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


Developmental Relationships

Human beings are relational, and from this recognition emerges two essential developmental understandings. The first is that strong relationships build strong brain architecture, providing critical avenues to learning and growth. Relationships are our strongest example of a positive context and are central to how children learn new skills, develop identities and seek out pursuits, activities and vocations. The second is that relationships provide a protective buffer to the negative impact of chronic stress. The hormone oxytocin is released through trusting relationships, and it protects children, at the cellular level, from the damaging effects of cortisol.

When we talk about relationships with children, it is about more than just being “nice”; it is about creating the type of support that can fundamentally change the way a child develops. Positive developmental relationships are the “active ingredient” in any effective child-serving system or intervention (Li & Julian, 2012). Characterized by emotional attachment, joint reciprocal interactions, progressive complexity and balance of power, these relationships directly facilitate social, emotional and cognitive growth and empower students as active agents, rather than passive recipients.


In classrooms that exemplify these characteristics, the integrated nature of learning is demonstrated through careful attention to the relational aspects of experiences and attunement to unique developmental pathways. This means that the educational setting is personalized so that students can be well known by adults and their individual needs can be met. This can look like learning experiences that recognize student competence and agency with ample opportunities for choice, voice, collaboration, appropriately scaffolded support and increasing autonomy. In these classrooms, adults intentionally create opportunities to develop personalized understandings of individuals, rather than relying on assumptions or stereotypes, and plan for both shared and individualized learning experiences (e.g., class meeting/advisory, student conferencing, restorative conversations, goal-setting).

Given the understanding that all children develop in context, a school setting that centers relationships intentionally prioritizes and integrates not only relationships between educators and students, but also with families/caregivers, community members and among students as an integral part of its culture. Historically, the design of school systems has perpetuated deep structural racism, continued depersonalized settings where implicit bias goes unchecked and preserved uneven power dynamics, which continues to marginalize systematically oppressed groups (e.g., Black, Indigenous and students of Color, students with learning differences, English learners and other groups). Meaningfully engaging all stakeholders in the school community, valuing their assets and expertise and seeking understanding across lines of difference can support schools in redesigning for equity.

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In summary, developmental relationships are NOT:

  • Just being friendly to children and families
  • Successful simply because we have good intentions
  • Built on assumptions about groups and defined by those historically in positions of power
  • Transactional and directive

Developmental relationships ARE:

  • The responsibility of all educators and worthy of time and space within the school day
  • Created on a foundation of trust
  • Built through repeated, reciprocal interactions
  • Bi-directional and ever-changing based on needs and growth
  • A way to center traditionally marginalized groups in decision-making, culture building, and creation of an identity-affirming environment
  • A priority for all students, especially those who have experienced chronic stress/trauma

Developmental Relationships Core Practices:

Select a core practice below to start redesigning:

The Science of
Developmental Relationships

Use the following materials to dig deeper into research from the science of learning and development about developmental relationships

The Power of Relationships in Schools


How are strong relationships central to the learning process?

How can we create learning environments that support enduring relationships?

[Video credit: Edutopia]

Developmental Relationships Anchor Visual


Use this anchor visual to learn more about the four characteristics that define a developmental relationship.


Relationships as the Foundation to Brain Development


Read this article to learn about the important role of adults in shaping the developing architecture of the brain.


Stress, Trust and the Learning Brain


Review this infographic to learn about cortisol, oxytocin and their relationships with learning.


Teaching Isn’t About Managing Behavior: It’s about reaching students where they really are


Read this article by Christopher Emdin, Ph.D. about the importance of honoring the relational aspects of the classroom.

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