Relationships First

Creating Connections that Help Young People Thrive

“It’s all about relationships.” That statement has become a cliché, whether the focus is on parenting, mentoring, teaching, coaching, raising money for a cause, getting a job, or finding a partner. And the cliché has research behind it: We’ve known for decades that high-quality relationships are essential to young people’s growth, learning, and thriving—including for those young people who face serious challenges in their lives and in the world around them. 

Yet, as many as 40 percent of young people feel lonely.11,26 If we say relationships really matter, how do we make them a true priority for all young people to experience? How much do we invest in high-quality relationships in our families, schools, and youth programs?

Growing evidence suggests that strategically and systematically investing in building developmental relationships can be catalytic for effective education, programs, and services for children, youth, and families. 

Researchers Li and Julian wrote:

The effectiveness of child-serving programs, practices, and policies is determined first and foremost by whether they strengthen or weaken developmental relationships. . . . When developmental relationships are prevalent, development is promoted, and when this type of relationship is not available or diluted, interventions show limited effects.

To respond, we first have to ask: What makes a relationship “developmental”? In other words, what happens in relationships that contribute to learning, growing, and thriving? And how do we start doing something as nebulous as “improving relationships”?

All content on this page is adapted from "Relationships First" -Search Institute

The Developmental Relationships Framework

The Framework grew out of focus groups with youth, parents, educators, youth workers, and others; a wide-ranging review of existing research; extensive analysis of existing data; input from both scholars and practitioners. It was concluded that nothing has more impact in the life of a child than positive relationships.


Dev-Relationships-Framework (pdf)


Relationships First (pdf)


Why Developmental Relationships Matter

Social Emotional Strengths

Social Emotional Strengths

Social Emotional Strengths

Young people who experience strong developmental relationships are more likely to report a wide range of social-emotional strengths and other indicators of well-being and thriving. 


Social Emotional Strengths

Social Emotional Strengths

Young people with strong relationships are more resilient in the face of stress and trauma. 

Source of Strength

Social Emotional Strengths

Source of Strength

Young people do better when they experience a strong web of relationships with many people.


Starting Points

Building Relationships Together

A core hypothesis of Search Institute's work on developmental relationships is that enhancing relationships can strengthen youth programs and services, and improve outcomes. As we've seen, developmental relationships are consistently associated with positive outcomes for young people. Through listening to young people and others, we have been able to articulate actionable ways to be more intentional in building relationships. 

What would it look like if organizations took seriously the idea of relationships as the "active ingredient" in the effectiveness of their programs and services? Strategies will look different in schools, after-school programs, faith communities, social or work settings, and other youth development organizations. However, a focus on actively cultivating a relationally rick culture grounded in relational trust has tremendous potential for enhancing effectiveness and impact across a wide variety of settings. 

"Relationships First" Search Institute

CASA Can Help!

Contact CASA to learn more about how your organization can use the developmental relationships framework to build relationships and assets with the youth you work with.