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Using the science of learning and development to design practices that support the whole child


Student Relationship Structures

Relationship structures reflect the intentional structuring of time and space, embedded from the classroom to the district level, to ensure that relationships among students and with adults can flourish. Time to connect, learn about and be with others is recognized as the avenue to learning and growth, so it is resourced and planned for, not short-changed. At the classroom level, this may include class meeting/advisory periods, collaborative learning experiences, peer mentoring, and school and civic engagement opportunities. At the school level, this may include looping and cohorting students, interdisciplinary teaming, block scheduling, and expanded learning opportunities. At the district level, this may include structuring of longer grade spans (K-8, 6-12) and smaller school/class sizes. Within relationship structures, students are able to make meaning of their experiences and authentically develop a holistic set of skills (e.g., social awareness, self-regulation, agency) through social interactions and collaborative tasks with their peers and with the support of adults who know them well.


Structure Design and Implementation Aligned to Purpose

The design and scheduling of relationship structures weakly supports the intended purpose of the structure – to build meaningful relationships and a web of supports. When in place, relationship structures may take the form of “add-on” activities to an otherwise academically focused instructional day. Rather than being utilized as an integrated and purposeful element of the learning environment, relationship structures may function as a venue for accountability (e.g., attendance, homework checking, study hall) and/or a loosely planned “break” from academic learning.

Some structures that support relationships may be in place, but often only at the classroom level (e.g., class meeting/advisory, collaborative learning experiences). There are missed opportunities to embed structures at the school and district level (e.g., interdisciplinary teaming, smaller class sizes), which would complement and deepen the types and qualities of relational experiences for all students.

Relationship structures are not implemented reliably or consistently, often being replaced with academic curriculum and/or administrative tasks. As a result, there are limited opportunities to develop the skills, routines and trust necessary for successful relational and collaborative experiences within the structures (e.g., students are so excited to engage with their peers that a teacher deems the structure “too difficult to manage”).

Collaborative Social Experiences

Within the relationship structures, students experience little choice and autonomy and have limited opportunities to engage generatively and meaningfully with each other. Students engage with the topic/content using prescribed ways of contributing and interacting that are defined by, and sometimes dominated by, adults (e.g., the teacher may use the time to lecture about misbehavior; students may individually contribute when called on, but have limited bi-directional peer discussion).

Students rarely experience opportunities to practice holistic skills (e.g., social awareness) in safe and meaningful interpersonal contexts with peers and teachers. When these opportunities do arise, students may experience negative or harmful interactions, such as exclusion, put-downs, or unchecked discussions that deny or dismiss aspects of student identity or culture. Teachers may experience frustration when student skills that have been discussed or “covered” appear to have limited transfer to interpersonal activities.

Intentional Adult Roles and Practices

Within the structures, educators maintain tight control of the implementation, content and facilitation. The content and learning approaches may either be determined by a standard or mandated curriculum, or completely left up to individual educators with limited guidance about the purpose or intention of the activities across the school or district.

Educators are not prepared to address issues related to diversity, equity or inclusion, and choose to avoid those topics or ignore them when they come up spontaneously. This approach undermines all students’ opportunities to explore and learn about these issues, and in particular, it alienates some students, such as students of color or from other marginalized groups.

Little time and space is reserved for educator capacity building, and it is often limited to setting up systems at the beginning of the year. When students struggle within relationship structures, educators default to disciplinary reactions, like sending students out of the room, rather than taking the opportunity for everyone – including the educator – to learn from the experience.

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Structure Design and Implementation Aligned to Purpose

The design and scheduling of relationship structures somewhat supports its purpose of supporting student relationships, though it falls short of facilitating enduring and transformative relationships and interpersonal experiences. It is common to see the facilitation of generally positive social interactions, some collaborative experiences, and the centering of short-term relationships.

Relationship structures are in place at multiple levels of the school system, but may be implemented in siloed or temporary contexts (e.g., cohorts that change every semester or year). The implementation can be quickly abandoned when it is challenging or not immediately successful (e.g., staff or students resist, time is tight, resources are stretched). Decisions about the planning and sourcing of relationship structures may be made with a preference for logistical ease and academic priorities, rather than consideration of what most strongly supports and sustains relationships.

Relationship structures are implemented reliably and consistently in some school settings, but not in others.  Relationship structures are most reliably implemented in settings that have existing structural supports (e.g., elementary school classrooms with one main teacher, expanded learning programs), but may be challenged where school design is at odds with student developmental needs (e.g., rigid class schedules where teachers see many students in short, academically defined blocks).

Collaborative Social Experiences

Within the relationship structures, students have inconsistent experiences with choice, autonomy, quality of interactions and engagement. The quality of student experiences may be mediated by teacher capacities and comfort (e.g., skills in planning relational experiences; ability to engage with students in less formal, power-structured or academic roles), resulting in certain experiences for some, but not for others.

Sometimes, lack of structure or scaffolding for holistic skill development (e.g., self-awareness and regulation, executive functions) undermines the activities, causing staff and students to be hesitant about trying again. Students who are generally seen as “compliant” by the teacher are often put in leadership roles and given more autonomy to practice holistic skills, while other students are rarely afforded these opportunities. Thus, some students feel disengaged or rarely experience contexts that challenge growth of relational skills or a sense of relevance and belonging to school.

Intentional Adult Roles and Practices

Many educators facilitate relationship structures well, but there are some educators who do not use the structures at all or use them inconsistently, because they are skeptical about the value of these structures or have not been adequately supported in developing the facilitation and coaching skills to manage relationship structures.

Some educators are able to address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, but these issues are not openly discussed within the school community. Educators, therefore, have limited shared understanding about how best to support students around these issues.

Leaders provide some time and space for educator capacity building for relational experiences and structures, but it may be in the form of program-based professional development or generalized social-emotional skill development. Leaders have not created a culture for continuous improvement that would allow educators to process and learn from mistakes or challenges, or to process information about differences in student experience to figure out how to improve their structures.

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Structure Design and Implementation Aligned to Purpose

The design and scheduling of relationship structures is strongly aligned to achieving its purpose: to create opportunities for small learning environments within the larger school context, where students can be well known in multiple ways, build trusting relationships with peers and adults, and have the time and space available to implement “group-worthy” learning experiences.

Multifaceted structures that sustain long-term relationships and create a web of supports are embedded at all levels of the school are adequately resourced (e.g., advisory at the classroom level; peer mentoring and looping at the school level; minimizing school transitions through longer school grade spans at the district level). The creation of high-quality time and space for relationships is central to all discussions and decisions, especially at school and district levels.

Relationship structures are implemented reliably and consistently, making school experiences more navigable, coherent and predictable for students (e.g., counteracting the disruptive nature of school transitions and resulting discontinuity in relationships).

Collaborative Social Experiences

Within the relationship structures, all students experience opportunities to engage in partnership and discourse with peers on relevant and compelling topics and tasks. Student voice and choice is a driver of the experiences, which provide frequent opportunities to get to know their peers and teachers outside of the normal routines of teaching and learning; to give and receive social support; to draw meaning from their community, cultural and individual lived experiences; and to engage playfully, as well as in more structured ways.

Students experience many opportunities to authentically develop holistic skills such as social awareness, self-regulation and growth mindset as they collaborate and connect with their peers and teachers (e.g., navigating a conflict while planning a community service project). As students are trusted to step into leadership roles and navigate their social experiences, they are also adequately supported by adults to maintain a context of physical, emotional and identity safety and belonging for all students.

Intentional Adult Roles and Practices

Within the structures, educators function as facilitators and coaches, scaffolding skill development toward autonomy, empathetically listening and prompting inquiry with questions, and co-designing engaging and meaningful learning experiences, alongside students and community members.

Educators are self-reflective and skilled in addressing issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in ways that value student experience and perspectives and strengthen students’ sense of belonging (e.g., facilitating conversations that come up spontaneously within relationship structures like Advisory; planning for intentional conversations about current issues, like racial justice, in these structures).

Leaders provide time, space and structures, in a non-evaluative environment, to plan, implement and improve relationship structures. Leaders enhance educators’ abilities to implement high-quality relationship structures by facilitating structures such as interdisciplinary teaming, shared cohorts of students, and common planning time. This allows educators to share their knowledge about students, provide individualized supports, and maintain continuity in student experiences (e.g., norms, practices, complementary content/activities).

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Explore the following resources to reflect on key concepts of developmental relationships and start to implement this core practice in your work

What is the Social Brain?

What does it mean by “the social brain gates human learning”?

Where do we create time and space within the day to honor the needs of the social brain?

[Video credit: Edutopia]

Student Relationship Structures Inventory


These tools support educators in identifying existing student relationship structures and learning more about the quality of experiences within structures, through an inclusive and reflective process.


Bank of Student Relationship Structures


This tool provides a bank of research-based relationship structures that can be implemented throughout school systems. Educators can use this tool as a reference document as they determine actions that are best suited to their context.


Rooted in Relationships: Master Schedule Analysis


This tool provides a process for reviewing the current state of student relationship structures within your school or classroom schedule. Through this process, educators will learn to identify three different types of relationship structures and reflect on opportunities to improve and integrate these structures throughout the school day.


Relational Microstructures


These relationally based, easy-to-implement “micro” structures are an example of an integrated approach to realizing a whole-child purpose. They function to increase opportunities for students to interact directly, build trust, share insights, and develop holistic skills (e.g., interpersonal skills, perspective taking, etc.).


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