during his alternative education is what ultimately kept him in school. He later became a paraprofessional, middle school math teacher and school psychologist. Once he caught the research bug, he wanted to understand how we can increase kid’s access to daily enriching experiences which they need to be well, engaged in learning experiences and live happy, healthy, effective lives.

Then, Ben explains the “establish, maintain and restore” system he has created alongside colleagues for fostering positive teacher-student relationships. It introduces common language around relationships and support to help people implement certain deliberate and intentional relational interactions with children. Teachers are able to access resources about how to establish and sustain relationships with their students. A project within the Institute of Education Sciences is currently analyzing prevention strategies as kids transition into high school. They also have an equity playbook which includes levers to consider when engaging with kids. The process also includes social awareness raising, encompassing things like who does and doesn’t have access to specific kinds of relationships. This exists within a PLC which ends with student-specific relationship action plans geared towards those students in vulnerable relationship states.

Several years ago, Clay worked on a study which concluded that how teachers greet their students at the classroom door can have surprising implications on behavior and engagement. There are certain things a teacher can do to have a positive effect on students in this one simple interaction. They can create a welcoming interaction so every child feels seen and utilize pre-correction for behaviors which happen outside of the classroom. You want the transition into your classroom to be high interest and student-driven. Seeing students walk in as individuals has the potential to shift a teacher’s style of teaching.

In order for social emotional learning (SEL) to avoid becoming just another fad, Clay believes schools need to start defining the enriching, daily experiences kids need to develop and grow. The fact that humans need certain relational experiences will never go out of importance. Implementation science suggests things like policy, classroom practice, intervention or programs are effective. 80% of implementation failures, Clay reveals, are due to lack of readiness work. Implementation boils down to behavioral change. Improvement science, however, is more about using data to understand and solve problems at the root rather than implement an intervention.

The relationships among the adults in a school is a large factor affecting the psychological safety of students. There must be general climate indicators among the adults to create enablers of implementation-specific supports the teachers are being asked to engage in. As the episode draws to a close, Clay breaks down how organizations should be thinking about and responding to the growing mental health challenges kids are being faced with today. Finally, he identifies the most important thing we have learned during the pandemic.


0:34 - Ben Houltberg introduces himself, Kent Pekel and today’s episode.

1:31 - Kent introduces today’s guest, Clay Cook.

2:00 - Clay’s path leading him to this work in relationship building and children’s mental health.

8:22 - The establish, maintain, restore system.

17:13 - Clay’s work around positive greetings at the door.

24:50 - SEL avoiding becoming just another education fad of the moment.

30:37 - Can relationships be scaled?

32:07 - Implementation science.

37:30 - The impact of the relationships among the adults in schools.

41:07 - How organizations should be responding to the mental health challenges in schools.

48:06 - What have we learned from the pandemic?

Follow Benjamin Houltberg.

Learn more about Search Institute.

Learn more about Clay Cook.