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


Trust-Building Interactions

Trust is the cornerstone of developmental relationships – and it is created when we go “beyond being nice.” Trust can be built through interactions characterized by gestures of caring, authentic listening, personalization, consistency and dependable support. Strong, developmental relationships built on trust are also bi-directional, meaning each person in the relationship holds power and is influenced by the other. Therefore, individual adult and student perceptions of the relationship matter, routine care and reflection must take place, and students’ growing autonomy and voice must be supported.


Quality of Interactions

Interactions between adults and students may be unpredictable or inconsistent – students may experience some warm and positive interactions, but also escalating and negative interactions, often related to perceptions of noncompliance or disrespect (e.g., adult yelling, sarcasm, shaming, excessive scolding).

Adult interactions with students are often one-directional and directive or transactional in nature (e.g., directions, demands, statements).

A lack of schoolwide consensus on the prioritization of relationships results in limited time and opportunities to engage in relationship building, or to reflect on the state of relationships being built.

Personalized Understandings and Reflections

Adults engage most students in surface-level conversation, such as asking about their weekend or about their progress on an academic task.

Students are expected to focus solely on the academic tasks of school and “check other things at the door” (e.g., they are prompted to put aside a difficult situation at home and focus on a classroom assignment).

Broad assumptions about students or the school community may be present, as there are rarely opportunities for adults to identify and confront biases that they may hold about students, families, or the community.

Choice and Voice

Students may be offered minimal or low-stakes choices that involve limited responsibility (e.g., writing in pencil or pen, or the choice of an independent reading book). When choices are offered, they are highly constrained by the teacher.

Student voice is often limited to academic discussion, in settings and activities that are highly controlled by adults. Adult voice is dominant throughout classroom experiences.

Supporting Growth

Adults work to support growth for the class as a whole, but they cater to the “average” student, rather than providing effective individualized supports. Adults may feel unprepared to meet the diverse and varying needs of individual students, and due to limited opportunities for introspection, they may respond differently to students based on biases and assumptions about their identities.

In an attempt to be supportive, adults may either significantly over- or under-pitch and scaffold tasks, limiting student growth. This might look like adults retaining too much control in their teaching and interactions with students, removing the increased challenge, complexity and autonomy in tasks necessary for independent mastery of skills. Alternatively, unrealistic demands, with too little support, result in student frustration, disengagement, or failure to complete given tasks.

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Quality of Interactions

Adult interactions with most students are consistently characterized as warm, encouraging and authentic. However, there is also a predictable subset of students who frequently experience negative interactions with adults.

Attempts are made to improve negative adult-student interactions, with limited success. This may be because the root cause of the poor relationship is not understood, the intervention is based on assimilation to white, patriarchal, or other dominant group norms, and/or student input is limited.

Across the school, adults vary in their commitment to developing relationships, especially in times of difficulty and challenge.

Personalized Understandings and Reflections

Students have some opportunities to talk about their personal lives and interests during specified blocks of time during the day, particularly in “non-academic” time (e.g., Class Meeting or snack time). However, students rarely have opportunities to discuss or express ideas about complex topics, such as their identity, culture, or the impact of current social or political events on their lives.

Adults may create some additional ways to get to know students better (e.g., through goal setting, a student spotlight, etc.), but this knowledge is not consistently used to inform future interactions, classroom structures and norms, or instructional content.

Choice and Voice

Some meaningful choices are offered to students to increase agency and responsibility (e.g., a choice of how to publish each writing piece, or the topic of a research project). These choices may be limited by either not continuing to expand over time, or by being so open-ended and complex that students are not able to make a choice successfully. For example, a teacher might ask the class to make a group decision about a project, without sufficient support for communication skills or guidance on an effective decision-making structure.

There are some opportunities for student voice in times of convenience (e.g., when prompted by the teacher, when a lesson is going well), but not always in times of student need (e.g., when a peer conflict arises during a transition).

Supporting Growth

Adults provide some tailored experiences for students to help maximize their growth (e.g., some differentiated materials, utilizing small groups and personalized check-ins). However, students typically only experience individualized supports after demonstrating an intense and persistent need, and these supports are provided by a specialized teacher (e.g., a counselor, speech therapist).

Adult expectations may still be somewhat low, especially regarding struggling students; this results in adults doing a lot of the “heavy lifting” and not always providing adequate challenge.

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Quality of Interactions

All students predictably experience interactions with adults that are marked by interest, inquiry, support, affirmation and empathy. Adults are attuned and responsive to student needs, providing co-regulatory support both proactively and in moments of challenge.

There is a reciprocal nature to adult-student interactions. Verbal and nonverbal communication signals attentiveness and regard for student feelings and experiences (e.g., inquiring about and validating student emotions, demonstrating reflective expressions that mirror the speaker). Students almost always demonstrate willingness and eagerness to engage with adults.

Schoolwide prioritization of relationship building results in frequent reflection, collaboration and continuous improvement around the quality of adult-student interactions. Adults consider both their own and students’ perceptions of relationships, interrogate root causes of challenges, and work toward successfully building and maintaining trust with all students.

Personalized Understandings and Connections

Adults get to know all students as whole individuals by actively listening, asking questions, and providing opportunities for students to speak about their interests, experiences and beliefs. This is accomplished in a variety of manners and settings that are integrated throughout the day and allow space for nuanced and meaningful conversations in an emotionally- and identity-safe environment.

Adults recognize the culturally grounded experiences of each student as a foundation on which to build knowledge, and there is evidence of adults actively using this information to inform their interactions, classroom structures and norms and instructional content.

Adults engage in regular reflections to support deeper individualized understandings of each student and actively counter tendencies to make assumptions or generalizations about students, families and communities.

Choice and Voice

Meaningful opportunities for student choice and voice are regularly and seamlessly integrated into classroom routines, structures and practices (e.g., choice of how to practice a skill or demonstrate mastery, providing input on a classroom policy). All students are given increasing levels of responsibility and autonomy as they grow, as adults support them through both successes and setbacks. All students receive support with the skills and structures needed to make choices individually and in groups.

Student voice is a driving force in the classroom and the school. It is common to see students leading conversations and projects, giving feedback to adults, and co-constructing classroom and school culture in partnership with adults.

Supporting Growth

Adults provide personalized learning experiences for all students, with the right amount of support and challenge that maximizes their individual growth on their own unique pathway (e.g., all students have a reading bookmark with a personal goal and strategy that is co-created with the teacher). Adults support growth in a holistic set of student skills (e.g., cognitive, social, emotional) and regularly engage in processes to reflect on and counter implicit biases.

Adults consistently have access to capacity-building opportunities and support as they play the role of facilitator, collaborator and/or coach in the classroom. They provide authentic, engaging and increasingly complex tasks, fading supports as students master skills.

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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

Every Opportunity

What do you think an attuned, responsive educator (leader, teacher, staff member) looks like? Sounds like? Acts like? Believes?

In your experience, what are the biggest roadblocks to adults being attuned and responsive to students?

[Video credit: The Rollins Center for Language & Literacy at the Atlanta Speech School]

Scenario Analysis


Use this exercise to analyze how the characteristics of developmental relationships can build trust in common school scenarios.


Mindsets and Messages


Use this tool to reflect on how the mindsets you hold and corresponding messages you send can influence relationship building with students.


Relationships Inventory


Use the educator inventory and student surveys to reflect on relational aspects of the classroom.


Individualized Relationship Strategies


Use these tools to strengthen relationships with individual students.


Empathetic Listening Strategies


Empathetic listening helps support the development of trusting relationships through committed attention, nonjudgment and probing to understand.