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In School and Out, Relationships Matter

By Dale Erquiaga | July 23, 2018

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about relationships. As a single person, I suppose it's natural. But as the President & CEO of Communities In Schools (CIS), it's also part of my job.

At CIS, relationships are wired into our organizational DNA. Our founder Bill Milliken put it like this: "It is relationships, not programs, that change children." Forty years later, science is beginning to prove Bill right. We now know that relationships have a lot to do with brain development. It turns out that while I'm thinking about the vacant space in my personal life, the "relationship gap" is having serious impacts on how young people learn - or rather, don't.

In a forthcoming article for the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Kent Pekel and his colleagues at the Search Institute declare: "[W]e have found a pervasive relationship gap among young people across all types of communities."[1] However, this gap is most pronounced and concerning for young people from marginalized communities for whom filling this gap may be one step toward helping address the inequities they continue to experience in many facets of their lives, including education.

Pekel and team build on work describing a "developmental relationship" as one which expresses care, challenges growth, provides support, shares power, and expands possibilities. Absent this kind of relationship, programs are less effective.

If you're a young person in adverse circumstances at home, the adults in your life may not be able to provide all five of the elements outlined above. And it's not just at home. Schools, too, are coming under more and more scrutiny for a lack of cultural respect and inclusion, which further contribute to these gaps.

In our personal lives, we sometimes describe friends being in a "bad relationship." The emerging developmental relationship science is not about "bad" or "good" but rather about elements being present or absent. But the thinking for us non-scientists (and, ahem, single people) is sort of the same. Non-existent relationships or relationships with missing elements leave a gap in our lives. And, just as research on the achievement gap focused the nation's attention on disparities between subgroups of students, the relationship gap can and should focus us on equity.

At a convening last December of the Science of Learning and Development Initiative, I came away with one major piece of information: genetics doesn't conclude its work at birth. Instead, the chemicals in our system drive gene expression over our young lives, switching genes on and off in a process called "epigenetics." Adverse childhood experiences can impede epigenetic brain development because of the chemicals released by trauma.

And here's where the science catches up with what so many of us have long believed. Developmental relationships can not only counter the negative effects of trauma but release chemicals in the brain that positively influence epigenetics. That, in turn, positively impacts learning. A successful marriage of sorts in my book!

My take-away? One key to closing the achievement gap might be to close the relationship gap first.

The challenge now is ensuring there are programmatic responses available to all kids that foster developmental relationships. Social-emotional skill building is part of this. So is having fully-trained adults who act as buffers of adverse childhood experiences. There may even be technology solutions that strengthen networks, as recently discussed by Julia Freelander Fisher in her informative piece on student relationships and networks.

It's certainly not as easy as swiping left or right to find a relationship. But it does seem like something the left and right can both agree on as we debate how to improve schools.

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