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A Conversation with:
Dr. Benjamin Houltberg

This month, we spoke with Dr. Benjamin Houltberg, president and CEO of the Search Institute, a leading voice on the critical role relationships play in teaching and learning and youth development.

Dr. Benjamin Houltberg, Ph.D., LMFT, is a developmental scientist, former tenured faculty member, social entrepreneur, and experienced marriage and family therapist. He has published widely on topics such as adolescent social and emotional competencies, resilience through relationships, and character and identity development through sports. Learn more.

At NTC, we are committed to the understanding that teaching and learning is a dynamic human relational exchange. Can you talk about what you mean at the Search Institute by “developmental relationships” as opposed to just “relationships?”

Everybody will tell you relationships are important. They’re vital. People in schools talk about it. But when you really think about how much actual time and energy and intentionality are invested in relationships, it can be challenging. Life in schools is busy. Teachers have lots of kids in and out of their classrooms every day. So, how do we get better at relationships? What are the key ingredients to relationships that really meet the developmental needs of young people that we serve?

What we are talking about are the close connections that help young people discover who they are, what is unique that they have to offer the world. These are the kinds of relationships that give them some sense of autonomy, that they can shape the world they live in, including ways they can contribute to the community right now.

There’s an opportunity while young people are developing a sense of identity — of who they are and what their strengths are — to recognize and develop their competencies. We can help connect their interests, their “sparks,” the things they have to offer, to opportunities and resources to use them. This is what we mean by developmental relationships, which we can think about as what our former CEO, the late Peter Benson, called them, the “oxygen of youth development.”

When we can build close connections across a young person’s networks in a way that brings out their internal assets, and then we’re intentional about aligning those with opportunity and resources, that’s when you see the magic happen. You see the spark, and the relationships are the oxygen that ignites the spark and helps spread their light, their capacity for impact, into the world.

We do a lot of work with upper elementary school aged students, middle and high school through emerging, early adulthood. We developed the developmental relationships framework to capture some, not all, of the elements of relationship building that are fundamental to that kind of developmental connection that are important as a child grows and matures — express care, challenge growth, provide support, share power, expand possibilities. It’s a framework for action that we hope empowers and enables teachers. It’s not another thing to add to their plates; that’s the last thing teachers need to hear right now is “do more.” Instead, the framework can help them start to think “what am I already doing well?” and then, “What are some of the things I could do better?” And maybe even, “who are the other folks that I can build a shared understanding with to support this student?”

Developmental relationships are the connective tissue [for teaching and learning]. It’s not something that can be a “nice to have.” It’s its own strategy, and requires intentionality. And it has to be inclusive.

Can you touch on your research about how a student’s developmental relationships decline in adolescence? What is the impact, and how does that relate to opportunity gaps?

The five elements of developmental relationships can sometimes seem to make more sense in elementary school. Teachers at those grade levels tend to think in those kinds of terms. But from middle school to high school, we often see a trend where those deep, close connections start to diminish a little bit. And when you think of what’s happening developmentally for students during this time, what they need is more opportunity — we need to share power and expand possibilities with and for them. Students need to be able to take leadership roles and have voice and choice. So that’s something we have to start to explore more.

One of the big discoveries that continues to come up when we talk to teachers and the other adults in the school building (and also in out-of-school spaces) is they will tend to report out pretty high on the five elements. But when we ask the young people about those relationships, the reality is there’s a gap between what the adults are saying (or what they intend) and what the young people are experiencing. I think that gap is actually where the opportunity is, to say, “what does expressing care look like for this group of students? What does it mean for kids to feel supported? Are there some cultural differences that come into play?”

One place students and adults tend to agree is in terms of challenging growth. Students do feel, in school settings, that yes, teachers are challenging them to learn and grow. But, that’s where those other areas become so critical. We have to know how we can speak to those areas of growth with a holistic approach aligned with what that high school student needs, who they are.

Another point of difference is the communication between the teacher and family. We see decreases there from elementary school to high school as well. As we think about social connection and the importance of relationships for youth transitioning into adulthood, I do think there’s opportunity in high school to be more intentional there. When we are thinking about their access and pathways to education and careers, [families are still] really critical.

How can we support building developmental relationships in schools? What do relationship-rich classrooms look like and how do they promote equity?

It takes collective action. It’s not just the dyadic relationship but also the relational climate. How do we build a shared understanding that moves into a shared identity where everybody feels like they’re contributing to that relational climate in a building, even in their own unique ways? It’s not assimilation. It’s group identity in the sense of “I bring who I am to add to the relational climate, we have shared purpose, we’re all on the same page.” That piece is really important. You can’t be all things to all kids by yourself, but as a community, we can.

The elements of developmental relationships [are evident across the school day], from the time a student walks in the door and is greeted by the receptionist to the coach, to the bus driver, to the teacher. Relationship-rich schools and organizations [engage in] collective action, linking arms around the shared understanding that, as Peter Benson used to also say, “all kids are our kids.” As a group, how do we create these spaces for kids where they have connections with adults and with each other, and they feel like they belong? They feel seen, heard, valued, and safe.

Those are the fundamentals we can all agree every kid deserves. They deserve to have their basic needs met (e.g., food and housing security, health). And they also deserve those basic building blocks — to feel seen, heard, valued, and safe. [If we believe that], there’s really no “magic” to resilience, or as Ann Masten says, resilience is “ordinary magic.” It’s not about a mindset. It’s not about the individual. It’s about our community. Those are the basics we have to all agree on. Then, we have to go a step further and say, it’s not just about having basic needs met and being seen, heard, and valued and safe. It’s about creating conditions for kids to thrive, for their sparks and their interests, and their passions to be aligned with opportunity.

What would be your recipe for “ordinary magic” in a school setting or a classroom?

Climates are really hard to measure, but you know them when you see them. The ordinary magic of a classroom setting is when a kid walks into a classroom, and there’s a sense of belonging; they’re not just a number. I know your story. It’s intentional, creating a safe space where something is happening at a group level that’s bigger than the sum of the parts, that invites the kids into the learning process.

Creating some cohesion in the classroom where everybody knows what to expect, where there’s predictability to it, the group can take on the social norms of the space, right? To me, the ordinary magic of that is, as a young person, I walk in and feel like I’m known. That I have someone to turn to if I need to. I feel safe that I know what to expect, and I know that if I need help, that there’s gonna be someone to help me navigate that experience together. There’s room for mistakes. There’s room for genuine care for people. Again, we have to be aware of those basic needs, but if those conditions are provided for kids emerge resilient.

However, when there are inequities or structural barriers and kids are deprived of those fundamentals, that really undermines resilience. That’s where we start to see more negative outcomes start to emerge. In school, we need to become, I can’t remember who said it, “architects of the kids’ context.” And when we are architects of their context in school in a way where discrimination and racism has no function in that space, we are advancing equity at a classroom level.

There’s important work to be done at the structural, historical, and institutional levels, of course, but when we think about creating classrooms as spaces and places of healing, where kids experience all the core elements of developmental relationships, that becomes really powerful. Because, when we think of trauma or adversity or challenges, those are relational wounds, and those relational wounds require relational healing. So when I’m thinking about these classroom spaces, I’m thinking of the ingredients that allow kids to begin to reorient themselves to a world where they’re not devalued, where they are people of value, where they are seen, where they’re lifted up, where they’re safe. That can start to create those physiological shifts for kids. The power of relationships is they impact us at the molecular, physiological, and neurological levels.

Early in my career, I studied the physiology of emotions and emotional regulation — how context and relationships are powerful in changing physiological responses to situations. I’ll give you an example. I started out as a practitioner, as a licensed family therapist working in community settings and in schools. Take a kid who walks out their front door and is in a neighborhood where they have to be alert, aware of their surroundings so they can react and respond, adaptable physiologically. The body records that in a way that sets them up towards a heightened physiological response.

Then, in the classroom, what happens physiologically is that arousal can inversely impact that child’s ability to take in abstract information. Then someone accidentally bumps into them, or a teacher calls them out in a way that triggers some of that physiological response. At this point, they’re still looking for threats, so they will react and respond, and we can interpret [that response] in all kinds of ways. To get that young person to have a soothing experience physiologically in those spaces requires that predictability, that relationship, that care, that continuous no-matter-what caring for this young person. That will begin to have an impact physiologically on how they walk into that space — they don’t have to be on the defense, they don’t have to be looking for threats.

That’s the part we sometimes miss when we think about why it’s important to create these spaces for young people. Especially when we’re talking about groups that have been historically marginalized or victimized. Relational wounds require relational healing. The science behind the power of relationships cannot be overstated.

Do we need to focus on developmental relationships between the adults in a school building and within the wider educational ecosystem?

This is a question that has come up for us so many times when we’re working with schools and practitioners. The developmental relationships framework feels like it naturally applies to the relationship between two people. But think about all the give and take of relationships in the school building that shape the school climate and relational climate. We are now studying this at a deeper level looking at the educator-to-educator relationship. What are some of the key ingredients of these relationships and how does that impact youth?

We know the turnover rate of teachers right now, the stress in these systems is high. So relationships become really core to being able to sustain teachers, to prevent burnout, to feel like “we’re in this together.” There’s this kind of shared purpose, that we are bonding around the mission of what we can agree on when it comes to impact for young people. It’s not friendships and who you go out with for happy hour. We’re talking about something different. How do we begin to think about a common bond around shared purpose that allows us to have connectivity and connection and provides a sense of group identity of where we’re headed together?

This becomes really critical in the school building where there’s often a vertical relationship and existing power differentials between leadership, the admin level, and staff. That’s where you can use the framework to think about things like shared power and expanding possibilities, for thinking horizontally. Teachers really want to feel a sense of belonging in these spaces. They want to acknowledge the burnout and the mental health challenges and for there to be more openness in these spaces. We’re discovering the need for the supporting structures to be in place. It’s one thing for a principal or a superintendent to say, we value relationships, but then no resources are put towards it. It’s not even part of teacher evaluation.

We did a landscape analysis in Minnesota and then linked it to some of the broader national data looking at staff and leadership perceptions around the core elements of relationships in the school building. We found that the same kind of gaps that exist between students and teachers/adults also exist between staff and leadership. For example, we asked about prioritizing relationships within the school, and there was a big gap. Like 80% at the staff level either agreed or strongly agreed that it was important to prioritize relationships, but only 45% reported that they agreed or strongly agreed that leadership prioritized relationships. This is where the system comes into play. It’s not just about the developmental relationships, it’s about the conditions, the climate, and the supporting structures that allow those developmental relationships to really build and thrive.

We are now exploring adult-adult relationships in much more detail because we’re seeing how those relationships impact youth outcomes. We’ll have more findings in that area as we move forward — how do you create relationship-rich schools from the standpoint of leadership, providing the supporting structures for building a relational climate that supports kids day to day.

Do you think the traditional school and classroom structures are a barrier to relationship-rich culture, or do you think that you can build development relationships in any space?

As you know, the model of schools hasn’t changed much, right? In a long time. We think about learning now in a different way, and we know so much more from the science. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang at USC talks about “deep learning” and challenges some of the ways that schools are set up right now, from a neuroscientist’s standpoint but also from an educational policy standpoint. She discovered that there is learning happening in parts of our brain — I guess what some call the reptilian parts at the base of our brain — that we never thought were associated with learning and that learning was enhanced when there was some sort of meaningful connection to the content or person. I think we’ve separated this in some ways, as if learning is teaching to the executive functioning of the brain, the cognitive pieces. But really, we can’t separate that cognition and emotion and relationships because they’re so intertwined.

I think we can get drastically better by making small changes in the way that schools are set up right now and thinking about the classroom setting. Advisory groups, or other activities in school, sports — we have to start asking the question, “where can kids get these kinds of [relational experiences] that are really important in the current school structure?” We also have to ask really important questions about equity and access to those types of activities.

There is a conversation about transformational change in our public school system. The way we think about experiential learning and how we think about the relationships at the core of that experiential learning. What does it mean to truly prepare young people for the world, whether that’s through educational pathways or career pathways? I want us to be a part of those transformational conversations too, but in the meantime, we also wanna be in the business of change within the current structures we have. And I think that is possible too.

Can you talk about how developmental relationships are more than a one-way exchange?

Developmental relationships are bi-directional, right? I think we often miss the dynamic nature of relationships if we are just talking about the one-sided transactional way that they too often work in schools. But really it’s that invitation for young people to be active shapers of their environments. We know that when youth have the opportunity to speak to the way their classrooms are set up, for example, they will speak up and they will give you incredible solutions for complex challenges.

But if it stops there, if you’re just checking the box by asking, it can actually lead to more mistrust, because that’s not mutual influence. You have to make changes based on their feedback. When youth experience that, when their voice makes a difference, now we’re starting to move into the bi-directional. We have to be open as adults to be in a position of mutual influence with young people, considering their insights and wisdom and their experience and validating that experience in a way that is meaningful. The young person is influencing the teacher, and the teacher is influencing the young person. That bi-directional nature of our relationships is so critical for us to strive for. I think sometimes we forget that building a relationship is an intervention in and of itself.