All students deserve enriching, authentic relationships

Allan Golston

We know from research and common sense that supportive relationships need to be embedded into each touchpoint of students’ education because these connections matter and have the ability to impact students’ lives forever.

Researchers from the Clayton Christensen Institute recently released a playbook on how to build and strengthen students’ networks that explores how to translate that research and common sense into systematic action. This roadmap, supported by our foundation, American Student Assistance (ASA), Genentech, and the Walton Family Foundation, can be implemented on a system-wide level for K-12 schools, postsecondary institutions, and other education providers. By utilizing these evidence-based insights and strategies, we believe education systems can start to mobilize existing relationships and broker new connections, even for our youngest students—and do so in a way that addresses long-standing opportunity gaps.

Young people need authentic, nurturing, caring relationships that support their academic and social-emotional development. They also need broad and diverse networks that expand their horizons and visions of their possible future selves. The benefits include improved grades and well-being as well as, later on, increased access to internships and jobs.

Yet sadly, only 45 percent of U.S. students in grades 6-12 who took Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships Survey report experiencing strong developmental relationships with adults. Fewer than half of students report having had a mentor in college, and students of color are 34% less likely to cite having a professor as a mentor compared to their white peers. Social capital is both an access and an equity issue.

In my own experience as a mentor and a mentee, I have seen the power of relationships to strengthen opportunities and break down reinforced, internalized deficits. Too often, students focus on what they can’t do instead of focusing on how they are an asset to their community and to the world. A positive relationship can flip that script.

To feel seen, heard, and recognized in an authentic way is critical in academic and non-academic settings. I still benefit from the intentional interactions I’ve had with my mentors over the years, and still see this in my volunteer work as an adult role model and mentor to young men of color. Every encounter and every conversation is an opportunity to be proximate, build relationships, and take interest in a student’s day-to-day life.

Early on in life, I was viewed as a problem child. Things only began to change when a caring principal began to check in with me. When I would begin to act out, she would start a conversation with me to understand what I was struggling with and give me space to work things out. Her choice of empathy over disciplinary action not only unlocked discussions that improved my behavior, but it also improved my relationships with other adults and peers in my life at the time.

However, I also remember the relationships that felt transactional and disingenuous—and those have stuck with me, too. In fact, negative interactions have been shown to adversely affect young peoples’ view of themselves and can even decrease their academic performance. To build a true relationship with a young person, adults need to do more than go through the motions. It is imperative that they authentically and actively listen to students’ goals and challenges and offer themselves as a partner to work out a plan or open a door to a new opportunity otherwise out of reach.

This type of thoughtful engagement is necessary on a much broader scale. Relationships are not equally distributed, and meaningful support and opportunities are present to different degrees for different students. These gaps in students’ networks and the resources they can offer are due to a wide variety of factors including race and ethnicity, family income, and parental education level. This is why we need systemwide change. What a student knows and who they know directly impacts their opportunities for success, and it is up to us to ensure that access to close mentors and broad, diverse networks is equitable.

To do this, we are also supporting new efforts to measure students’ networks. A more holistic, formative approach to measurement can help education systems better understand who their students already know—from family members to neighbors to coaches to peers—and assist students in mobilizing and sustaining those relationships to reach their goals. From there, systems can also identify gaps in access and help students expand their networks to build a lasting reservoir of social capital that furthers their current and future paths.

I am excited about this playbook and its potential to help us reach a point where quality relationships are accessible and an integrated part of every young person’s educational experience, rather than left to chance encounters. K-12 and postsecondary leaders and the non-profits that partner with them can tap into these research insights and best practices to ensure that positive relationships outlast one-time interventions. The end result will be a more purposeful approach to helping all young people build and strengthen their networks starting in elementary school and carrying through their entire education-to-workforce journey.